by Kim Orcutt

A diagram of the exhibition set-up at the Copley-Society included in a letter Walt Kuhn sent to Vera Kuhn, April 5, 1913. Walt Kuhn, Kuhn family papers, and Armory Show records, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

A diagram of the exhibition set-up at the Copley-Society included in a letter Walt Kuhn sent to Vera Kuhn, April 5, 1913. Walt Kuhn, Kuhn family papers, and Armory Show records, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

On April 28, 1913, the Armory Show opened its final traveling venue at Boston’s Copley Society, an artist-run organization that continues an active program of exhibits today. By the time the exhibition reached Boston it was not the same sprawling and dizzyingly diverse show that confronted audiences in New York. It was whittled down from upwards of fourteen hundred to less than three hundred objects, and American works were eliminated, so Bostonians saw only the avant-garde European paintings, sculpture, and works on paper that had startled visitors in New York and Chicago.

The reaction in Boston couldn’t have been more different from that in Chicago. Instead of huge crowds thronging the galleries, a media frenzy, and paintings burned in effigy, Bostonians stayed away in droves. After a few bad reviews, the newspapers fell silent. A key organizer of the Armory Show, Walter Pach, recalled that Bostonians were afraid to be seen at the exhibition. Another artist-organizer, Walt Kuhn, drily commented that “Boston did not take to it” and that “Local psychoanalysts were especially vehement in their disapproval.” Attendance totaled about 14,400, less than a tenth of that at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Why was the response so tepid in Boston, after the boiling pots of Chicago and New York? Distinguished scholar Carol Troyen offers an explanation in the upcoming exhibition catalogue for The Armory Show at 100. In the early twentieth century, Boston tastes leaned toward conservative, inoffensive artists. The city had not been exposed to much that was new in art, and the version of the exhibition at the Copley Society didn’t include American works or historical European paintings to leaven and contextualize the radical paintings and sculpture. As she points out, one writer summed up its ignominious run in Boston when it closed on May 19: “Without an apparent ripple on the surface of the stream of daily life in Boston, the Fauves are departing from ‘among us,’ unwept, unhonored, and unsung. The international exhibition of modern what-do-you-call-ems at Copley Hall is over.”

The Armory Show at 100: Modern Art and Revolution is on view October 11, 2013 through February 23, 2013 at the New-York Historical Society.

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