The Nine Most Important Exhibitions in Art History

The Armory Show, 1913

The concept of the "group show", where the general public is invited to view new work by a collection of artists, is a relatively recent one in art history: it all began with the Paris Salon, first held in 1737. And so it continued, rather stiffly, for the next 130 years or so, until the art world rebelled. Since then, many of the works that changed not only art but Western culture itself were introduced in one of the following landmark shows.

  1. The Salon des Refusés, 1863. This is the one that started it all: a showcase of artwork rejected by the Paris Salon that the French government agreed to share with the masses after angry artists protested the record-breaking amount of art that had been refused that year. Among the many "rejects" on display were paintings by Manet, Cezanne, and Pissarro – who would soon be at the forefront of Impressionism.
  2. The first "Impressionists" show, 1874. Due to the unexpected popularity of the Salon des Refusés, the humiliated Paris Salon denied artists' demands to hold any more such shows. So the aforementioned painters, joined by other key figures such as Renoir, Monet, and Degas, formed their own independent exhibition group, which they called the "Cooperative and Anonymous Association of Painters, Sculptors, and Engravers", and held their first public show in 1874. Et voilà, Impressionism was born – though as any art history student would tell you, the term "Impressionism" was first used satirically by a snarky newspaper critic, based on the title of a Monet painting in the show.
  3. The first Salon d'Automne, 1903. Also battling the old-fashioned tastes of the Paris Salon, a newer group of avant-garde artists including Matisse, Rouault, and Derain held their own exhibition, the "Autumn Salon". It was here where modern art came to light, and modernist superstars including Picasso, Chagall, Braque, and Modigliani showed their early works here in subsequent shows.
  4. The first Blaue Reiter exhibition, 1911. We finally leave Paris for Munich, where German and Russian immigrant artists were staging their own protest against conservative salons and established a group meant initially to showcase the work of Wassily Kandinsky (the movement took its name from Kandinsky's "Blue Rider" painting). This show would lay the foundations not only for German Expressionism, but for abstract art in general.
  5. The Armory Show, 1913. Formally called the International Exhibition of Modern Art, this New York show was the singular event that introduced modern art to Americans, who were still accustomed to 19th century realism. With over 1,250 works of art from the likes of Picasso, Duchamp, van Gogh, Matisse, Degas, Munch and 300 others (including some Americans such as Mary Cassatt, Edward Hopper, and James McNeill Whistler), the show – both loved and loathed by members of the public – was nothing short of a blockbuster.
  6. Degenerate Art, 1937. The Nazi Party, famously nostalgic for German Romanticism, sought to demonize modern art as Marxist, depraved, and anti-German. So they held this touring show which featured 650 artworks – out of over 5,000 pieces forcibly removed from museums – by the likes of Marc Chagall, Piet Mondrian, Max Ernst, and Paul Klee. This wasn't so much an "influential" exhibit as it was a dark moment in history and a reminder of how powerful contemporary art once was in society.
  7. The Ninth Street Show, 1951. Until the 1930s, the center of the art world remained in Europe, primarily in Paris. But with postwar Europe in shambles and many of its artists dead or emigrated out, the time was right for American modern art to come to the fore. And so it did in 1951, when artists belonging to the so-called New York School were thrust into the limelight. Among the many exhibited were Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Helen Frankenthaler, Robert Rauschenberg, Franz Kline, and Robert Motherwell. The show was arguably the moment when the center of the art world shifted to Manhattan.
  8. Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s, 1992. New York ruled the art establishment with an iron fist for decades, which may explain the dearth of notable group shows since the '50s. But in the '70s and '80s, several important Los Angeles-based artists began to emerge. Today, their influence – inspired by pop art, cartoons, performance, satire, and surrealism – is widely felt. The Helter Skelter show at the L.A. Museum of Contemporary Art legitimized "outlaw" artists including Robert Williams, Jim Shaw, Paul McCarthy, Mike Kelley, Llyn Foulkes, and Raymond Pettibon.
  9. Art in the Streets, 2011. Too soon? Perhaps. But this exhibition, which is ongoing, even as I type this, at LA MOCA, is the first serious survey of graffiti art in an American museum. Since most young people with a passing interest in contemporary art are likely more familiar with names like Banksy and Shepard Fairey than they are with most living studio artists, this show at least captures our current cultural obsession with street art.