One hundred and one years ago this week, a cadre of men convened in Manhattan. They wished to develop an exhibition of modern art to be presented in New York City. The meeting minutes, copied in a black and white marble covered composition book, summarized their aspirations succinctly:
On Dec. 14th 1911, the following men: Messrs Henry Fitch Taylor, Jerome Myers, Elmer L. Mac Rae and Walt Kuhn met to discuss the possibilities of organizing a society for the purpose of exhibiting the works of progressive and live painters, both American and foreign; favoring such work usually neglected by current shows and especially interesting and instructive for the public.
One hundred years ago this week, also on December 14, Walt Kuhn wrote to Vera, his wife. His letter indicates how much their program had developed. He began by exclaiming, Every thing going gloriously! Kuhn continued, I’m simply in heaven with delight at the coming certain success.
Kuhn and others first discussed, then researched, prepared, and promoted the International Exhibition of Modern Art, more commonly known as the Armory Show. The show opened at the 69th Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue; it ran between February 17 and March 15. In the months following, the show traveled to Chicago then Boston. The Armory Show was one of the major events that marked the emergence of modernism in the United States. Kuhn himself predicted, This show,
by will be the greatest modern show ever given any where on earth, as far as regards high standard of merit.
The Archives of American Art has been central to the historiography of this important development because of our extensive collections. Over the past six months, members of our staff have been working diligently on celebrating the upcoming centennial. Women and men in every department at both our Washington, D.C. and New York, N.Y. offices have been pressed into service, tending to loans for exhibitions at the Montclair Art Museum and New York Historical Society, developing our programs, which include a special edition of the Archives of American Art Journal, and a digital exhibition. In the mix, we often find ourselves working with a document that is precisely 100 years old to the day.
Walt Kuhn’s letter to Vera is one such primary source. His letter brims with confidence and enthusiasm. I particularly like his three small sketches of the pine tree emblem for a banner and for buttons. He explained:
Taken from the old pine tree flag of the revolution. I got the idea one morning in bed. [Arthur B.] Davies made the drawing and we’ll have it on station[e]ry, catalogue, posters, and every where. We are going to have campaign button—here is the design—it will be about this size and very neat we are going to get them by the thousands give them to anybody from bums to bartenders—conductors etc. ought to make an immediate hit and get every body asking questions. This button business is a secret, and will have to be pulled off on the quiet, as some of the fellows might kick after they are out it’s no use to kick
Join us as we commemorate the centennial of this event, one that transformed the American art scene.
- 1913 Armory Show: the Story in Primary Sources, digital timeline
- The Story of the Armory Show, online exhibition on the Archives of American Art's website
- Walt Kuhn, Kuhn family papers, and Armory Show records, 1859-1978, bulk 1900-1949
- A Century After Their Initial Publication, Rediscovered Installation Shots of the 1913 Armory Show Come to Light by Laurette E. McCarthy
- The New Spirit: American Art in the Armory Show, 1913, February 17, 2013 – June 16, 2013 at the Montclair Art Museum
- The Armory Show at 100, October 11, 2013 – February 23, 2014 at the New York Historical Society
Kelly Quinn is the Terra Foundation Project Manager for Online Scholarly and Educational Initiatives at the Archives of American Art.