Nude on Staircase, Wild Matisse Shocked at Armory Show

“Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2)” (1912) is one of the most overrated paintings in the history of art.

See it for yourself at the New-York Historical Society’s “The Armory Show at 100: Modern Art and Revolution.”

Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude” -- a pastiche of Cubism -- is a monochromatic, robotic depiction of a walking figure layered and repeated as if seen through stop-motion photography.

The work caused a scandal in the U.S. when it appeared as part of the legendary 1913 “International Exhibition of Modern Art” or the “Armory Show.”

Opening at the 69th Regiment Armory in New York, then travelling to Chicago and Boston, the show introduced about 300,000 Americans to Post-Impressionism, Cubism, Fauvism, Futurism and abstraction.

Though shocking at the time, the “Nude” has been hyped by those who see Duchamp -- and his Dadaist Readymades -- as the father of our age.

American artists and viewers were troubled more by the primitivism of Matisse, Gauguin and Brancusi than they were by Picasso or Duchamp.

The “Nude” inspired parodies, jibes and cartoons. With his wild color, Matisse incited a riot. When they weren’t allowed to hang him in effigy, students in Chicago burned copies of Matisse’s paintings.

Eye Rolls

Modern art is still maligned: I regularly encounter people who roll their eyes at Mondrian, Kandinsky and Picasso.

That’s why the New-York Historical Society’s revelatory and scholarly exhibition is so necessary. Myths are dispelled. Perspective and balance are reestablished.

Duchamp’s “Nude” is rightly pushed into a corner.

Separate galleries are devoted to typical American art and taste at the time, as well as to documents related to the 1913 show, its context and its reception, when the shock of the new was everywhere.

Astutely organized by Marilyn Satin Kushner and Kimberly Orcutt, the exhibition doesn’t stress the explosive impact and mixed reception at the expense of the art.

Instead, it recreates the show’s original purpose, which was to link contemporary, innovative European and American artists with established European masters.

The exhibition is a little cluttered -- at times theatrical, overproduced. I wish it were much larger, more inclusive and less predictable.

100th Reunion

With 100 of the 1,400 artworks, this reunion is only a snapshot of the 1913 version, but its connections between modern and traditional still work. Like the original, it divides the show evenly between Americans and Europeans, who occupy opposite ends of a long gallery.

It’s instructive to compare the brittle landscapes of the American Impressionist Childe Hassam to monumental works by van Gogh and Cezanne; or Matisse’s restless odalisque, “Blue Nude,” to a static female portrait by the celebrated American academician Robert Henri.

The differences are still remarkably charged -- it’s as if the show were shooting you back through time.

And it will reintroduce underappreciated masters like Puvis de Chavannes, Andre Derain, and Jacques Villon -- Marcel Duchamp’s older brother.

Check out Villon’s kaleidoscopic Cubist masterpiece “Young Girl” (1912). It kicks Duchamp’s “Nude” down the stairs.

“The Armory Show at 100: Modern Art and Revolution” runs through Feb. 23 at the New-York Historical Society, 170 Central Park West. Information: +1-212-873-3400;

(Lance Esplund is U.S. art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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