An Artist, Res­ur­rected

Forward Magazine - - News - By Talya Zax

Florine Stet­theimer wanted her art de­stroyed. Luck­ily, that didn’t hap­pen.

‘Oc­cas ion ally/ A hu­man be­ing / Saw my light / Rushed in / Got singed / Got scared / Rushed out,” Florine Stet­theimer once wrote in a poem ti­tled “Oc­ca­sion­ally.” The full text of that poem, a lush yet min­i­mal ex­pli­ca­tion of what it feels like to be un­know­able, oc­cu­pies a fi­nal wall in The Jewish Mu­seum’s new ex­hibit “Florine Stet­theimer: Paint­ing Poetry.”

For Stet­theimer, the se­cret or­der of things was a con­stant sub­ject, and a lib­er­at­ing one: She painted Mar­cel Duchamp sit­ting soberly in the com­pany of his ephemeral pink-clad al­ter ego, Rrose Sélavy; a cau­tiously whim­si­cal scene of her­self seated against a tree, a blank-eyed faun on its other side, and a se­ries of New York “cathe­drals” —pre­sented as flat­tened, hec­tic pas­tiches.

But “Oc­ca­sion­ally” makes it clear that Stet­theimer knew how her sub­jects, hu­man and in­hu­man alike, pos­sessed lay­ers so deeply per­sonal that they sim­ply couldn’t be il­lus­trated. Her paint­ings are tech­ni­cally skilled and ex­u­ber­antly imag­i­na­tive, but they’re also de­cep­tive: De­spite their fre­quent clamor, what they are de­pict­ing is not ev­ery­thing, but ev­ery­thing but.

Take, for in­stance, the por­trait of Duchamp, who was friends with Stet­theimer and her sis­ters, Et­tie and Car­rie. Painted on a sea foam-col­ored back­ground, the work al­most os­ten­ta­tiously show­cases facets of Duchamp’s iden­tity. The artist sits in a chair pat­terned with his ini­tials, which also march around the paint­ing’s frame; a chess rook and a clock, main­stays of Duchamp’s im­agery, seem to float in the back­ground; Sélavy, pe­tite and lithe, sits on a mo­bile pedestal that

Duchamp oper­ates from afar.

Yet aside from the slen­der mech­a­nism con­nect­ing Duchamp and Sélavy, the links be­tween the paint­ing’s sub­jects re­main ob­scure. Some­thing in Duchamp is Sélavy, as some­thing in him is the clock and the rook, but he is the only per­son who might ever un­der­stand what that means.

Stet­theimer spent the first decades of her life moving be­tween the United States and Europe; thanks to her mother’s in­de­pen­dent in­her­i­tance, her fam­ily re­mained wealthy even af­ter her fa­ther aban­doned them. Stet­theimer was ed­u­cated pri­mar­ily in Ber­lin, then trained as an artist in New York. Dur­ing ex­ten­sive trav­els in Europe be­fore World War I, she found in­spi­ra­tion in a host of artis­tic trends then sweep­ing the con­ti­nent.

Among those were the works of Gus­tav Klimt; an in­ter­est in Ja­panese art and de­sign; Ger­man ex­pres­sion­ism; sur­re­al­ism, Dadaism, and the in­no­va­tive aes­thetic of the Bal­lets Russes. Back in New York af­ter the out­break of war in 1914, Stet­theimer, then in her 40s, be­gan fo­cus­ing on por­trai­ture.

In its tra­di­tional form, the New York art world didn’t take to Stet­theimer. In her life­time she had only one solo ex­hibit, a 1916 show that yielded unim­pressed crit­ics and un­sold work. In­stead of leav­ing the scene, Stet­theimer glam­orously ex­panded it. She and her sis­ters be­gan to host “birth­day par­ties” for her art­work, sa­lons at which the up­per ech­e­lons of New York so­ci­ety, artis­tic and other­wise, would view her newly com­pleted works.

The Stet­theimers’ gath­er­ings at­tracted many artists, in­clud­ing Duchamp, Ge­or­gia O’Keefe, sculp­tor Elie Nadel­man and painter Mau­rice Stern. Mem­bers of that crowd later cropped up in Stet­theimer’s paint­ings, in­clud­ing “Stu­dio Party, or Soirée” (1917–19), which de­picts Stern and Leo Stein among artists and writ­ers loung­ing in front of Stet­theimer’s 1915 nude self-por­trait “A Model.”

As cu­ra­tor Stephen Brown notes in a cat­a­log es­say, the writer and pho­tog­ra­pher Carl Van Vechten, an ac­quain­tance and one-time sub­ject of Stet­theimer’s, wrote of a “very mod­ern qual­ity” unique to her work. “At the risk of be­ing mis­un­der­stood,” he wrote, “I must call this qual­ity jazz.”

That’s an as­tute ac­count­ing of Stet­theimer’s work. Jazz em­braces mu­ta­bil­ity: Lis­ten­ing to 20 sax­o­phon­ists take on the same song, you can come away with a nu­anced ap­pre­ci­a­tion for what that song is, but you will never hear a ver­sion of it that is de­fin­i­tive. You’re not sup­posed to.

The last ma­jor sec­tion of “Florine Stet­theimer: Paint­ing Poetry” fo­cuses on Stet­theimer’s cos­tume and set de­signs for the 1934 opera “Four Saints in Three Acts,” which had a li­bretto by Gertrude Stein. The project re­called an ear­lier, un­re­al­ized ven­ture into the­atri­cal de­sign, in which Stet­theimer cre­ated ex­ten­sive plans for a never pro­duced bal­let, “Or­phée of the Quat-z-Arts.”

Yet the two works, sep­a­rated by more than two decades, dis­play marked dif­fer­ences in style. Stet­theimer’s de­signs for “Or­phée” were styl­ized draw­ings and col­lages, cre­ated with a clear eye for beauty. For “Four Saints” she cre­ated a se­ries of rough, pe­tite fig­ures clad in care­fully as­sem­bled cos­tumes, their faces painted on as ex­ag­ger­ated child­like car­i­ca­tures.

Those fig­ures are the clear­est ex­pres­sion of the unique aes­thetic ide­ol­ogy that Stet­theimer de­vel­oped over her ca­reer. She could il­lus­trate her own im­pres­sions of her sub­jects, but be­lieved that try­ing to paint an es­sen­tial truth about their char­ac­ter would be a use­less fum­ble, of no more value than a face de­lin­eated with only the broad­est nec­es­sary strokes.

As it turns out, Stet­theimer was also strict about the ex­tent to which she al­lowed any­one to try to un­der­stand her own char­ac­ter. She fre­quently painted self-por­traits, evolv­ing from the nat­u­ral­is­tic to the sur­real, which, like jazz, spoke to dif­fer­ent facets of her­self, but never to the whole.

In a con­ver­sa­tion printed in the ex­hi­bi­tion cat­a­log, the Jewish Mu­seum’s Jens Hoff­mann com­mented that Stet­theimer “wanted the works that re­mained in her stu­dio to be de­stroyed af­ter her death,” a wish that Et­tie Stet­theimer thank­fully re­fused to grant. In mak­ing the re­quest, Hoff­mann won­dered if Stet­theimer was “en­gi­neer­ing her own ob­scu­rity and myth to a cer­tain ex­tent.”

That’s one ex­pla­na­tion. Another is ap­par­ent in some late lines of “Oc­ca­sion­ally.” Her pub­lic face, the speaker muses, “is found mod­est / Even charm­ing / It is a pro­tec­tion / Against wear / And tears.” The prospect of show­cas­ing any­thing less than a fin­ished work, any­thing in which wears and tears might be per­ceived, and over­in­ter­preted, must have daunted her. An artist of the in­ex­pli­ca­ble, she may have felt she needed space in which to be in­ex­pli­ca­ble her­self.


Lush Yet Min­i­mal: From Left: Florine Stet­theimer, pho­to­graph by Peter A. Ju­ley & Son, circa 1917-20; ‘Por­trait of Mar­cel Duchamp,’ 1923-1926; Stet­theimer’s ‘Heat,’ 1919.

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