The Avant-garde and the Society of Independent Artists
In 1917, the Society of Independent Artists held its first annual exhibition at the Grand Central Palace in New York City (McCarthy, 81). The Society formed in 1916, drawing its inspiration from the Société des Artistes Indépendants in Paris. (McCarthy, 80). The group aimed to provide artists no matter what their backgrounds or level of professional success with the opportunity to show their work. “No judge, no prize” was the fundamental tenant of the exhibition (McCarthy, 80–1). Artworks were hung and displayed in alphabetical order, thus mixing themes, mediums, and quality (McCarthy, 81–2). Members of the public could judge the works for themselves while artists could find inspiration in each other’s art.
Although intended to be completely open, Marcel Duchamp’s sculpture Fountain was excluded from the 1917 exhibition. The work was a urinal that he signed and submitted using the pseudonym "R. Motts." It is suspected that Duchamp was testing the Society’s claims of openness and liberalism (Karmel, 222). In protest to the exclusion of the sculpture, Duchamp resigned from the Society (Karmel, 222). The Documenting the Gilded Age project digitized the checklist for this first exhibition (see illustrations).
In the aftermath of the Fountain scandal, the Society opened the much-anticipated exhibition on April 10, 1917. Reviews of the unprecedentedly large, eclectic exhibition were mixed, with most finding it overwhelming. Critic James B. Townsend wrote that the scene was a “bouillabaisse” of art with sculptures “thrown in,” (Townsend, 2). Walter Pach, the treasurer of the Society, thought the exhibition was a success, as it “accomplished a very great work in promoting an understanding of contemporary art and sympathy with it,” (McCarthy, 83).
The Society stayed true to its original aim in the subsequent years, providing the opportunity to exhibit for all artists. In 1920, it showed a group of Native American watercolors, and three years later, exhibited Mexican art (McCarthy, 85). The checklist for the 1920 exhibition has also been digitized as part of the Documenting the Gilded Age project (see illustrations). In 1944, the Society held its last annual exhibition after twenty-seven years of service to the art world (McCarthy, 86).
McCarthy, Laurette E. Walter Pach (1883-1958): The Armory Show and the Untold Story of Modern Art.University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011. Print.
Karmel, Pepe. "Marcel Duchamp, 1917: The Not so Innocent Eye." Modern Art and America: Alfred Stieglitz and His New York Galleries. Ed. Sarah Greenough. 1st ed. Washington DC: National Gallery of Art, 2000. 221–28. Print.