ponedjeljak, 9. studenoga 2015.

Florine Stettheimer - Occasionally A Human Being Saw My Light

Za života je imala samo jedu izložbu (1916.) na kojoj nije prodala nijednu sliku. Tražila je da nakon njezine smrti unište sve njezine radove. Srećom, nisu je poslušali. Buržujka Florine Stettheimer (1871-1944) spasila je modernizam, kao što je buržuj-luzer Raymond Roussel spasio modernističku književnost. 


1929. Metropolitan Museum Of Art. 60 x 50. Oil on Canvas

The career of Florine Stettheimer, painter, poet, and designer, disproves the myth of the artist as a lonely and misunderstood genius, struggling to produce works that transcend his (and less frequently, her) own historical time and place,” writes the Jewish Women’s Archive. “Stettheimer’s paintings are lively, diarylike accounts of her life, but also acute examinations of upper-class ways in New York between the wars. Her decorative, figurative style, often characterized as feminine, offers an alternative to prevailing modes of contemporary modernist painting.” Stettheimer also founded a New York City salon, where she hosted the who’s who of Dada — including Marcel Duchamp, whose portrait she frequently painted in an androgynous manner (radical for the time and from a woman). - flavorwire.com/485924/10-female-dadaists-you-should-know/view-all

Stettheimer: Flowers Against Wallpaper, 1915Stettheimer: Sunday Afternoon in the Country, 1917
Florine Stettheimer grew up in a family of three girls and two boys, with the father notably absent for most of their lives.   As a young girl, she studied art in relatively conventional programs.  A lengthy trip to Europe with her sisters and mother exposed her to the European classics but perhaps the keystone of the trip was a visit to the Ballets Russes.  The ballet had a lasting impact on her approach to art and life which she regarded as theater, and a stage-design mentality permeates much of her painting.  By 1917, her recognizable style and composition was beginning to take shape: paintings which centralize an arcade or entry way inviting the viewer to look in on something secret, and which include well-known peopls as the actors and audience to this spectacle.  Although the difference between the two paintings above is not dramatic, it is possible to see how the second painting has a more fluit and decorative style than the first, a style which makes the setting seem more fantastical and imagined than the still life seems.   The sense of space in this second painting rises upward toward the proscenium in the center, suggesting that the scene is the location of a parade or festival of some sort.  Yet there�s no action taking place beyond the arch and the distant space of the painting does not contain any compelling action.  Likewise, the people in the bottom half of the painting, although each is engaged in some activity, do not appear to be part of a larger story which might unify them.  The lack of unity might remind us of children�s art, and the whole painting might, in fact, be a painting about the cult of childhood.  At this point in time, the cult of childhood is not a social/psychological movement aimed at protecting children; instead, it is a belief that people must reclaim or return to their childhood innocence as a form of recalling their inner "primitive" state.

Stettheimer: Spring Sale at Bendel's (1921)Stettheimer: Portrait of My Mother (1925)
The philosophy of Henri Bergson played an important role in her thinking about art.  In Bergson�s philosophy, conscious awareness of things involves an intuitive process in which memory is idiosyncratic and in which our knowledge of something reflects movement and time.  Consciousness is characterized by duration and flow and constant change; this is a non-linear approach to narrative; visually it implies a layering of information rather than a sequential presentation.  These Bergsonian ideas fit well with the place of theater and music in Florine's later work.  Many of these paintings are dominated by the idea of performance--expressed through the compositions, often structured as though we are viewing a stage from above.  Stettheimer�s tendency to fuse events from different points in time, creating a painting which is neither a narrative nor a single moment in time, likewise reflects the influence of Bergson�s ideas.  In the portrait of her mother, a small scene at a  table cam vaguely be seen through the doorway at the top of the painting.  Since her mother is in that scene as well as being the central figure in the painting, Stettheimer cannot be giving us a painting based on the immediate observation of real events.  This tendency to combine things from different moments in time was present in the previous painting, Sunday Afternoon, and will continue to characterize most of her work.
Despite the unreality of theatrical curtains opening into a view of the interior of Bendel's, the painting may be a realistic portrayal of the new image of women in the 1920s.  These sinuous, wealthy women shopping are not the renaissance, matriarchal women of a painting by Miller, and they are not the new office worker of a painting by Bishop, either.  These are the women of the jazz age, engaged in a capitalistic ballet, which, in Stettheimer's hands, becomes a kaleidoscopic pattern of color and movement with little relationship to any existing style or artist.

Stettheimer: Portrait of My Sister, Ettie Stettheimer (1923)Stettheimer: Portrait of Myself (1923)
Two paintings which break from this scenographic and kaleidoscopic style of composition are a pair of portraits, one of her sister and one of herself, painted in 1923, and which seem to have been intended as pendants, one a nighttime painting and one daytime.  The two women float on what seems to be a red leaf in an almost vacant space, the space of night and the space of day.  Ettie lies on the red pod, with her right arm bent in a position that only makes sense if we imagine ourselves looking down on her.  Next to her is a flamboyant Christmas tree which appears to be bursting into flames at the top, making it a combination Christmas tree and burning bush of Moses, an appropriate symbol for a Jewish family which celebrated Christmas.  In her self-portrait, she lies in a semi-inclined pose with her body curved in an improbably sinuous curve which appears to be the reversal of the dragonfly hovering near the sun.  The insect plays on the idea of transformation, and the echoing forms of insect and Stettheimer suggest that they are reciprocals of each other.

Stettheimer: Cathedrals of Fifth Avenue (1931)Stettheimer: Cathedrals of Broadway (1929)
Cathedrals of Broadway and Cathedrals of Fifth Avenue are scenes of city life as spectacle, composed as though taking place on stage.  Each one unites some ironic contradiction: wedding and spectacle/play with a Giotto composition of the madonna; movies and arch/altarpiece with the fireworks of theaters and nightclubs behind the stage.  As with her other paintings, these are highly idiosyncratic and difficult to classify; what they reinforce is the greater sense of diversity to painting in America of the 20s and 30s than has generally been acknowledged.  They also suggest a subversive attack on the Victorian mother.  These are paintings which appear to be light-filled and joyous, but so light as to have almost no substantive reality or content.  They capture the spirit of dance and fashion which so permeated New York at this time, yet this was a time when few people had the money or luxury to enjoy the good life.  Few artists were making outright social commentary in their paintings; Stettheimer�s social commentary is implicit in her dancing fantasias precisely because the scenes they evoke were both real and unreal at the same time.
Cathedrals of Art 1942
Stettheimer: Cathedrals of Art, 1942-4
The setting of the Cathedrals of Art, the interior of the Metropolitan Museum, is subversive in a different way. In this painting, the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum are both contained within the Metropolitan Museum, waiting in the wings, as it were, since these were newer museums with more limited and specific missions than the Met, competing with each other to become the locus of new art in New York.   The Met, in contrast, has Egyptian statues and classical paintings waiting at the top of the grand staircase, secure in its knowledge that it will never be toppled by the newcomers.  In fact, the baby who signifies the new art, can be seen walking up the stairs and into the central court of the Met.
I never explained my title for this story: The Myth of Metamorphosis.  It refers to two things: to Stettheimer's personal vision of metamorphosis, symbolized by the association with the dragonfly (butterfly), in order to be able to pursue her own dream of what art should be like, and the belief that art can serve as the catalyst for the transformation of social reality.  Given that the period between the two world wars was characterized by a depression, by expansion of industry, by the burgeoning film industry, by the invention of Superman, by skyscrapers, and the popularity of Gone with the Wind, maybe we shouldn't be surprised that Stettheimer's vision of New York is so hard to pin down.  It is hard, I think, not to feel that Stettheimer, in her unanchored fairy tales, may have captured just that peculiar mixture of the destructive healing potential of the urban environment of the 1930s.


Florine Stettheimer: “Occasionally A Human Being Saw My Light”

Florine Stettheimer, c 1917-20
Columbia University, Rare Book and Manuscript Library
It is often said that Florine Stettheimer, an early-Modernist painter of extreme originality and wit, lived a charmed life. Born to a wealthy German-Jewish family in New York in 1871, she was one of five children. Early on, her father left the family; she and her siblings grew up mostly in Europe. Stettheimer returned to New York in the early 1890s to study at the Art Student’s League, after which she returned to Europe, where she traveled extensively and studied art in Paris and Munich. In 1914, on the eve of World War I, she returned to New York with her mother and two sisters—Carrie and Ettie—and the family settled into an apartment in Alwyn Court on West 58th Street, near Carnegie Hall. There, Stettheimer and her sisters established a legendary salon that was frequented by many of the most important creative people of the time—among them, Marcel Duchamp, Carl Van Vechten, Gaston Lachaise, Sherwood Anderson, Edie Nedelman, Virgil Thompson, Edgar Varese, Georgia O’Keeffe, Alfred Steiglitz and the art critic Henry McBride.
Florine Stettheimer, Soiree, 1917-1919
Beinecke Library, Yale University
In 1916 the Knoedler Gallery in New York mounted a show of Stettheimer’s work which was a critical and financial disaster. This disappointment, while keenly felt, fortunately pushed Stettheimer to leave behind her tentative, somewhat derivative post-Impressionist style and move on to what was to become her mature work. However, after this disappointment, she mostly showed her work in small group shows or privately at her studio, rarely showing her paintings publicly and refusing to put any of her work up for sale. Before her death in 1944 at the age of 73, Stettheimer asked that her family destroy all of her paintings—fortunately, they did not. In 1946, two years after her death, and at the suggestion of one of her closest friends, Marcel Duchamp, a retrospective of her work was mounted at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The show was curated by another friend, art critic Henry McBride. Although critics of the time acknowledged her as as a very important Modernist painter of the early 20th century, and she had the respect and admiration of many of her peers, her paintings then disappeared from view until 1995, when they were exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art. This show, Florine Stettheimer: Manhattan Fantastica, included early work, her most fully-realized post-1915 pieces as well as her theater and costume designs, dolls and collages.
Florine Stettheimer, Picnic at Bedford Hills, 1918
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia
Stettheimer’s paintings are deeply personal—her main subject matter was her family and friends and the rather dreamy world of pleasure they inhabited. In her dazzling and eccentric paintings, with their bold color and openly feminine sensibility, Stettheimer created a unique synthesis of things she studied and loved—one catches glimpses of medieval portraiture, Persian miniatures, Brueghel, early Renaissance painting, Velasquez, children’s art, theater design, Matisse, Surrealism, Symbolism, folk art, fashion illustration, decorative art and interior design. She combines high/low elements in vivid constructions that depict scenes in a non-sequential, dream-like way—she played with perspective and her people and objects often float languidly through a complex universe of multiple narratives that have an allegorical quality. Her use of color was extraordinary, very American, and a complete break with the naturalistic earth tones of European painting. She favored deep reds, blacks, vivid pinks, vibrant blues and deep yellows, often in contrast to strong whites or soft pastels. Her portraits of family and friends in sitting rooms, salons, and summer houses; at picnics, luncheons and soirees—emphasized and immortalized their individual talents and interests. A good example of this is her portrait, below, of the writer Carl Van Vechten, who sits in the center of the painting, surrounded by his cats, books, typewriter and myriad artifacts from his life and work.
Florine Stettheimer, Portrait of Carl Van Vechten, 1922
Beinecke Library, Yale University
And this portrait of her sister Effie, in which Henry McBride described her as looking “…wide-eyed, for the mystery of life…as happy a blend of her worldliness and spirituality as any psychiatrist could ask for.”
Florine Stettheimer, Portrait of My Sister, Ettie Stettheimer, 1923
Columbia University
While Stettheimer made the decision to only show her work privately during her lifetime, she also suffered from the neglect and was resentful of the lack of recognition. Like many women artists, Stettheimer’s personal life has long overshadowed her art. Her work has been vilified as being too feminine, although, as Barbara Bloemink points out, in the prologue to her excellent book, The Life and Art of Florine Stettheimer, “it is difficult to imagine anyone criticizing a work of art as being too masculine.” There was also another obstacle to recognition by the art establishment–she made them uncomfortable. The art world is very inhospitable to independent artists whose work is idiosyncratic and who are neither part of any school nor followers of any group. In his 1996 article on Stettheimer in Art in America, Trevor Winkfield writes: “You can paint anything in New York, runs a well-known truism, as long as three other people are doing the same thing.”
Florine Stettheimer, Heat, 1919
The Brooklyn Museum
Stettheimer also had an abiding interest in costume and set design. When she lived in Paris, she fell in love with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, which inspired her to write a story for a ballet, Orphee des Quat’z-Arts, in 1912. The ballet was never produced, but Stettheimer designed costumes and built some model sets—the Museum of Modern Art has 44 of the sketches (see below) in their collection, but not on view. In 1934, Stettheimer designed sets and costumes for the Gertrude Stein/Virgil Thomson opera,Four Saints in Three Acts. Very avant-garde for the day, she fashioned the sets from tinsel, cellophane and lace, apparently to great effect when lit to her specifications.
Orphee des Quat'z-Arts
Florine Stettheimer, Euridice and Her Snake, Two Tango Dancers and St. Francis
design for Orphee des Quat’z Arts, 1912
Gouache, watercolor, metallic paint and pencil on paper
In 1935, Stettheimer’s mother died, and Florine surprised everyone by moving into her studio in the Beaux Arts Building at 8 West 40th Street—living by herself, for the first time, at the age of sixty-four. The success and acclaim garnered from Four Saints, and her newly found independence, increased her self-confidence and spurred her on to a new phase of her work in which she re-worked old themes with a new sense of clarity and purpose.
Florine Stettheimer, Family Portrait Number 2, 1933
Museum of Modern Art, New York
Her last painting, unfinished at her death, The Cathedrals of Art, is a multi-narrative work, somewhat reminiscent of the structure of early Renaissance painting, that satirizes the power-brokering and competitiveness of the New York art world. The art critic Hilton Kramer later described it as “comic opera…the whole scene is one of shameless hustling and posturing. It is a prophetic as well as a delightful painting.”

Florine Stettheimer, Cathedrals of Art, 1943-44
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Stettheimer was a dedicated, accomplished artist who was full of contradictions–she wanted to both avoid the critical spotlight and achieve recognition for her work. In her paintings and poetry she created and re-created the narrative of her life. In her imagery, narratives collide and split, time is erased and reordered. Perhaps this poem, published privately and posthumously in Crystal Flowers, 1949, gives us a glimpse into her elusive persona:
A human being
Saw my light
Rushed in
Got singed
Got scared
Rushed out
Called fire
Or it happened
That he tried
To subdue it
Or it happened
That he tried to extinguish it
Never did a friend
Enjoy it
The way it was.
So I learned to
Turn it low
Turn it out
When I meet a
Out of courtesy
I turn on a soft
Pink light
Which is found
Even charming.
it is protection
Against wear
and tears…
And when
I am rid of
The Always-to-be-
I turn on my light
And become


Installation view of 'Florine Stettheimer' at Lenbachhaus, Munich, with Family Portrait II (1933) at right.COURTESY LENBACHHAUS
Installation view of “Florine Stettheimer” at Lenbachhaus, Munich, with Self-Portrait With Palette (Painter and Faun) (undated) at left and Family Portrait II (1933) at right.
A retrospective of Florine Stettheimer, the great early American modernist, is a once-in-a-generation pleasure. Her old friend Marcel Duchamp organized one at the Museum of Modern Art in 1946, two years after her death from cancer at the age of 72. The ICA Boston staged the next in 1980, and the Whitney followed in 1995. Now Munich’s Lenbachhaus, a temple of early German modernism, has stepped up. It is the first Stettheimer survey ever organized in Europe, and it is joyous and illuminating, filled with rarely seen pictures that elegantly make the case that she is one of the greatest artists of the 20th century and could serve as a useful model for those of the 21st.
You enter on a long ramp dressed with a carpet in a rich red—a color that Stettheimer cherished and used ingeniously—and then the thrills start coming, one after another, fast and furious, in a row of the action-packed, wide-angle scenes that she painted in her sui generis, flat, faux-naïve style around 1920. They show her social and artistic circle at the time, when she was at the height of her creative powers, when the Manhattan salon she hosted with her sisters Carrie and Ettie attracted the best and brightest of the day—Picabia, O’Keeffe, Lachaise, Duchamp.

There’s Duchamp at the segregated beach, in Asbury Park South (1920)! He’s in a pink suit, leading the actress Fania Marinoff down the boardwalk, which depicted in dazzling gold. People are diving, flirting, playing, and promenading in their finest. The writer Carl Van Vechten is in a stand above it all, quietly examining the Brueghel-worthy view. Stettheimer stands near the center of the action, absolutely still under a green parasol.
She’s often like that—in the thick of things, while at the same time maintaining a slight distance, or lingering on the edge of the activity, taking it all in. In Lake Placid (1919), which the MFA Boston owns, she’s wrapped in a rose-colored robe, tiptoeing into the spearmint-green water. In Natatorium Undine (1927), which is in Vassar’s collection, she wears gold and lounges on a pink chaise at a fantastical spa. Around her, ladies recline on huge seashells (and one odd, gigantic swan), make wild dives, get rubdowns from dark-amber-skinned men, dance to the band. These are rollicking paintings about the relentless pursuit of pleasure, the realization of wild fantasies, the ridiculousness of it all. They ooze a good-natured charm that is knowing but also indulgent. They’re ambivalent.
Stettheimer was certainly ambivalent in her involvement in the New York art world (which seems the only proper way to approach it). She regular accepted invitations to show her paintings at Whitney Annuals and Carnegie Internationals, but agreed to only a single solo show, at Knoedler, in 1916, for which she created a bit of installation art, avant la lettre, by bringing in furniture and curtains she had designed. She refused all other solos, even turning down the ever-powerful Alfred Stieglitz, who asked her to do an exhibition with him in December 1930—“during Xmas week you could add an Xmas tree if you wished,” he wrote, appealing to her prescient desire to control the environments in which her paintings hung. She preferred to unveil new paintings to select friends at “birthday parties” she held at her studio overlooking Bryant Park.

Preparatory materials for Four Saints in Three Acts.
Nothing sold in that lone show. She was 45. (Take note, young artists whining about a lack of exhibitions and sales.) Major public success came about 20 years later, when she designed rococo, cellophane-heavy costumes and sets for Virgil Tomson’s Four Saints in Three Acts, which had a libretto by Gertrude Stein, and played on Broadway. Her preparatory materials for that project are here—hilarious little wire models of the performers—along with sketches and collages for an unrealized opera that she dreamed up around 1912, while living in Europe with her mother and sisters. They actually spent time in Munich, and Florine studied art there, making this current show something of an unexpected homecoming. (The father, Joseph, abandoned the family around the mid-1890s, leading them to decamp from Rochester for Germany. They returned to the U.S. in 1914, fleeing the war.)
It’s easy to adore her inventiveness on canvas, but her sly personality, the zest she brings to performing herself, is what makes her a truly fascinating figure. In the showstopper Portrait of Marcel Duchamp (1923)—for which she designed a frame lined with silver Ms and Ds—Stettheimer paints the young master in an armchair, carefully manipulating his alter ego Rrose Sélavy. Stettheimer was also adept at manipulating her self-presentation. In Portrait of Myself (1923) she paints herself with large red-rimmed eyes in a red cape and black headscarf, pulling a bouquet as she floats through a pale blue sky. It is one of the most alluring, otherworldly self-portraits I have ever seen.
And about a decade earlier, just before she settled on her mature style, she painted a gargantuan self-portrait, about 48 by 68 inches, of herself nude atop a bed, reclining like Olympia, bouquet in hand. She has a head of fiery red hair, which she props up with her finger, meeting our gaze with almost-regal self-confidence.

Columbia University owns those previous two paintings, along with a trove of other works, like an undated late-night party scene on a dark lake, lit by a huge blaze, and portraits from 1923 of her sisters Carrie, who poses by the famous dollhouse she made of the family home (the Museum of the City of New York has it now), and Ettie, who basks in the glow of a burning Christmas tree, lying on a red couch. Ettie’s estate left that bounty to Columbia in 1967. They’re all here.

Model (Nude Self-Portrait), ca. 1915.© 2014 ESTATE OF FLORINE STETTHEIMER
Model (Nude Self-Portrait), ca. 1915.
Ettie, as it happens, spent the last years of her life making careful donations of Florine’s works to various American museums—one here, one there—which spread the gospel, but makes organizing surveys rather labor-intensive. Museums, happily, often keep the painting they have on view these days. But the works that she gave to Columbia are almost always in storage. They should not be, and if the university cannot find a place to show them regularly and publicly on campus, they should give them as long-term loans to institutions that are sans Stettheimers. No major museum should suffer that absence.
Not every major Stettheimer is in Munich (the Met’s four “Cathedral” works did not make the trip), but the show’s curators, Karin Althaus, Matthias Mühling, and Susanne Böller, have assembled enough of the great ones to present Stettheimer, quite clearly, as an extremely rare talent, and something even more unusual: an artist determined to do things exactly as she pleased. She made paintings that are effervescent and readily lovable, completely out of step with what one imagines when thinking of early modernism.

She was an alluring figure in her time—“they were so funny, and so far out of what American life was like then,” Duchamp wrote of the three unmarried sisters. This sentiment is even more appealing now that conformity rules so much of the art system.

Stettheimer wanted her art destroyed after her death. Ettie thankfully ignored that request, but she did edit her sister’s diaries, meaning there are details about her life that will never be disclosed. The artist did, however, offer an explanation of her compulsion to create her strange, intoxicating, beguiling works in a poem, published after her death. She wrote:

For a long time
I gave myself
To the arrested moment
To the unfulfilled moment
To the moment of quiet expectation
I painted the trance moment
The promise moment
The moment in the balance
In mellow golden tones . . .
Then I saw
Outside me
Around me
Knocking me
Jarring me
Hurting me
Rousing me
Forcing me in joy to paint them . . .

Florine Stettheimer's studio on West 40th Street, overlooking Bryant Park.
“Fame is a most uncertain garment,” art critic Henry McBride wrote in 1946, in a catalogue essay for an exhibition of work by an old artist friend. “Yet fame, apparently, is what the Museum of Modern Art now desires for the late Florine Stettheimer.”
McBride had high hopes for the MoMA show, which was organized by no less a luminary than Marcel Duchamp, who had once tutored Stettheimer in French, and who admired her work—party scenes from her family’s salon, and wispy, witty, faux naïf portraits of that group’s illustrious members. Stettheimer, who often appeared in her own paintings, sometimes hiding under a wide hat, had died two years earlier, at the age of 72. She had staged only a single one-person show during her lifetime; none of the pieces in it sold.
By the time of the retrospective, McBride wrote, she was cloaked in “semi-obscurity … not so much due to the public’s indifference as to her own.” When dealers, including the pioneering Alfred Stieglitz, approached her about solo shows, she refused. “I wish you would become ordinary like the rest of us and show your paintings this year!” painter Georgia O’Keeffe wrote her.
Although she showed regularly in group exhibitions, including the Carnegie International and the first Whitney Biennial, in 1932, she pretty much refused to part with her paintings, giving away only a few, and never selling them. “She claimed she didn’t want her work to end up in the bedroom of some man,” art historian Barbara Bloemink told The Observer. Money wasn’t a concern.
“The trial by the public of Miss Stettheimer’s work begins,” McBride declared in his MoMA essay. “I have no doubt whatever but that it will win permanent regard.” Stettheimer would have preferred such a trial never take place: in her will she had asked that the art in her studio be destroyed after her death. Her family had other ideas.
But her triumphant moment never arrived. After the MoMA show, her name sank into near-complete obscurity. “She’s so hard to typecast that she’s fallen between the cracks,” said Jennifer Lee, curator of Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library. “She hasn’t been taken seriously enough as an artist.”
Ms. Lee is readying an exhibition for the library called “Florine Stettheimer: Alternative Modernist,” which opens Feb. 28 and runs through June 1 and includes some works that have never before been exhibited. It’s timed to coincide with the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s display of the highly anticipated traveling exhibition “The Steins Collect.” Gertrude and Leo Stein were, for a short period, associates and collaborators of Stettheimer’s.
The fourth of five children, Florine Stettheimer was born in 1871 to wealthy German-American parents, in Rochester, N.Y. Her father abandoned the family early, and mother and children lived in Europe. The family, sans children Walter and Stella, who had started their own families, moved to Manhattan in 1914, as war loomed.
“The sisters were three … all of uncertain age,” the composer Virgil Thomson recalled in his memoirs, “and they lived with their invalid mother in the most ornate apartment house I have ever seen.” There was Ettie, who had a PhD in philosophy, Carrie, a reserved woman best known for the doll’s house replica she made of the family’s living quarters, an apartment in Alwyn Court on West 58th Street—it is now on view at the Museum of the City of New York—and Florine. They were in their mid-40s at the time, and unmarried.
In a recently restored self-portrait from around the time of her return to New York, Stettheimer, in a turban and smock and holding a palette and brush, stands in front of a Chinese screen. She looks confident, but also a little annoyed, as if, as Ms. Bloemink has written, “we, the viewers, are interrupting her work.” Around those years, she was working through various modern styles—Fauvism, Impressionism, Post-Impressionism—but she would soon veer into more eccentric territory, channeling Bruegel the Elder and Bosch in heady scenes that showed women frolicking in department stores or African-Americans relaxing on public beaches.
She worked in a studio overlooking Bryant Park decorated with furniture of her own design—large white pieces with rococo flourishes, trimmed in gold. (They were donated to Columbia also, used as stage furniture and discarded.) She hung billowing cellophane curtains and devoted a whole room to George Washington, whose bust sat in one corner. She had the studio meticulously documented with professional photographs, a hint as to the ways in which life and art were combining in her work.
It’s easy to cast Stettheimer as an eccentric outsider, but she was a central figure in an intellectual community that included photographer and critic Carl Van Vechten, Thomson, Duchamp and other artists of the day. With her sisters, she staged parties in New York and picnics around rented houses upstate from the 1910s through the ’30s.
There are also, in her work, remarkable innovations and biting humor—in a number of paintings, characters, always waifish and oddly ageless and androgynous, appear in multiple places, a technique Duchamp termed multiplication virtuelle. Duchamp may be riding by in a car with Picabia in one corner of a painting, laying on the ground in another.
However fanciful, Stettheimer could also be brutal. In a 1917-19 painting called Soirée, she portrayed Leo Stein holding his hearing aid far from his head, so that he wouldn’t have to listen to anyone else talk. Stein was known to be egocentric, Ms. Lee explained.
There is, in Stettheimer’s career, an early example of art making as an interdisciplinary exercise. She created costumes and sets for Thomson’s Four Saints in Three Acts, which featured cellophane backdrops and a libretto by Gertrude Stein.
She spent years developing the story and costumes for a ballet about Pocahontas, which was never realized, but extant materials remain—tiny Indians sporting pink outfits that would not look out of place in her more imaginative paintings.
She wrote poetry, too, in a brash, vernacular style. “You Stirred Me” reads: “You made me giddy / Then you poured oil on my stirred self / I’m mayonnaise.”
The 31-year-old artist Nick Mauss, who’s in this year’s Whitney Biennial and recruited artists and writers to record an album based on Stettheimer’s posthumous poetry collection, Crystal Flowers, wrote in a recent essay that “in a surprisingly homophobic and theoretically stale New York art school atmosphere, to come upon the scenes Stettheimer had painted between World Wars I and II offered secret elation and a sense of kinship.”
Warhol loved her work, visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art with contemporary art curator Henry Geldzahler in the 1960s to see paintings that the museum kept in storage. They’re now on view at the museum: her star has risen in recent years, helped along by a 1995 Whitney retrospective organized by Ms. Bloemink and Elisabeth Sussman, co-curator of this year’s Biennial.
There is a great deal that we will never know about Stettheimer. She lived with her mother into her 60s and became reclusive later in her life. All of her contemporaries have died. Ettie edited out “family matters” from her sister’s journals and papers before donating them to Columbia and Yale, so details about her personal life are scant.
“One of my dissertation readers dismissed her as a fag hag,” Ms. Bloemink said. In truth, no one has a definitive answer about her sexual orientation. Her poems provide a few cryptic hints: one, titled “To a Gentleman Friend,” begins, “You fooled me you little floating worm …” Her embrace of sexual difference looks prescient from today’s perspective. “Our eyes are open to unconventional relationships,” Ms. Sussman has written. “The salon of the Stettheimers was a very protective atmosphere for these kinds of relationships.”
The intimate circles of cultural patronage and elite, high-minded pleasure like the one the Stettheimers cultivated have been largely replaced today by vaster worldwide networks. Cultural elites meet periodically in Doha or Basel, at the Venice Biennale or the PinchukArtCentre in Kiev. So Stettheimer’s paintings, journals and watercolors are a relic of a bygone age. Ettie made a point of spreading her sister’s work to a variety of institutions, and some 40 museums have at least one piece in their collection. Every once in a while they come out of storage, providing glimpses of the birth of modernism as a far messier, more diverse experience than it is in most textbook accounts.
In 1918, McBride wrote of a Stettheimer painting that showed Duchamp’s 30th birthday, “The shadows are such colors as pleased the artist, and that is the reason, I think, they now please others. Under the trees the refreshments were served. Mrs. Stettheimer appears to be a good provider.” He had not yet met the artist, but nevertheless went on, “The more I think of it the more miffed I am that I wasn’t asked to that party.” He didn’t miss out on future Stettheimer affairs. -

FLORINE STETTHEIMER Hieroglyphs of Pleasure

1900 – 1950
“...a frivolity which, precisely because it is aware of what is serious, refuses to take seriously that which is not serious, can be profound.”
—W.H. Auden, “Postscript: The Frivolous and the Earnest” (1962)

cried Fifth Avenue, all I want to do is kiss you, kiss
your silver grey temples and your charming St. Bartholomew’s

—Frank O’Hara, “The Lay of the Romance of the Associations” (1959)

Florine Stettheimer, "The Cathedrals of Fifth Avenue," 1931. Oil on canvas. 60 × 50” inches. Courtesy of ARS.
Paintings are, more than anything, physical facts. And it is in this way, in the way that Florine Stettheimer’s paintings disclose themselves to me as surfaces, that I love them. At the Metropolitan Museum there are four from the Cathedral series—the Cathedrals of Wall Street, Broadway, Fifth Avenue, and Art—all painted between 1929 and 1942. Each painting is five feet tall and just over four feet wide, and these, as with all Stettheimers, want you to come close despite the distance large paintings usually need to be viewed properly. Keep walking right up to them so that you enter their visual field completely; begin to enjoy their play with texture and color and the strange rhythms they create. The overall matte surface is built up, almost as if out of stucco, in shades of pale pink, dark mint, or lavender gray. These expanses are structured by lines incised into the thick, at times paste-like surfaces, in which a rough texture or flurry of scrapes becomes shading or detail. Contours emerge, simultaneously clear and ambiguous. Suddenly this powdery surface meets a metallic paint and is charged with a particularly tactile kind of power. Something similar, but of a different order, happens when a pastel passage gives way to a shock of overly saturated color, like a red so electrified that it becomes orange. Experienced this closely, Stettheimer’s paintings are immensely pleasurable.
Perhaps this insistence on intimacy, on a kind of haptic feeling instead of distanced seeing, has encouraged a queer mode of addressing Stettheimer’s work, at least historically. Whether due to this formal dynamic, or to the campy colors and rococo performances of her sexually ambiguous characters, Stettheimer (1871 – 1944) is one of those painters who have held a special place in the hearts of gay men of the 20th century. During her lifetime, Marsden Hartley, Henry McBride, Carl Van Vechten, and Virgil Thomson all sang her praises in print, with posthumous additions made by Parker Tyler, John Bernard Myers, and most recently Trevor Winkfield, each in varying shades of purple prose (a phenomenon in which I now participate in the 21st century).
Each of Stettheimer’s four paintings is structured around a central arch form, not dissimilar to the basic compositional structure employed by her friend Hartley in works like “The Warriors” (1913) or “Painting No. 49” (1914). This iconic, enveloping shape was playfully underscored by Alfred Stieglitz when he photographed Marcel Duchamp’s urinal in front of one of Hartley’s paintings in 1917. (Duchamp was also, of course, a close friend of Stettheimer’s.) In her work this central niche does not create pictorial depth, serving rather as an armature for the organization of each two-dimensional surface. On the level of imagery, the objects and figures herein function as symbols, and it is remarkable that they are at the same time so schematic and specific. In every aspect they are polysemic, contributing to a total atmosphere in which words seamlessly function as images and figures merge with literal “signs” in the form of advertisements: a cosmology both hermetic and expansive.
In his memoir Popism (1980), Andy Warhol describes meeting Henry Geldzahler, who in looking around his studio declared, “We have paintings by Florine Stettheimer in storage at the Met. If you want to come over there tomorrow, I’ll show them to you.” Thankfully, we can now look at these same paintings out of storage in the Metropolitan’s galleries of American Modernism, where they occupy pride of place on a central wall. To consider the reality of Stettheimer’s paintings, themselves, is indeed wholly wonderful.

Full text of "Florine Stettheimer : Manhattan fantastica / Elisabeth Sussman with Barbara J. Bloemink and a contribution by Linda Nochlin."

Salon | Art History Today | Florine Stettheimer (video)


Florine Stettheimer, Crystal Flowers: Poems and a Libretto, Ed. by Irene Gammel and Suzanne Zelazo. BookThug; 5. edition, 2010.

Florine Stettheimer (1871-1944) was an American modernist of German-Jewish heritage living in New York. She was a painter, designer, and poet. Together with her sisters Ettie and Carrie, Stettheimer hosted a legendary salon on the Upper West Side, where they entertained the likes of Marcel Duchamp, Carl Van Vechten, Henri McBride, and Georgia O'Keeffe. In 1934 Stettheimer designed the set and costumes for Gertrude Stein's opera Four Saints in Three Acts to much acclaim. In 1949, Ettie collected Florine's poems in CRYSTAL FLOWERS, a privately printed, elegant edition of 250. In addition to these rare poems, this new volume offers formerly unpublished material culled from archives, including three new poems and Stettheimer's libretto for her ballet “Orphée of the Quat-z-arts.” Gammel and Zelazo have re-situated this overlooked poet among her modernist sisters, presenting her as an important practitioner of a modernism that integrates multiple art forms. Sixty years after it first appeared for a select few, her poetry shines for a new generation of readers ready to appreciate her irreverent camp aesthetic and her exuberant painterly style.