The Armory Show refers to the 1913 “International Exhibition of Modern Art” organized by the Association of American Painters and Sculptors. It was the first large exhibition of modern art in America and toured three cities, starting, of course, in New York City’s 69th Regiment Armory where it stayed from February 17 until March 15, 1913 before traveling to the Art Institute of Chicago and ending as The Copley Society of Art in Boston. History tells us that the show was a catalyst for American artists because it featured innovative styles from European artists; who were believed to be more independent and creative with their artistic language, and so has become legend for its supposed influence on American viewers and artists. But this story isn’t entirely true, because American artists, such as Marsden Hartley, William Glackens, Robert Henri, John Marin, Walter Pach, and Kathleen McEnery, were experimenting on their own before the influx of European influence. What the show did do was introduce American audiences, who were accustomed to viewing realistic art, to the experimental styles developed by modern artists, which included Fauvism, Cubism, and Futurism. The early innovations of American artists are unrecognized because the cannon bestows its light on the glory of European artists for revolutionizing American painting. This is just one of the myths about the show that has been engendered by its inflated legacy. Another myth that needs to be addressed is the significant prevalence of women artists and their importance to the development and execution of the show.
Omitted from history is that women artists were as much a part of the Armory Show, and consequently the Modern Art movement, as male artists. It is generally recognized that women backed the financial needs of the show as patrons, like Katherine Dreier through the Société Anonyme, Lillie Bliss and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller through the Museum of Modern Art, and Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney through the Whitney Studio Club (later to become the Whitney Museum of American Art). However, the depiction of women as financial backers persists as the singular credit to women’s involvement with the Armory Show, thus excluding women artists from the story of the exhibition and by extension the development of Modern art. This is a shame because there were many women featured in the show as distinguished artists in their own right. While I have managed to find a wiki page for all of these ladies, I am upset to learn that many of them have nothing more than a poorly written, all-too-brief wiki page as testimony to their artistic legacy. The following is a linked list of all the women to their wiki page:
- Bessie Marsh Brewer
- Mary Cassatt
- Nessa Cohen
- Kate Cory
- Katherine Sophie Dreier
- Mary Foote
- Gwen John
- Marie Laurencin
- Ethel Myers
- Bessie Potter Vonnoh
- Enid Yandell
- Marguerite Zurich
In fact Marguerite Zorach is one of the few American artists of either gender to have received critical attention in relation to the Armory Show, during and after the exhibition, becoming known as “The First Woman of California.” She was born in Santa Rosa, California, in 1887, but was raised in Fresno. In 1908, she traveled to Paris to study art and was taken with the early art styles developing there. She became a regular at galleries directed by Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas, and eventually enrolled at the La Palette to study under Jahn Duncan Ferguasson. In Paris, Zorach developed a style similar to fauvism and early Blue Reiter works. When she came back to Fresno, she became an innovator in the modernist movement for introducing audiences and other artists to fauvist and cubist styles, including her future husband William Zorach. Both artists exhibited in the Armory Show in New York after opening a studio in their home they named “Post-Impressionistic studio.” She also worked in textiles using embroidery and batik; these tapestries later became her main focus and perhaps the “craft vs. art” debate resulted in her body of work being omitted from fine art discussions. Knowing that her tapestries risked being dismissed as craft, Zorach made a point of referring to these works as “modernistic pictures done in wool” and in 1923, the Montross Gallery hosted the first solo exhibition of her modernist pictures in wool, Embroidered Tapestries by Marguerite Zorach.
Bessie Marsh Brewer has such a meager a wiki page that I had to try to find out more about her. She was in Toronto, Ontario in 1884. She was one of the few early female printmakers, as well as an illustrator, painter, and sculptor. She studied at the New York School of Design for Women and at the Art Students League with Robert Henri and John Sloan. She featured three drawings in the 1913 New York Armory Show, The Furnished Room, Curiosity and Putting Her Monday Name on Her Letterbox. Marsh went on to work at various New york magazines as an illustrator and illustrated some of the first ads for birth control, which I think is incredibly interesting. The exchange between a man and a women in one such ad goes as follows: *Couple with baby stroll past couple on park bench* Bench Man: Babies is fine things ain’t they? Bench Woman: Yeah, every once in a while.” Now remember this was in the twenties when women were still taught that their main purpose was having children, taking care of the house, and that sex was mostly for the pleasure of men and that is was her domestic duty as a wife to comply, oh and make babies. I just love that she was unafraid of pioneering birth control in a way that suggests women may want to have sex for pleasure too, not just procreation. Marsh also continued to exhibit her artwork in New York galleries.
The final artist I will talk about is Marie Laurencin. Laurencin’s works include paintings, watercolors, drawings, and prints, but she is best known as one of the few female Cubist painters,along with Sonia Delaunay, Marie Vorobieff, and Franciska Clausen. While her work shows the influence of Cubist painters Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque—who was her close friend— she developed a unique approach to abstraction. By pursuing a specifically feminine aesthetic utilizing curvilinear shapes and pastel colors, her work lies outside the bounds of Cubist norms. She also created cubist paintings that spoke to women’s identity by mainly painting groups of women and female portraits. Laurencin’s insistence on the creation of a visual vocabulary of femininity characterized her art until the end of her life and can be posited as a response to what is considered to be the arrogant masculinity of Cubism.
From just clicking through a few web links I was able to discover a several resources— archival, books, articles and free online info— on these three women and their contribution to art. So why is it that when we study the 1913 Armory Show all we learn is how DuChamp and Picasso saved American art from convention? Clearly there is much more to the show, including women’s part as artists. I am so ready for a time when we study artists as just that, “artists” not female artist or male artist. Gender does not dictate what kind of art someone makes, and I am talking about biology effecting artistic production, not social constructs established by gender roles that would limit or expand one’s artist options in a specific time period. I am tired of female artists being presented as an after thought to male artists because of the instance on “political correctness” thanks to a tired feminist movement that no one really takes seriously anymore. Our art culture and the people who are a part of it deserve better consideration than that.