The 1913 Armory Show was arguably the most important exhibition of art ever organized on this continent. It introduced cubism, futurism, Cezanne, Duchamp, Picasso, and much more to audiences on this side of the pond and inflected the NA zeitgeist like nothing else before or since.
It was up in NYC from February 17 to March 15 of that year and then traveled to Chicago where it hung in the Art Institute March 24 to April 16. From there it went back east to Boston.
The postcard image above is, of course, Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. My great-grandfather sent it to my great-grandmother from the Chicago venue. His handwriting encircling the picture reads:
“This is a photo of one of the cubist pictures. It is said to be a picture of a nude woman walking down stairs. I don’t think any of the postal authorities will object to it as improper as it goes through the mails. I have one more I will bring home with me.”
“There is no news. I went to see this exhibit and must say it is a fright. Yet I heard one or two fools raving over the beauty of these daubs. It was worth going to see however just to see what some will praise. Lorado Taft* says it reminds him of nothing so much as a lumber yard after a tornado. Home as usual tomorrow at 6. Yours, EC”
My great-grandfather was a judge who frequently traveled between Geneseo, Illinois and Chicago. He died young and left my grandmother, one of five offspring to survive, and great grandmother to fend for themselves. Grandma adored her father and held dear precious memories and memorabilia through to the end. Interesting now to allow them to take one back…
Compare the image on top with the one just above and you will get an idea of an experience none of us will ever again have. An in-person audience with a work of art will always be different than one with a reproduction**, but any potential for shock and awe has been removed by the quality and ubiquity of virtual experience.
On second thought, I retract that observation. Or qualify it I guess with the addition of the following phrase: given current knowledge of our universe…
*Lorado Taft (1860-1936) was a prominent American sculptor and teacher. His studio was in Chicago and he taught at the Art Institute.
**I’m pretty sure I’ve used this in a previous post, but in case you’ve forgotten, New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldal wrote: “Reproductions are like pandering ghosts, they show us what we want to see”.