Where form meets function

Continuing our analysis of contemporary art, we turn to one of the world’s foremost art fairs, The Armory Show, and trace its history from avant-garde exhibition to New York icon.

In the 21st century, where innumerable art fairs dominate the art market calendar, the biggest challenge these fairs face is how to stand out as significant places to visit. In the last decade The Armory Show has distinguished itself as one of these major art fairs by developing its reputation not only as a result of its focus on showcasing young emerging artists, but also in part due to its role in the cultural redevelopment of some of New York’s finest landmarks. In addition, The Armory Show is perhaps the fair with the most intriguing history. The fair’s connection to the groundbreaking 1913 Armory Show exhibition has undoubtedly helped establish it as a marquee event and in the process has become the driving force behind the fair’s expansion.

The Armory Show, as the fair is known today, is a title that belongs to a somewhat revolutionary exhibition that came to American shores during February and March of 1913. The exhibition, which took its title from the 69th Regiment Armory building on Lexington Avenue, brought with it the pioneering European avant-garde. Movements like Cubism, Fauvism and Futurism came to New York and completely changed the trajectory of American art – it was the first time these European artists were showcased alongside American artists.

Before the 1913 Armory Show, the American art scene was particularly concerned with a mode of realism championed by the likes of John Singer Sargent and Edward Hopper. Most Americans were not privileged enough to view the exciting changes in artistic process happening in Europe as a result of the inaccessibility of travel. So instead of going to Europe, Americans brought the Europeans to America, forever changing the direction of American art.

With Americans introduced to the fragmented images of Cubism and the dynamism of Futurism, it wasn’t long until the climate of the American art scene changed. As a result of the exposure to the European avant-garde, artists began to challenge the traditional aesthetics of American art. This change in direction ultimately led to the development of new radical art movements. Abstract expressionism, for one, emerged in the aftermath of the Armory Show and became a sign of the artistic exploration that would later turn New York into the artistic capital of the world.

Fast-forward to the 21st century and The Armory Show currently serves as the centerpiece to Armory Week, a week-long art extravaganza that presents over a dozen separate fairs. In the last decade, the show has undergone rapid development and subsequent expansion, and now exists as a behemoth art fair.

Considering its current reputation, the show has fairly humble beginnings. It was started as the Gramercy International Art Fair, organized by dealers Colin de Land, Pat Hearn, Matthew Marks and Paul Morris in 1994, 81 years after the original Armory Show opened. Housed at the Gramercy Park Hotel, the show offered guests an intimate view of fresh, new art. Five years later, the connection to the original Armory Show was established when the fair moved from Gramercy Park Hotel to the 69th Regiment Armory building on Lexington and took its new title, The Armory Show, as homage to the 1913 exhibition.

Although the 1913 edition and the current incarnation are drastically different, the two shows share two poignant characteristics. Firstly, both were self-organized shows. The new dealers came together to host the Gramercy Fair as a way of creating scope for the works they were hoping to sell, much the same way that the Association of American Painters and Sculptors (AAPS) organized the original Armory Show to introduce the European avant-garde. Secondly, both were designed to bring together new work under one roof; the dealers needed a context in which to present this new work much like AAPS designed the 1913 show to introduce modern art to a wider audience.

Ultimately, it is this connection to the historic 1913 exhibition and its dedication to exhibiting new work that allows The Armory Show – and Armory Week – to hold its position at the forefront of the art fair calendar. In 2014, for instance, the show attracted more than 65,000 people with Art Info Magazine describing it as the site to see “some of the most cutting-edge artists of a younger generation,” cementing The Armory Show’s ever-expanding art market relevance.

Alongside acting as a platform for emerging art, The Armory Show has played a pivotal role in the cultural redevelopment of one of New York’s most well-known landmarks, the West Side Pier. The area itself holds a special place in New York history. Sitting on the famous Hudson River, the Piers were originally at the center of the transport system in New York, due to the city’s heavy reliance on rail and waterways. However, the emergence of the auto industry saw the surrounding area diminish as transportation moved to the road.

Following an expansion, the fair left the 69th Regiment Armory building and moved to the West Side Pier in 2001. Bearing in mind the fair’s size – with well over 200 galleries participating – the Piers offered a significantly larger space and as a result of the derelict atmosphere, the area was beginning to establish itself as a public art platform. In light of this, the fair has had a significant impact on the gentrification of the area, so much so that pier redevelopment is now an Armory Show contractual stipulation.

The commitment of The Armory Show to the enhancement of the surrounding area has led to artist collaborations and public art projects installed each year for the duration of the fair, with perhaps the most beautiful example being Janet Echelman’s sculpture, Roadside Shrine II, which consisted of illuminated vinyl cones installed on the underside of the West Side Highway for the 2001 fair. The redevelopment effort has been aided in large part by the fair’s ability to attract large volumes of visitors and generate huge financial gains. It has become such an important event culturally that now major museums, such as the Whitney, are staging their premiere exhibitions to coincide with the opening of Armory Week.

Although the art world has been critical of both the role and impact of art fairs, The Armory Show is uniquely positioned thanks to its historical ties and cultural significance. Perhaps The Armory Show is the example all other fairs should be following. By acknowledging the transformative capacity of art and by placing its cultural and historical ties front and center, The Armory Show has become more than just an art fair, it is now a New York icon.


This article was written by Houghton Kinsman for

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