The show closing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art this weekend, African Art, New York, and the Avant-Garde, is a love letter to the advent of modernist art in New York 100 years ago. In the early 1900s, artists like Picasso and Matisse began looking more closely at the exotic shapes and forms pouring out of Gabon and Cote d’Ivoire – the primary sources of wooden African statuary at the time in Europe.
The Armory Show in 1913, rocked New York, where crowds viewed disruptive cubist works by Picasso, Duchamp, and Braque. Although the edgy work startled New Yorkers and the press, American modern artists and connoisseurs went crazy for African art because it looked so “modern”.
Sensing an opportunity, Stieglitz sent his friend, Marius de Zayas, to Europe to bring back more. Good thing, since Europe was soon at war and the global art scene shifted to New York. Stieglitz’s 291 Gallery and the Washington Square Gallery in the Village became leaders of the new trend, mounting a series of shows. De Zayas had to push Stieglitz to mix African art with Picasso, and it worked. One critic looked and said, “Here are the fathers of Gaugin, Matisse, and Picasso!”
This show is special because the curators really went all out – huge photo-murals of the ground-breaking shows, the actual works you see in the photos, and photos of same from the magazines and newspapers of the day. It’s an art-history, primitive art, and modernist master trifecta.
Visitors feel like they’re stepping right into 291 itself, seeing mash-ups of African art, nature objects, and European cubist works. Poking through the vitrines, you’ll see works appearing in New York for the first time since 1914, gorgeous Sheeler photos of early exhibitions, and lots of work collected by Mr. Schamberg (for whom NYPL’s Harlem library/collection/study center is named).
Since Georgia O’Keefe gave Mr. Stieglitz’s entire collection to the Met, the show packs in many surprises — his African works, his Matisse and Rivera paintings, and issues of Camera Work. There are key pieces from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art and loans from Philadelphia’s Arnesberg collection.
In 1923, the Brooklyn Museum was the first museum in the West to show African art as “art” (versus “anthropology”), Penn was the first museum to actively collect it, and we all know what Mr. Barnes did when he displayed his magnificent modernist collection.
Check out all the objects in this amazing exhibition, but walk through the show in person if you can.
If you have some time, sit in on the curator’s talk via YouTube. Around 33:00 they start talking about the works in the show with a nice split screen that shows the speakers and the slides, so skip ahead and take a provocative, virtual tour.