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Monday, 10 February 2014

Editor's Sketchbook

New York
What do Constantine Brancusi's Muse endormie, Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase (N0.2), François Picabia's Dances at the Spring, and Jacques Villion's Young Girl have in common? These works, then contemporary works, were all part of scores of now 'modern' paintings and sculptures that were displayed in the ground-breaking Armory Show, held in New York 100 years ago and now recreated at the New-York Historical Society Museum &; Library, 170 Central Park West at 77th Street.
There's another commonality: These and other sculptures and pictures, more than a dozen in all, are now housed in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the single best-represented repository of Armory Show submissions, all part of the museum's stellar Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection.
'The Armory Show at 100' is one of the best art exhibits I've ever had the privilege of attending. It's a time capsule of what modern art was to become. I was transported to 1913 and 69th Regiment Armory (1906), still functioning at 68 Lexington Avenue, between 25th and 26 streets. Imagine, if you will, being an attendee at that time, seeing, aye savouring, early first works by Picasso, Matisse, and Van Gogh. Add a Renoir or two, a picture by Goya, even an Augustus John, the under-appreciated English portraitist. In all, scores of artists are represented. Still, only a fraction of the total collection in the show itself. 

'It's as if we were astronauts visiting the moon,' my companion said. Well, I got the idea.
What the Historical Society has created is nothing short of the product of ingenuous imagination, and its presentation, in the society's new renovated and modernised quarters, is nothing short of brilliant. Even the labels accompanying the individual pieces are the best: funny, witty, with relevant anecdotal and historical references. (Bravo to whoever wrote them!) Yes, even some American pictures were in the show.

'The American and European paintings in the Armory Show represented a dizzying variety of style and movements, from Impressionism to the urban realism of the [American] Ashcan School, to the romantic fantasies of ... French [symbolism], to the Fauvist and Cubist works that confounded and delighted visitors in 1913.' 
I have lingering thought: Why was the recreation not recreated in the Armory itself? Sure, I can think of a dozen of reasons (conflicting, scheduled events chief amongst them) that prevented this. (The New York Knicks used to play there, of all things!) But imagine how marvellous travelling in this time machine would have been! The Society should have offered up what militated against the use of the venue. 
I decided to see -- feel -- the space for myself. A week after my visit to the exhibit, I met in mid-town PJ New York writer Peter Frishauf for lunch, after which I walked on my own to the Armory. I had no expectation of actually getting in, and it simply fortuitous that I did. As I walked up to a side door, someone was leaving. I just wandered in. No guards. No no one, actually. I entered the hangar-sized, barrel-roofed arena, and I visualised. In my mind's eye, I saw the moon.
Run, don't walk, to see the exhibit, on only until 23 February. As for getting into the Armory, you'll have to try your luck as I did. Unfortunately, the Knicks can no longer be of any help.
-- RDC