Monday, October 21, 2013

A nod to Duchamp

Marcel Duchamp, Nude Descending A Staircase (No.2), 1912
Philadelphia Museum of Art

First exhibited in 1913 at the Armory Show in New York, Duchamp's Nude Descending A Staircase inspired public outrage. The painting challenged expectations: it was abstract, ambiguous, and reduced the female form to what one critic called "an explosion in a shingle factory." As far as audiences were concerned, Duchamp had thrown classical nudes like Venus of Urbino and La Grand Odalisque out the window.

Officially titled the International Exhibition of Modern Art, the Armory Show was America's first grand attempt to engage with modernism. Before 1913, most Americans were unaware of artists like Picasso, Matisse, and Manet; now they were hungry for them. The kinetic pulse of Europe, so unequivocally tied to modern art, was hard to ignore.1

That isn't to say that modern art didn't exist in America before 1913. Artists who had traveled to Europe, like Marsden Hartley and Robert Henri, returned to the States with a new sensibility that penetrated their art.

Based on the critical response to Duchamp, America's nod to modernism would nevertheless be a work in progress. Art collectors were integral to the assimilation process, with names like Abby Rockefeller and Mary Quinn Sullivan at the helm. In 1929 these women, along with other collectors and philanthropists, launched the first museum of modern art in the States, today known as MoMA.

1 I'll expound on this in a later post, and also talk about America's invaluable role in preserving European modernism after WWII.

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