My Grandfathers at the 1913 Armory Show

by Alexander Sanger

One hundred years ago, a February day in 1913, two strangers, both fortyish, one in a formal black suit, wearing a black homburg, with carefully manicured nails, the other in a rumpled tweed suit, carrying in his oil-paint-stained hands a wide-brimmed brown fedora, stand alone in Gallery G of the International Exhibition of Modern Art at the 69th Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue (“The Armory Show”). Gallery G was the English, Irish and German room. A large painting, “The Garden of Love,” that has briefly brought the two men together, is by a Russian living in Munich, Vassily Kandinsky. It is mostly abstract, though some figures are vaguely discernible; it is the only abstract painting in the room — a colorful oil, with a blending of hues like a watercolor — vibrant and seething with energy. Gallery I, two galleries over, which contained, among other revolutionary abstract works, Duchamp’s “Nude Descending the Staircase,” was so crowded with gawkers that a visitor could barely see, much less absorb the revolutionary experience of the artworks. The two men had Gallery G and its one abstract painting, and ten realist ones, to themselves. The two men are my grandfathers. The better-dressed one, Edwin Campbell, a doctor turned businessman, lingers enthralled before the Kandinsky, while the other, William Sanger, an architect and sometime painter, though appreciative of Kandinsky’s painterly technique, moves on to the adjoining work, a non-abstract watercolor, “The Political Meeting,” by the Irish Jack Butler Yeats.

Both men are immigrants. William Sanger, born to German-Jewish parents in Berlin, was educated at Cooper Union, turned Socialist and struggled thereafter to make a living as an architect, often working as an artisan in stained glass works to make ends meet. Breaking further with his parents, he married an Irish nurse, Maggie Higgins, who, after the three children were born, took up her nursing again to help with the family finances. She joined the Visiting Nurse Service on the Lower East Side, often tending to women dying from self-induced or back-alley abortions. Introduced into Socialist circles by her husband, she also joined the Industrial Workers of the World (“IWW”) and helped lead the Lawrence Textile Strike of 1912. As the Armory Show approached, William Sanger was becoming more determined to flee architecture and his railroad flat in Harlem to paint full time, while his wife was off again with the IWW helping organize the Paterson Silk Workers Strike.

Edwin Campbell, my mother’s father, born in Canada to a family of immigrant farmers and tavern keepers from Scotland, received a medical diploma in Toronto and emigrated to upper Michigan in 1887, where he met his future patient and father-in-law, WC Durant, in a poker game at the Grand Hotel on Mackinaw Island. Durant was co-owner of the Flint Road Cart Company, soon to be the largest producer of horse-drawn vehicles in the country. In 1904, Durant acquired his first horse-less vehicle company, the Buick Motor Company, and, shortly thereafter, Oldsmobile and Cadillac, putting them all together into his new General Motors Company in 1908. By then Edwin Campbell was Durant’s son-in-law, and he gave up his lucrative practice of medicine to join the fledgling and risky General Motors as an executive. In 1911, Edwin Campbell incorporated the Chevrolet Motor Car Company for his father-in-law and subsequently became a director of General Motors. At about the time of the Armory Show, Durant and Campbell moved their operations to New York City, where Campbell bought a seventh-floor apartment at 635 Park Avenue for his wife and two children, staffing it with a cook, two maids and a butler. The apartment had an entrance foyer with three doors leading off to various rooms, leaving four large expanses of wall that begged for decoration.

Campbell — personally taciturn and withdrawn, Presbyterian, scientific, methodical, with not a perceptible artistic bone in his body — went to the Armory Show with the husband of one of Durant’s cousins, Arthur Jerome Eddy, a noted Chicago lawyer and collector of modern art, including Kandinsky. Campbell decided in Gallery G of the Armory Show that he had to have four Kandinsky panels in his foyer at 635 Park Avenue. Eddy, as Campbell’s agent, ordered the paintings by letter to Kandinsky, carefully giving the exact measurements of each panel. This was Kandinsky’s first commission, and his only commission for the rest of his life. The price for all four panels was DM 2,000, or $177.30 each. Eddy asked that the panels be “strong brilliant pictures.” Eddy added, in another letter to the artist, that Campbell “has a great deal of courage” to hang such paintings in a Park Avenue apartment. My mother said that her father’s friends thought that, “he had taken leave of his senses.” Art has been used for millennia to make a statement, and Edwin Campbell’s four Kandinskys said, “New York, I’ve arrived.”

William Sanger was slipping down the economic ladder as fast as Edwin Campbell was scaling it. Politically and personally passionate, defender of the poor and downtrodden, and with the soul of an artist, William Sanger returned multiple times to the Armory Show, studying the paintings of Matisse, Picasso and other Modernists working in Paris. He, too, made a momentous decision in Gallery G of the Armory Show — to abandon architecture and take his family to Paris to paint. His wife had other ideas, and, while organizing picketers at the silk workers strike in Hazelton, Penn, Margaret Sanger was arrested for the first time, for hitting a policeman patrolling her picket line, who had ordered her to “move along.” After being bailed out of jail by the IWW, she returned to the picket line and took a swing at another policeman. The Sangers worked together on the Paterson Silk Workers pageant held at Madison Square Garden (adjacent to the 69th Regiment Armory) in June 1913 — an artistic success but a financial failure for the IWW — with Bill painting scenery and Margaret organizing, with Jack Reed and Mable Dodge, the procession of strikers and their children brought in for the occasion from Paterson.

Their union crumbling — the marriage not having room for two people each seeking their own quite different visions of fulfillment in life — the Sangers set out for to Paris in the fall of 1913, where Margaret interviewed nurses and midwives about methods of birth control and Bill took a studio near Modigliani’s and painted. Bill Sanger was once described by Mable Dodge in her memoir: “She (Margaret Sanger) had a husband, Bill Sanger, who tried to paint….” He did not meet with success. Margaret returned home in early 1914 to launch the birth control movement in America, while Bill stayed in Paris. His canvases remained social-realist, often with defiant political messages, like that of Jack Butler Yeats’s painting in Gallery G — abstractions like Kandinsky’s, in his view, would not help the downtrodden workingman.

While the marriage was over, Bill Sanger’s involvement in his estranged wife’s cause was not. In 1915, Anthony Comstock, America’s purity crusader and our answer to Inspector Javert, unable to bring Margaret Sanger to trial for obscenity for publishing her incendiary newspaper, The Woman Rebel – she had fled the country to avoid prosecution – entrapped Bill Sanger into handing over one of his wife’s birth control pamphlets to an undercover police officer. At his trial at the Tombs, Bill Sanger made front-page news with his impassioned defense of women’s rights and free speech:

I deny the right of the State to exercise dominion over the souls and bodies of our women by compelling them to go into unwilling motherhood. I deny the right of the State to arm an ignorant, irresponsible, and prudish censorship with the right of search and confiscation, to pass judgment on our art and literature, and I deny as well the right to hold over the entire medical profession the legal ban of this obscenity statute.

After refusing to disclose his wife’s whereabouts, William Sanger was sentenced to 30 days in the Tombs — thus having the distinction of going to jail for birth control before his wife did. Anthony Comstock caught a chill from testifying at the Tombs and was dead within two weeks. This poetic justice, combined with the extensive newspaper coverage of the trial, in which the words ‘birth control’ appeared for the first time in the nation’s newspapers, led Margaret Sanger to return to America from exile to re-launch her crusade. The next year she opened America’s first birth control clinic in Brownsville, Brooklyn.

As Bill Sanger was serving his sentence, Kandinsky finished his four panels and shipped them to Stockholm for an exhibition and finally across the Atlantic to New York (just before the launch of unrestricted submarine warfare by the Germans). My seven-year old mother remembered the day the four panels were uncrated in the fall of 1916 and hung in the foyer of 635 Park Avenue, calling the works “horrid.” Other observers called them “messes of color” and “horrible big paintings.” When the Campbells divorced in 1920, Edwin gave the apartment, together with the panels, which the family called ‘The Four Seasons’, to my grandmother, who treated them in an extraordinarily cavalier fashion, abandoning two in the basement of a rented house in Palm Beach in the late 1930’s and selling off the remaining two in a lawn sale at her house in New Canaan in the 1950’s for $15 and $25. They are now recognized as Kandinsky’s masterpieces, and, reunited, now hang, as the Campbell Panels, in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

The paintings of William Sanger, who is largely known today as his wife’s husband, are not so prominently displayed, now residing in storage vaults at the Brooklyn Museum, the Newark Museum and the Hispanic Society of America in upper Manhattan, among others. His one large commission, a mural for the Brooklyn Industrial School for Girls, done when he was a WPA artist during the Depression, was painted over with another mural. His lone architectural commission surviving in Manhattan is a striking townhouse at 114 Waverly Place.

My grandfathers never met, their lives intersecting just this once at the Armory Show. Edwin Campbell died of a heart attack on board the SS Majestic while taking my mother on a vacation to Europe in 1929, ten years before my mother met my father, while they were both medical residents at Presbyterian Hospital in New York.

Still, I imagine my two grandfathers standing silently side by side before the Kandinsky painting at the Armory Show, the exhibition that said to America that anything was possible — a lesson that both men had already well absorbed and would continue to act on. I see Edwin Campbell—the straight-laced, but courageous, risk-taking entrepreneur, who had abandoned medicine to help bring the automobile to the American people — entranced by the painting that had all the kinetic energy of a Buick engine; and William Sanger — the courageous, idealistic, bohemian, though practical, artist, who had a pivotal if unsung role in bringing birth control to the same American people, and going to jail for it — seeing his future in using realistic art to create a fairer and more just world. There they stand, absorbed in their own thoughts, staring at the painting — each emboldened by the destiny that was staring back at them.


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