Many historians believe the Armory Show held in 1913 to be a major catalyst in the beginning of American Modernism, and when looking over the various paintings and sculptures exhibited, it is easy to see why. The collection of art displayed in the Armory Show was radically different than much of the art that came before it. The most radical aspect of Modernism at the time was, perhaps, its departure from realism into a new, abstract world of expression where artists were free to explore and express their new found feelings of alienation and fragmentation brought on by the industrial revolution.
The best way to look at the Armory show in terms of Modernism is to examine first its most controversial paintings, in this case French Cubism, in particular the work of Marcel Duchamp titled Nude Descending a Staircase. It seems this painting was the center of much controversy at the 1913 Armory Show; leave it to the French to freak people out. The controversy seemed to stem out of the rather obvious reaction that the painting looks absolutely nothing at all like its title, and does not really resemble anything at all for that matter. The painting is just an amalgamation of abstract angular shapes, assembled in a rather mechanical and violent way. Before this time painters were expected to mimic reality, and paintings themselves were meant to be lifelike. This collection of art marked the beginning of Cubism, Surrealism, Impressionism, and a whole series of “isms” that broke away from the early modern style of "realistic" paining.
Another influential French painter highlighted in the Armory Show was Matisse. Matisse, although similar to Duchamp, was also very different. Both artists broke away from realism but in very different ways. While artists like Duchamp and Picabia represented the human body by dividing it into intersecting lines and planes, Matisse represented the human body by simplifying it into what was considered crude, childlike, and even monstrous forms. Again, what makes Matisse distinctly modern was his revolt against realism, and his depiction of reality in an entirely new and challenging way, one that represented the disillusionment of that time.
The final, and perhaps the most important, artist I would like to highlight from the Armory Show is Vincent Van Gogh. Although Van Gogh was already well known in Europe, he was fairly unknown in America at the time. This show brought Van Gogh into the American public eye, further spreading his influence on Modernism. While he is generally not considered a modernist painter, his impact and influence on Modernism was so profound that he cannot go unmentioned in a discussion of Modernism. It was Van Gogh’s incredible, bold use of color, his rough emotional honesty, and the abstract surreal nature of his paintings that made him radical in his time. This combination of radical honesty and the bravery to break away from cultural norms and artistic convention really lies at the heart of Modernism and was to me what defined the Armory Show.