Five Questions with Michael Maglaras, Director of The Great Confusion: The 1913 Armory Show
July 15, 2014
On July 16th, the American Art Museum welcomes writer and director Michael Maglaras, who will introduce his documentary, The Great Confusion: The 1913 Armory Show. The film examines the New York exhibition that exposed Americans to modern art by Cézanne, Renoir, van Gogh, and Duchamp, as well works by Americans such as Hartley, Marin, and Sheeler. A special pre-screening tour of the American Art collection, highlighting works by artists who were in the Armory Show, meets in the G St. lobby at 5:30 p.m. The film begins in the McEvoy Auditorium at 6:30 p.m. A light reception will follow the screening and Q&A. Additional details for this event can be found on our museum's calendar. Program Coordinator Alli Jessing discussed the film and the impact of the Armory show with Michael Maglaras for Eye Level.
Eye Level: Of the artists featured in the 1913 show, do you have a favorite artist or artwork?
Michael Maglaras: This is a tough one; with as many as 1,300 works there was much to choose from, and much of it of exceptional quality. I have a soft spot for the painting Family Group by William Glackens, which we feature prominently in the film. Glackens is a singular artist, and it seems to me that this painting has one foot planted firmly in the legacy of 19th century painting, with its particular elegance of spirit (look at the line of the leg leading to the end of his daughter's shoe on the left side of the canvas) and the other foot planted firmly in the 20th century with Glackens' Fauvist-like use of color. It is really a masterpiece of its kind.
EL: The 1913 Armory was quite a pivotal one, and introduced American audiences to a more experimental style. Tell us a little about how the critics and audiences reacted to this unfamiliar visual style.
MM: The reaction was a surprising combination of delight and disgust. The press, of course, had a field day reporting about the varied reactions of the public to the works of Matisse, Gleizes, Duchamp, and others. And it became a kind of social and, for its time, important media event. The public came in droves: 4,000 on the first day and 12,000 on the last. It would be difficult to imagine a reaction today more varied and more provocative at the most basic level than the reaction provoked by the Armory Show in 1913. Of course, the evidence is clear that in 1913 we held strong views about what we liked and didn't about art, and the debate then, pro and con, about Modernism, was seldom tinged by the kind of political correctness we sometimes exhibit today. Three months after the close of the Armory Show, in May of 1913, at the premiere of Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring in Paris, fistfights broke out before the orchestra had finished playing the first page of the score.
Many who came to see the work in the Amory Show had their views changed about what art is and what it should mean to us. In 2014, the way we look at what hangs on a wall, how we perceive its value, whether it speaks to us on multiple levels, and the role of the artist in our society, are all ideas that are a result of the 27 days that the public flocked to the Armory Show in New York.
EL: When you visit an art museum, what kinds of works do you gravitate towards?
MM: I've made five films about American Modernism, and I have to confess that if a museum has works by American painters who were active from about 1900 through the 1950s, I'm immediately drawn to whatever is in that collection. John Marin, for example, is in my view the undisputed poet of American Modernist painting. Whenever I encounter a Marin, all I do is simply stand there and smile at the sheer joy that his work represents to me.
EL: Marcel Duchamp's painting Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2) famously caused some furor during the show. What were some of the other controversial artworks, and what about them caused such an upset?
MM: Everything in Gallery I, where most of the Cubist work was hung (it was called by the press the "Chamber of Horrors") caused an immediate controversy. From the standpoint of sheer geography, Gallery I was hidden away in the upper left-hand corner of the armory space, and if you had been strolling through the galleries in no particular order, coming upon the contents of that gallery would have taken you completely by surprise. Several works by Matisse hung in Gallery H, including his exquisitely delicious Blue Nude of 1907, which Kenneth Clark called the first painting of the modern era. If you actually made your way through the Armory Show galleries alphabetically (they started with A, B, etc., and ended with the letter R) you would, of necessity, have had an intimate encounter with Blue Nude. Nothing like it had ever been seen before in America by so many people in such a brief span of time. The reaction of the public to the painters of French Modernism was only what it could have been in 1913: a complete shock.
EL: Are you working on any new film projects at the moment?
MM: Our next film is now in production. It's entitled Enough to Live On: The Art of the WPA. This film is in honor of the 80th anniversary of the Federal Art Project of the WPA. As we travel the country deciding which art to use —individual paintings, murals, sculpture— we discover that this will be a film full of surprises: surprises about the overwhelming quality of some of the work, how much of it was created under the auspices of the federal government, and how the making of art was used by Franklin Roosevelt's administration as a tool to reinvigorate our national spirit at a time of national depression.
For additional information about the 1913 Armory Show and to view original source material from that exhibition, take a look at the Smithsonian Archives of American Art's website: 1913 Armory Show: The Story in Primary Resources.
New Acquisitions: Purvis Young's The Struggle
July 9, 2014
American Art's curator of folk and self-taught art, Leslie Umberger, talks about the museum's recent acquisition of a major painting by Purvis Young, The Struggle. The artwork can be seen in the museum's east wing gallery on the third floor.
The Struggle, was done between 1973-74 by Purvis Young, who lived and worked in Miami until his death in 2010. Around 1971, Young began transforming an alley in his Miami neighborhood into a large-scale mural project. Goodbread Alley, as it was called, was by then, comprised of store fronts that had been condemned and boarded up by the city as part of rolling urban renewal project. It was in an area of Miami called Overtown, a neighborhood that has once been a thriving immigrant community but had since become a dangerous area plagued by poverty and crime.
During a stint in prison for robbery, Young had reflected on the direction of his life and become troubled by the plight of his community; he became very inspired by the African American activist murals in Detroit and Chicago. So, when he was released, he began making a mural of his own, knowing full well that the structures along the alley he was using as his canvas did not belong to him and would one day be demolished.
Between 1971 and 1974, Young focused on this mural. His subjects celebrated and historicized the neighborhood that he had spent his entire life in and although they charted struggle, they always contained an undercurrent of hope for a better future.
He became a local celebrity and the alley became a tourist attraction until its demise. At that point, some of the work was sold, some was scavenged, some went to dealers, and some was destroyed. And Young continued to paint in various studio settings for the next 3 1/2 decades, but the work made on site in Goodbread Alley is widely regarded as his most powerful; it is also the rarest.
The Struggle, is iconic of Young's themes of challenges and persistence. It is comprised not only of the major center panel showing interracial strife and the trials of immigrant life in a depressed area, but is bordered by a number of smaller, individually dated, paintings that offer a lyric balance to the core fight of life through abstracted figures shown working, dancing, singing, swimming, fighting, finding their way, trying to move up and on in the world, and holding up their arms in a show of unity.
July 4th: The American Experience in American Art
July 3, 2014
Symba Nuruddin, one of our interns at the Luce Foundation Center contributed this post in honor of Independence Day and the American experience in American art.
Tomorrow is the 4th of July! And in today's technological age it has become almost traditional on social media to post holiday specific imagery in celebration of special days. Here at American Art we definitely have no shortage of American imagery that reflects our experiences as a people. Many of the incredible works in the collection are imbued with a sense of American pride and celebrate the American spirit. How can we possibly pick just one to share?
Grandad and the Kid, Kansas, 1917, a photographic print with applied oil color made by an unidentified artist, embodies everything we love about the 4th of July. The important themes of celebration, national pride, and family that are so much a part of the holiday are highlighted in this family photograph. Never the afterthought, the flag is proudly displayed in the foreground of the image in all its glory.
Preamble by Mike Wilkins is currently on display in our first floor galleries. In a show of American ingenuity, Wilkins utilizes an inspired collection of vanity license plates to recreate the preamble in abbreviated script. Each state is represented in alphabetical order. Though the plates rarely make sense on their own, together they recreate one of the greatest documents in American history. This work represents the meaning of the name "the United States" with a fun twist.
These are just a few of my personal favorites for the day. Please feel free to go and pick your own, either by visiting the Smithsonian American Art Museum's Pinterest collection of America themed works or, if you’re in the area, drop by for a visit! (The museum will be open from 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. on July 4.) A happy and safe 4th to all of our readers!!!
Picture This: Watching the World Cup at American Art
July 2, 2014
The American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery opened up our Kogod Courtyard yesterday afternoon to watch the U.S. – Belgium World Cup game. Hundreds attended with fans of both teams. With our air conditioned courtyard it was the best place in Washington to be if you were a football fan. Despite America's loss, it was a great game!
During the month of July 2014, join fellow photographers and the American Art Museum on a quest to find outdoor sculpture. We are partnering with Restless Collective, a multimedia group specializing in travel and adventure storytelling, to raise awareness and appreciation for outdoor sculpture across the nation.
When you find a piece of outside artwork you'd like to use for the challenge, feel free to be creative in how you photograph it! We hope to see selfies, simple snapshots, interesting angles, and attention-grabbing edits. If you need help finding outdoor sculpture in your area, use our database of artworks, Save Outdoor Sculpture! (SOS!) Here's a day-to-day schedule of ideas for Instagram photos.
Please use the hashtag #SculptureChallenge and tag us at @AmericanArtMuseum and @RestlessCollective as you upload your sculpture photos to Instagram. For each challenge entry, comment on your photo with an answer to the question "How does the sculpture make you feel?" We will be highlighting and sharing a selection of the best shots.
While you are out capturing images of outdoor art, Restless Collective co-founders Morrigan McCarthy and Alan Winslow will be photographing and interviewing people about outdoor sculpture. Be inspired and join them on their journey through their Summer of Sculpture Tumblr. You might even see one of your challenge photos featured there!
On July 31, the last day of the challenge, you can meet Morrigan and Alan from Restless Collective at the American Art Museum from 12–4 p.m. They will share stories about their travels and then lead an Instagram Walkabout through the museum's neighborhood in Washington, D.C.
Visit our Instagram Challenge page today to see the complete instructions, and download the complete daily challenge list.