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Colleen Sheehy, Published April 03 2013

Sheehy: 100-year-old event still influencing art today

One hundred years ago, art changed forever.

From Feb. 17 to March 15, 1913, the International Exhibition of Modern Art presented 1,300 works of art at New York City’s 69th Regiment Armory.

Now referred to as “the Armory Show,” the display brought the innovations of European painters and sculptors to American audiences and artists.

This year, many museums around the country are observing the centennial, and it’s worth considering the impact of the Armory Show on art today.

In many ways, contemporary art is still reacting and incorporating ideas and approaches launched by this event. This exhibition was one of those rare watershed moments in culture.

After the Armory Show, abstraction became a strong force in American art. A young Pablo Picasso showed the sculpture, “Head of a Woman,” applying cubist principles to three dimensions, resulting in a very angular, rough form with protuberances bulging out of a head form. The sculpture definitely overturned classical ideals of balance and beauty.

Henri Matisse showed “Blue Nude,” a very angular female figure with blue skin tones – not an idealized figure.

The Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky stumped viewers with “Improvisation No. 27” with lines and fields of color but no recognizable image.

French artist Marcel Duchamp’s painting “Nude Descending a Staircase” caused a sensation. The image shows a time-sequence of movement like a series of movie stills, a new art form of the day. The female figure is abstract, resembling a robot more than a human. One critic said the painting looked like “an explosion in a shingle factory.”

This cubist painting made viewers and artists rethink what a painter could or should do. Like other art in the exhibition, it asserted the importance of abstraction and the idea that artists provide new ways of seeing and of conveying human experience.

Many artists eagerly took up the new art. Others rejected it. Everyone had to take a position.

Four years later, Marcel Duchamp again made history when he invented “the found object” as a mode of art and asserted that an artist’s intention was paramount. For another exhibition, he submitted a piece titled “Fountain.” It was a ceramic urinal presented as a sculpture, signed with the pseudonym “R. Mutt.” Duchamp again caused outrage and also paved the road for conceptual art.

In Fargo, Modern Man is the progeny of Duchamp. He legally changed his name to “Modern Man,” a strong conceptual statement. My favorite conceptual piece of Modern Man’s is an idea he proposed to Budweiser to paint the tall grain elevators just east of Moorhead as giant cans of beer to look like a 12-pack. They declined.

Yet the idea was so fun, compelling, and memorable that Modern Man got many of us to imagine the grain elevators as giant cans of beer. Every time I drive by these elevators, I imagine them as mammoth beer cans. That’s a powerful concept.

Bravo to Modern Man and to all artists –from the Armory Show up to the present – who challenge us to see differently.

NxNW is an occasional column written by Colleen Sheehy, director and CEO of the Plains Art Museum in Fargo