The Armory Show’s iconic pine tree symbol was the brainchild of A.A.P.S. secretary Walt Kuhn, who described its genesis in a letter to his wife:
“We have adopted an emblem- Taken from the old pine tree flag of the revolution- I got the idea one morning in bed- Davies made the drawing and will have it on stationary, catalogues, posters and everywhere- We are also going to have campaign buttons…We are going to get them by the thousands- give them to anybody– from bums to preachers- art students-bartenders-conductors etc.- ought to make an immense hit and get everybody asking questions”
The pine tree symbol, with the tagline “The New Spirit”, represented the Armory Show’s radical mission to present the most advanced contemporary art of its day. The A.A.P.S. was media savvy and the ubiquitous logo played a key role in promoting the show. Instantly recognizable, the logo even gained popular currency; in 1913 Wanamaker’s department store ran advertisements with the Armory Symbol to suggest the modernity of their merchandise.
The use of the pine tree as an American symbol dates back to the 17th century, originating with the 1629 seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It was also featured on the famous “pine tree shilling”, the first currency minted in the American colonies, which was coined in Massachusetts in 1652.
The pine tree was featured on New England flags dating from 1686 and it was used widely during the American Revolution. In its juxtaposition of image and text the Armory symbol most closely resembles the flag of the Massachusetts State Navy, which consisted of a pine tree on a white ground with the phrase “an appeal to heaven”. However, this was not the only pine tree flag used during the revolution and another type was probably was carried at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill on June 17, 1775, as depicted in John Trumbull’s painting of the battle:
Kuhn recognized the historic associations of the pine tree flag and gave the symbol new meaning in relation to the Armory Show. Though European Modernism arguably stole the show, the pine tree symbol linked “The New Spirit” of aesthetic innovation to the history of American political rebellion.
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.