The Armory Show of 1913 is rightly remembered as a watershed event for art in the United States. It was at the Armory that the mass American audience first encountered the avant-garde that had been fomenting for several years in Europe. The results of this meeting were nearly immediate and deeply felt: the public was both fascinated and scandalized; the art world began to overturn the system of juries, credentialing, and academies that had been the cornerstone of artistic professionalization; and, within a few years, many American artists were actively emulating the new European styles.
While the Europeans were only a small percentage of the artists shown, they were the most celebrated and the most vilified, monopolizing much of the press and selling far better than their American cousins. But Americans participating in the show were engaging with Modernism in all sorts of subtle and interesting ways. Among these were a handful of artists whose main corpus of work wouldn’t be recognized as “art” until many years later: newspaper comic strips.
Perhaps the most significant of these was Walt Kuhn, one of the principal organizers and curators of the show. Until 1914, Kuhn’s cartoons were his primary source of income. He sold them to magazines like Life, Puck, and Judge, as well as newspapers. One strip he drew, a children’s fantasy called Whisk, ran in the New York World between February 1909 and October 1910. After that, Kuhn had a weekly panel in the Brooklyn Eagle called Funny Birds that ran from April through December of 1912. Kuhn was in Europe assembling art for the Armory Show as early as September 1912, and was likely too busy with that to continue the strip.
Kuhn was a skilled networker, and he used his contacts to promote the Armory Show nationwide. It was advantageous for the principal promoter of the exhibition to have ties in the newspaper world, and his work as a cartoonist gave Kuhn exactly that. He also brought along some of his cartoonist friends to participate.
Rudolph Dirks, creator of The Katzenjammer Kids, was one of the most popular cartoonists of his day. Modeled on the Bilderbogen (broadsheet) “Max und Moritz” by Wilhelm Busch, The Katzenjammer Kids followed the adventures of two endlessly, demonically mischievous boys. Dirks was also a lifelong painter, and his paintings in the Armory Show showed a strong Postimpressionist influence. Dirks and Kuhn both had summer homes in Ogunquit, Maine, where they had a regular golf match with painter Yasuo Kuniyoshi and socialized with sculpter Robert Laurent.
Another cartoonist at the show was Marjorie Organ, one of the first women to regularly draw a comic strip. Her best-known strip was Little Reggie and the Heavenly Twins, which ran in the New York Journal between 1902 and 1905. In 1908, her career as a cartoonist abruptly ended when she married the painter Robert Henri, the de facto leader of the Ashcan School, after being introduced to him by Kuhn and Dirks. While she largely quit drawing at that point, seemingly content to support the great artist Henri, she did contribute several sketches to the Armory Show.
Other newspaper comic strip cartoonists in the show included Gus Mager, George Luks — better remembered as a painter of the Ashcan School, and the recently rediscovered mysterious cartoonist and illustrator Herbert Crowley.
The newspaper comic strip was still very young in 1913 — the first Sunday comics had appeared fewer than 20 years before — and their cultural status was still a subject of debate. They began as a way to increase the cachet of the yellow press, as emulations of middle-class humor magazines like Puck and Life, as well as illustrated children’s magazines like Saint Nicholas. Their immediate, wild popularity began to drive newspaper sales, as well as sales of all sorts of branded merchandise, from gum to pinbacks to “De Yeller Kid’s High Ball.” (“Hully Gee, dis booze is great, see!”)
With commercial success, however, came criticism. A minor moral panic about the morality of the Sunday funnies began around 1909 and persisted for a few years before dying down. The period between the 1880s and the 1920s has been described as a “Golden Age” for American illustration, when many newspaper cartoonists and illustrators were considered on par with painters and sculptors. But as early as 1910, concerns about “commercialism” began to put this elevated status at risk.
It seems likely that the cartoonists who participated in the Armory Show were embracing the art of Europe in an attempt to gain respectability. Some, like Kuhn and Organ, left cartooning right around this time for more “respectable” artistic endeavors. Others, like Dirks, continued lifelong interests in both painting and cartoon work — indeed, Dirks’s son, John Dirks, would later take over his father’s comic strip while also enjoying a career as a minor sculptor.
Regardless of the cultural climate, when one looks at comics from the period between 1895 and 1915, one is immediately struck with a sense of pressing modernity. The chaotic street scenes, the visual experimentation, the anarchic questioning of all the old orders — these are unquestionably the products of the same zeitgeist that informed the move towards Modernism. So perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that a few of their ranks were present at the most important show of modern art in American history.