Exhibition to highlight early Cos Cob artists’ shift to Modernism

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Lauded as one of the most influential events in the history of American art, The International Exhibition of Modern Art in 1913 — popularly known as the Armory Show — was the first large exhibition of modern art in the United States, and beginning Oct. 9, the Greenwich Historical Society will present The New Spirit and the Cos Cob Art Colony: Before and After the Armory Show, which for the first time shows the direct impact of the Armory Show on the Cos Cob art colony artists.

A perfect complement to larger exhibitions in the metropolitan New York area inspired by the centennial of the Armory Show, this small yet critical exhibition at the Greenwich Historical Society highlights the extensive involvement of Cos Cob artists, such as Elmer MacRae and Henry Fitch Taylor, in producing the Armory Show, and brings to public attention several of the accomplished Cos Cob artists whose work has been rarely exhibited until now.

“This is the first exhibition to illustrate the Armory Show’s direct influence on a group of artists, specifically the Cos Cob art colony,” said Valerie Ann Leeds, curator of the upcoming exhibition. “Viewers will be able to compare artists’ works from before and after the Armory Show and see to what degree they each embraced Modernism as the movement became assimilated into the mainstream of American art.”

The tightly focused exhibition is comprised of 40 works of art by 12 Cos Cob artists, including several works that were shown in the Armory Show, along with archival material and ephemera from the Greenwich Historical Society and private and museum collections. In addition to Mr. MacRae and Mr. Taylor, the show features artists D. Putnam Brinley, Childe Hassam, Ernest Lawson, Carolyn C. Mase, Frank A. Nankivell, Allen Tucker, J. Alden Twachtman and J. Alden Weir. It also includes influential pioneering Impressionist artists Theodore Robinson and John H. Twachtman, both of whom had work included in the Armory Show, but had died prior to the exhibition.

One exceptional example of the Armory Show’s influence on Cos Cob artists can be seen in the evolving work of Henry Fitch Taylor. Mr. Taylor’s oil painting, An Old Pasture (1893), is typical of his landscapes of the time, which were inspired by French Impressionism. This work contrasts his post-Armory Show paintings including Untitled Abstraction (1915) and Figure with Guitar 1 (1915), both of which embrace the modernist spirit.

“Clearly, it’s no longer about representation, but rather about an exploration of form, color, space, and fragmentation,” Dr. Leeds said.

The Armory Show also profoundly affected Elmer MacRae’s style. Created before the show, Mr. MacRae’s Old House, South End (no date) is impressionistic in its treatment of the Bush-Holley House in mid-winter. Japanese Iris (1914), painted one year after the show, reveals how Mr. MacRae had turned to a much more stylized treatment of his subject matter. Viewers will be able to see how the flowers have been simplified and negative spaces activated with strong shapes, decorative patterning and bold color.

Also in the exhibition in Greenwich are a number of works by Childe Hassam, one of the most well known and prolific of the American Impressionists. His Chicken Yard Back of the Holley House (1902) is a light-dappled pastel depicting fields and ponds behind the Bush-Holley House. Mr. Hassam, who had six works on display in the Armory Show, claimed no interest in Modernism. However, the exhibition shows it indeed had some effect on him, as evidenced by his late flower still life as well as one of his rare painted frames on a late figurative composition in the show.

The archival material and ephemera on view include banners, buttons, posters and postcards from the Armory Show as well as photographs of the artists. These materials help bring to life and document the important roles that Cos Cob artists played in the actual production of the Armory Show. Mr. MacRae and Mr. Taylor were two of the four artists who conceived the idea for the exhibition in 1911, and Mr. MacRae served as its treasurer.

Susan G. Larkin, former chair of the Greenwich Historical Society and author of The Cos Cob Art Colony: Impressionists on the Connecticut Shore, claims Mr. MacRae was much more involved with the Armory Show than he has previously been given credit for.

“He was a central figure in the story, but was very modest and didn’t trumpet himself,” Ms. Larkin said. “But others did and they wrote the history.”

Dr. Larkin has contributed an essay about Mr. MacRae for the catalogue of the coinciding Armory Show retrospective at The New-York Historical Society, which will be on view from Oct. 11 through Feb. 23, 2014.

“It is especially fitting for the Greenwich Historical Society to organize and mount this anniversary exhibition as it is a key repository for archival material from the Armory Show as well as a major holder of works by MacRae,” Dr. Larkin said.

The Greenwich exhibition will complement related projects celebrating the Armory Show centennial being organized by other area institutions, such as The New-York Historical Society, the Archives of American Art, the Montclair Art Museum, the Heckscher Museum of Art and the Phillips Collection, each of which focuses on a different aspect of this watershed event in the history of American art.

The New Spirit and the Cos Cob Art Colony: Before and After the Armory Show runs from Oct. 9 through Jan. 12, 2014, at the Greenwich Historical Society’s Bush-Holley House and Museum Gallery. Hours are Wednesday through Sunday, from noon to 4 p.m.

For details, call 203-869-6899 or visit Greenwichhistory.org.

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