We are becoming inconstant cultural historians. History, cultural and otherwise, requires more than knowing what happened when, or even knowing its significance. Real history is about an overwhelming sense of appreciation for just how major something was, both in its time and as a precursor of today.
This trajectory is unwelcome but not surprising. We have never lived in a time when the trip from new to newer to newest is as breathtakingly fast, which means that the past exists as a distant dot, visited on a need to know, need to show basis.
One hundred years ago, an art exhibition was held in New York that changed America. The International Exhibition of Modern Art, better known as the Armory Show, took place in February and March of 1913. It is the most important art exhibition in American history and an inspirational watershed for culture of all types.
The exhibition was organized to showcase the state of the art—the contemporary work that was being done by European and American artists, work that was well ahead of what most American audiences were familiar with and had yet seen. It would be years before a major American museum took up the mission: the Museum of Modern Art in New York did not open until 1929.
This is from the New York Sun newspaper in 1912, announcing the upcoming event:
Show of Advance Art Promises a Sensation
Futurists and Cubists Will Be Featured Here in February
Whole Room of Cezannes
Founder of Post Impressionism Is Hardly Known in New York
Cezanne is virtually unknown in America except by his name, and there will be great curiosity…
Matisse has been seen and shuddered at in the little New York gallery of Photo-Seresston…
Every art museum and art program should be giving at least a nod to this, if not a full-blown celebration. Some are, some aren’t.
Here comes the U.S. Postal Service to the cultural rescue. Ironic, because the Postal Service itself is in dire need of rescuing. But when it comes to celebrating modern art, and this particular moment, there it is.
On March 7, the Postal Service will issue a set of stamps called Modern Art in America 1913-1931. They explain, “In celebration of the triumph of modern art in America, the U.S. Postal Service commemorates 12 important modern artists and their works, 100 years after the groundbreaking Armory Show opened in New York in 1913.” On the full sheet of stamps is a quote from Marcel Duchamp, one of the more than 300 artists who exhibited at the Armory Show: “American is the country of the art of the future.”
The set includes stunning reproductions of works by Stuart Davis (House and Street), Charles Demuth (I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold), Aaron Douglas (The Prodigal Son), Arthur Dove (Fog Horns), Marcel Duchamp (Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2), Marsden Hartley (Painting, Number 5), John Marin (Sunset, Maine Coast), Gerald Murphy (Razor), Georgia O’Keeffe (Black Mesa Landscape, New Mexico / Out Back of Marie’s II), Man Ray (Noire et Blanche), Charles Sheeler (American Landscape), Joseph Stella (Brooklyn Bridge).
Through its stamps, the Postal Service has served for decades as a chronicler of culture, well-known and less-known. This year alone we have muscle cars, Johnny Cash, Rosa Parks, Grand Central Terminal and Lydia Mendoza (one of the greatest stars of Tejano music). And, of course, the Armory Show.
Celebrate the Armory Show this month. Revel in art, its past and its present. Visit galleries. Buy some art. Visit an art museum. Join an art museum. And then go to the post office (yes, there are still post offices). Buy a couple of sheets of the Modern Art in America stamps ($5.20). Keep one, and maybe frame it and hang it on a wall. Use the other stamps on letters or even bill payments. It’s an easy way to make the world more beautiful and interesting, and to show that art still and always matters.