When we think of the “Armory Show” we think of the “Show” more than the “Armory.” But as we commemorate that infamous and influential art exhibition, it is worth keeping in mind the architecture in which it took place, and the larger transformation of New York’s built environment in the early decades of the twentieth century. I’ll offer a few posts on this topic in the coming months.
It’s worth starting with the ironies of the Armory itself, and the buildings nearby. Designed by architects Hunt & Hunt, the massive, block-long 69th Regiment Armory was built in 1904–6 and located, somewhat nervously, to stand against New York’s “wave” of immigrants, many living in the blocks south of the Armory in New York’s Lower East Side. Water metaphors were used regularly by New York’s elites and reformers such as Jacob Riis, who feared for the sheer numbers and the radical politics some of them carried with them from Europe. Within months after the show’s opening, the Paterson, New Jersey silk factory strikers would venture a block away from the Armory to Madison Square, in front of Madison Square Garden, the temple of popular culture, to make their case for equity, even as the Armory building warned them and their class to stay put. So: a building that borrowed architectural motifs from history came to house the most important modern art exhibition of the century, which featured artists determined to break away from the weight of historical standards of beauty. A building dedicated to preserving order housed an exhibition that unleashed disorder. The Armory was the picture of solidity, while the city was the blurry image of changeability, a provisional city, tearing down and rebuilding itself with abandon. Some of the most controversial paintings and sculpture in the Armory Show – such as Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase embodied the changeability of the creatively destructive city, where space and memory seemed to be built on water, not on Manhattan bedrock. Shifting perspectives, unstable meaning, relentless speed and change—all of these defined city life in the early twentieth century.
Max Page, Associate Professor of Architecture and History, University of Massachusetts Amherst
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.