A giant tank, nudes and shocking history at An Armory Show

by Emily Donohue on October 15, 2013

A century ago, American audiences were shocked by an armory filled with controversial new works from the most interesting European artists. Artists including Marcel Duchamp, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, already established in Europe, were brought to the forefront of American culture by way of the Armory Show of 1913.

By today’s standards, much of the work isn’t particularly avant garde, but the show remains an important point in the history of art in America. (More on the culture shock of 1913 in this fascinating special program from WNYC —history of the Armory Show and its effect on American art begins around the 4 minute mark.)

A new exhibition by two Rensselaer professors — art professor Kenneth Ragsdale and architecture professor Michael Oatman — pays homage to that seminal moment in art history. An Armory Show, located in Sage College’s Opalka Gallery in Albany, features their original work as well as pieces curated from dozens of regional artists.

“We looked at work that had a connection to an idea or a theme that was being talked about 100 years ago,” Ragsdale said.

“I’ve had a long interest in the armory show and Marcel Duchamp’s work and its role as a catalyst for kind of bringing America kicking and screaming into the era of the modern, at least in the visual arts,” Oatman said. The pieces he created for the show draw inspiration from two works of modern art that startled viewers in their own times — Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase” and Charles Wilson Peale’s “The Staircase Group.”

Oatman’s piece, “D’entre les morts,” is a collection of videos —one of which is projected into a doorframe — that greets visitors as they enter the Opalka Gallery. (See D’entre les morts at the 12:20 mark of the video below.) Looming just behind that piece is Ragsdale’s enormous creation, a tank that was built, he says, “like a house.”

An Armory Show behind the scenes

Video courtesy Opalka Gallery. Videography and still photography by Jacqueline Lynch, studio visit photography by Oatman, artwork images by both Oatman and Ragsdale.

Ragsdale’s work includes intricately designed paper models of vehicles, set in scenes and photographed in order to recreate his memories of places and objects. He describes his aesthetic as architectural. (He explains in greater detail at the 2:40 mark of the video above. ) The common language he and Oatman use is one of the reasons the collaboration worked, he said.

“It’s really exciting, it’s awesome, to be able to work with somebody whose work you respect who comes at things from a very different direction but you know that you’re talking about the same thing,” Ragsdale said. “It’s really nice to work with somebody from a whole different school within the institute … hopefully out of that comes a different kind of integration.”

The two had worked together on a small scale previously — Ragsdale’s work has appeared in shows that Oatman has curated — but a collaboration on this scale, mounting an entire show in an extremely short timeframe (after only about 6 months of intensive preparation, the entire show was put together in Opalka’s space in a matter of weeks) was a leap of faith. “It was really more of a gut feeling than anything else,” Oatman said.

An Armory Show time lapse

Video courtesy Opalka Gallery.

The show aims to explore “what happened to painting and drawing and sculpture over the past 100 years and specifically in our area,” Oatman said.  “Those were the art forms showcased in the first armory show and people are still using those mediums today and they’re still inventing with them.The show also celebrates this region’s art scene — which Oatman said he was surprised to find when he moved here more than two decades ago (“I thought it was a wasteland and it turned out to be an oasis”) and is still thriving. “It’s hard to be bored in this area, in terms of the visual arts,” he said. (More on the regional artists featured at the 9:00 minute mark of the first video.)

An Armory Show is open at the Opalka Gallery on the Sage College campus through Dec. 15. There are four upcoming events at the gallery: a showing of the documentary film “The Great Confusion: The 1913 Armory Show” at 1 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 20; a performance by puppeteer Ed Atkeson called “Man at the Controls” at 6 and 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 1; and a performance by the Ellen Sinopoli Dance Company and 4 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 24 and at 6 p.m. Friday, Dec. 6. The Opalka Gallery is open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday and from noon to 4 p.m. Sundays; the gallery is closed Saturdays. The gallery is located at 140 New Scotland Ave. in Albany.

Want to learn even more about the 1913 Armory Show? Try this history of the show in primary sources from the Smithsonian.

— Emily Donohue