It’s hard, at first, to think of art causing the sort of stir that the International Exhibition of Modern Art at the New York Armory on Lexington Avenue and East 25th Street in New York City created from February 17 to March 15, 1913. Not only did artists and critics react, but the general public also found itself suddenly challenged by art. And before the year was out, the exhibit – which introduced the idea of Modern art to America, along with such artists as Leger, Picasso, Duchamp and countless others – moved on to Boston and Chicago, changing the course of our nation’s artistic endeavors in the process. Hard to think, yes – unless one thinks of the reactions that Andy Warhol still draws, or Damien Hirst and Chris Olfi and Andres Serrano and…well, that outrage has never quite left us since.
“Embracing the New: Modernism’s Impact on Woodstock Artists,” which is showing at the Woodstock Artists’ Association and Museum (WAAM) through May 5, captures a time when a thing like the Armory Show helped shape the town of Woodstock’s future. Featuring works by Alexander Archipenko, Yushio Kuniyoshi, Andrew Dasburg, Henry Lee McFee, Charles Rosen and others from Woodstock’s early-20th-century days of ferment when the Byrdcliffe Arts Colony was just taking hold and the offshoot Maverick Colony wasn’t yet thought up, this well-curated exhibit explores the various ways in which the artistic influence of Europe’s avant-garde landed on our local art scene – and changed it.
It takes two lines: the effects of European art, from Cézanne and Matisse to Picasso and the Surrealists, on local stylistic experiments; and more directly, the role that the epochal Armory Show had on local artists who submitted paintings to it, then started showing in galleries influenced by its radicalism.
Much of what’s seen is at first somewhat staid, characterized by burnished colors that feel muted these days, excepting a few experiments in Fauvist coloration. There’s a great Archipenko bronze whose plaster prototype showed at the Armory; quite a few works done in the general style of Cézanne; a couple of Bellows sketches; some blocky landscapes hinting at the abstractions yet to come; and a number of atmospheric nudes, including a truly erotic ink drawing by the sculptor Gaston Lachaise.
Standing above the rest, and emblematic of the changes set in motion by the introduction of Modernism to our art, are a number of works by Konrad Cramer. Cramer is also seen in a great photo portrait by Alfred Stieglitz, whose pioneering gallery presentations around the same time worked to expand the “art for art’s sake” aesthetic also promulgated by the Armory artists. His work moves from the gently Cézannelike to the boldly Cubist and beyond in a fast-moving decade. Never has the artist appeared so bold and so Romantic in his quest to better his expression.
Then there’s classical muralist Robert W. Chanler’s Parody of the Fauve Painters, which makes fun of young artists paying homage to Matisse, portrayed as a chimp (Chanler was actually included in the Armory show himself), as well as a blown-up postcard from one artist to another capturing his impressions of what he’d seen.
“Art is dead! Let us bury him,” was how some local artists put it in a ceremony that historian Alf Evers recounts in his later history of Woodstock, telling of a performance on Rock City Road in the decade following Armory. “Here lies art…” “How do you like your husband’s new paintings?” Evers further noted artist Henry Lee McFee’s wife being asked (she also being the sister of artist and Byrdcliffe co-founder Bolton Brown). “I mean to like ‘em,” she is said to have replied, “even if it kills me.”
Marking the centennial of the Armory Show, which will also be celebrated this year by major exhibitions at the Montclair Art Museum and the New-York Historical Society (NYHS) Museum and Library, this WAAM Towbin Wing exhibit will include two talks by prominent historians associated with the NYHS exhibition and catalogue to highlight the various themes locally. On Saturday, April 13, independent scholar and author Avis Berman will present the talk “We Were Only Waiting for This Moment to Arise: American Collectors and the Armory Show” at 2:30 p.m., while at 4 p.m. on Saturday, April 20, Kimberly Orcutt, Henry Luce Foundation curator of American Art of the New-York Historical Society Museum & Library, will present “Myth, Controversy and Modern Art: Reconsidering the 1913 Armory Show.”
This Saturday, March 16, will be Family Day at WAAM from 1 to 3 p.m., with special events and further talks, including a kids-friendly tour of the Modernism exhibit.
“Embracing the New: Modernism’s Impact on Woodstock Artists,” through May 5, Woodstock Artists’ Association & Museum, 28 Tinker Street, Woodstock; (845) 679-2940, www.woodstockart.org.