Painting Poetry an exhibition at the Jewish Museum, New York City, May 5–September 24, 2017; and the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, October 21, 2017–
January 28, 2018.
Catalog of the exhibition by Stephen Brown and Georgiana Uhlyarik. Jewish Museum/Art Gallery of Ontario/Yale University Press,
168 pp., $45.00
Florine Stettheimer was known in her time and has continued to be thought of as one of the more exotic and least classifiable figures in American art. When Paul Rosenfeld wrote about her in
1945, a year after she died at seventy-two, he likened one of her paintings, which generally show festive gatherings— and are usually populated with small and boneless figures who scamper or contort themselves, or simply lounge, with an antic energy—to “theatre, the opera and even the circus.” Rosenfeld’s reaching for art forms other than painting to describe Stettheimer’s work may be what viewers first coming to her pictures still do. Although she was a trained artist who, already as a teenager, had an exacting ability to render, Stettheimer chose to work in a manner that suggests she was a Sunday painter and, more than that, a wildly self-confident, even inebriated one. With their bright reds, yellows, and purples, their figures and forms that can be any size and drawn in any curvy, spindly, approximate way—and with the artist’s uninhibited idea of what constitutes a subject for a picture—paintings by Stettheimer can make us stare in equal amounts of wonder, amusement, and disbelief. Almost a century after she made the 1921 Spring Sale at Bendel’s, which shows the shoppers in action—and is not a small drawing but a good-sized oil painting—we can still smile at her temerity. A painting set at Bendel’s?
Rosenfeld’s words are quoted in an essay by Georgiana Uhlyarik that appears in the catalog accompanying a retrospective of Stettheimer’s work currently at the Jewish Museum. Entitled “Florine Stettheimer: Painting Poetry” (poems by the artist appear here and there in the catalog), the exhibition is a welcome and quietly revelatory event. It presents—especially for those of us who have never seen many Stettheimer pictures at the same time, or missed the last retrospective of her work, which was at the Whitney in 1995—a more considerable and a more formal artist than one might have imagined. The Florine Stettheimer this observer came away with was an artist who, in the idiosyncratic way she painted and structured her scenes, would make twentieth-century American painting tell a different story if she played a larger part in it. Not that the exhibition itself, in its conception and in the design of the displays, leads one to this conclusion. On the contrary, the show seems to have been organized to mirror Stettheimer’s biography, and this shortchanges her art. Stettheimer came from a family of some wealth. She didn’t want, or need, to exhibit her work regularly in galleries but preferred to unveil new pictures in a salonlike setting in her studio (which, on 40th Street, faced Bryant Park). In the current show, perhaps to convey the sense of a salon, or of artworks being outgrowths of a domestic atmosphere, most of Stettheimer’s paintings have been herded into two rather confining rooms. Hanging her paintings this way makes them look like big postage stamps, and if the rooms are crowded you can hardly see them.
Of course, what Stettheimer chose to paint is hardly negligible or beside the point. Her subject was very literally her life as a member of a family, and we follow her as over time she broadened her sense of family. Her images frequently include glimpses of her mother, Rosetta, a Victorian-era lady in black with white hair, as well as Florine herself and her sisters Carrie and Ettie. None of these three daughters of Rosetta’s married, and all four women lived together. (A fourth daughter, Stella, and a brother, Walter, rarely appear in Florine’s pictures.) Mixed in with her immediate family in her scenes (and in her life) were members—seemingly all male—of the overlapping art and literary worlds of her time.
Marcel Duchamp, a good friend, makes a number of appearances, and we can find, in portraits or as small figures in large group scenes, Alfred Stieglitz, Elie Nadelman, Carl Van Vechten, and Henry McBride—an admirer of Stettheimer’s and perhaps the most perspicacious critical voice of the period (see illustration on page 12). Nadelman and Duchamp attend to different Stettheimer sisters in Picnic at Bedford Hills, while in other works from the late 1910s Nadelman pulls himself up onto a raft in Lake Placid, and Edward Steichen is busy photographing Duchamp in Sunday Afternoon in the Country (a work illustrated in the catalog but sadly not in the show). In La Fête à Duchamp (also in the catalog but not in the show), Leo Stein appears twice, crouching close on both sides of Ettie—he was famously hard of hearing—as she sits reading at the base of a blue tree that casts a blue shadow.
Stettheimer apparently thought of the larger public milieu in which she lived in the same embraceable, familial way. She was equally welcoming and ironic about it. As we learn from her titles, or see in the words that are sometimes part of her images, having local references was for her part of the excitement of making art. We are used to seeing in new art references to practically every aspect of contemporary life, yet Stettheimer somehow remains hip in setting pictures at the Jersey Shore or in Westchester, let alone Bendel’s.
She seemingly wanted to include all of the national scene in her paintings. A now-lost work is a distant (and intriguingly un-Stettheimer-like) view of West Point; and New York/Liberty, a fantasy about the city’s harbor, is, with its many eagles and its red, white, and blue tassel frame, practically an exercise in patriotism (undoubtedly explained by the picture’s date of 1918–1919). Her embrace of the public life of her time grew over the years as she took as subjects fireworks on the Fourth of July, a beauty contest scene subtitled “To the Memory of P. T. Barnum,” and eventually, in separate canvases, the spirit of New York City’s theater, art, society, and financial worlds.
Yet Stettheimer’s mixture of innocence and facetiousness only means something because her paintings are alive as objects. One wants and needs to get close to them—to enjoy her perhaps unique way of bringing together repeating slabs of thick paint (for which she must have used a palette knife); zones where she rubbed out lines or forms and didn’t cover these raw, smudged tracks; and passages where she worked with the tiniest brushes, as a miniaturist. Close up, her paintings can resemble old carpets or expanses of cork.
And in her sense of how to compose a scene, Stettheimer’s pictures add something adventurous, unexpected, and enlivening— or simply needed—to the American art of her era. This is not to say that she is a deeper artist than such painters of her time as Marsden Hartley, John Marin, or Stuart Davis—or Edward Hopper, George Ault, Georgia O’Keeffe, or Arthur Dove. The throbbing emotion that Hartley is capable of, the fierce drive that is second nature to Marin, the poetic feeling for times of day, place, and light that one encounters in Ault and Hopper— these areas of experience are not what Stettheimer’s work is about, and they are not missed.
She made, in formal terms, a very different kind of picture than most of her American contemporaries. Unlike Ault, Hopper, or George Bellows, she was not interested in realism, nor was she touched by Cubism, the foremost style of her era. It deeply excited and provided a backbone for Davis, Marin, and, in some of his most powerful work, Hartley. O’Keeffe was only glancingly a Cubist, but she thought a good deal about how an image can appear to be tautly held in place, and the result is that her pictures often have the same immobilizing and essentializing spirit that Cubism could produce.
Stettheimer’s liveliest works, though, might be overcrowded with details, or there might be passages that are strikingly bereft of them. The structures of some paintings appear intuitively arrived at, and one feels this irregularity, in the company of the various shipshape Marins and perfectly tailored O’Keeffes, as a kind of relief. New York/Liberty, for instance, with its many nationalistic references, ought to be dated, if not embarrassing, yet it is a picture whose composition, much to its benefit, looks strange. Stettheimer’s placement of the Statue of Liberty, a nearby warship, and other elements in the scene seems casual, and she has rendered the buildings at the tip of Manhattan in an airy, linear way that
forms a preview, decades in advance, of the drawings of Saul Steinberg.
It is a key element in Stettheimer’s achievement that, for an American artist of the time, she worked with relatively large canvas sizes. Her paintings are very often at least four feet on a side, and this spaciousness lets her casualness and irregularities shine forth. If her portraits, which have marvelous details—she shows most of the men who were her subjects as mincing fops—are less commanding than her panoramic scenes with many figures in them, it is because the portraits are generally smaller, and Stettheimer tended, a little conventionally if understandably, to put her subject in the center of the composition.
How did she arrive at her style? The process is not described in the catalog, but one gets a sense of how she did it by following the pictures at the show. Stettheimer seems to have come to an overnight realization of who she was when she saw, in Paris in 1912, a production of L’Après Midi d’un Faune, with Claude Debussy’s music, choreography by Nijinsky, and decor and costumes by Léon Bakst. She left wanting to do her own ballet, to be called Orphée of the Quat-z-Arts (the name of an annual ball in Paris).
For this ballet, which never came off, she made, around the same time, many sketches, full small studies, and maquettes of the figures. She was specific about the outfits. She was permanently entranced by the texture of materials, the less orthodox the better. These figurines and pictures are in the show, and while they don’t have a lot of life in themselves, fashioning the drawn and sculpted dancers, with their sometimes disproportionately long, rubbery limbs, seems to have opened for her a new, less rule-bound, more linear and caricatural way of thinking about art. One doesn’t want to say that she took her own art directly from Bakst and the Ballets Russes, but surely Art Nouveau, an underlying component of the decor and spirit of the modern ballet of the pre-war years, was in her blood. Art Nouveau was in part about the single, sinuous, or the muscular, whiplash line. It became in the work of some artists and graphic designers practically a character in itself. This is certainly the case for Stettheimer, who seems to have searched for ways to have the single, thin line—whether she uses it to show vines, lace veils, tennis court boundaries, a zigzagging picket fence, canes, an ultrathin trombone, and other items—hold its own no matter what other elements in a picture were nearby. She makes the thin line seem at once vulnerable, surprisingly strong, and irritating.
What happened to Stettheimer after her desire to create her own ballet abated is unclear. But when, at the show, we encounter the next work, the 1919 painting Heat, Stettheimer’s art is fully in place. It is one of the few pictures that can be seen entirely on its own. You come upon it at the end of a corridor. It can certainly stand the spotlight. Stettheimer has divided this vertical work into three big, broad, horizontal bands of color: red, orange, and green. From any distance the image resembles a flag or an abstraction.
Heat, in which (in this rare instance) all four Stettheimer sisters are present, and are prostrate from the hot weather—and a nearby tree is practically melting, while Rosetta remains cool and imperturbable in her black formal dress—is a real achievement. It has in place perhaps Stettheimer’s deepest awareness: her sense that a painting is firstly a flat background, with a presence, even if minimal, of its own, on top of which figures or anything else are placed, rather like magnets on a refrigerator.
Stettheimer often made her backgrounds plain white or some pale tone, as if her canvas were a bedsheet or an enlarged piece of paper. The all-white background of New York/Liberty is as arresting as the picture’s odd composition. She took her feeling for white and for backgrounds even further in Music, also from around 1919. One of the largest works in the show (and, alas, unillustrated and unmentioned in the catalog), it might be described as an aerial view of a vast sheet of ice on which are placed, without rhyme or reason, a few very small figures and, improbably, vines hanging from somewhere. One wonders if the radical nature of Music startled even the artist.
Stettheimer’s concern for backgrounds resulted in paintings that have a kind of gravity-free, anything-can-goanywhere inner space. It is roughly the same idea about how to make a picture that one sees in the work of Marc Chagall. He was younger than Stettheimer, but he arrived at his mature style, and was making his finest paintings, when she, too, was in Paris, absorbing the possibilities offered by the new ballet. Stettheimer and Chagall, however, shared more than a feeling for how to organize a scene. They were knowing artists who called on a seemingly childlike way of drawing to tell their stories—and whose paintings, as objects, can have the look of textiles that have been added to here and there with bits of fanciful needlework. They were both in some way reinventing folk art. Chagall wasn’t the only artist keeping Stettheimer company in this affectionate use of the naive. Her 1918 Picnic at Bedford Hills has a particular stature in her work because the two men in it, each attending another Stettheimer, represent signal aspects of her thinking. (The picture is appealing in addition because the big, yellowy mound of grass where the picnic takes place, and the blankets laid on it, are like paintings within the painting.) Marcel Duchamp, the betterknown of the two men, was an intimate of Stettheimer’s if only because, in his iconoclasm and irony, he might have provided the right audience for the flippancy she exhibited in her art.
Elie Nadelman, our second man, seems not to have been as close a friend. But he was, in his own work, on a wavelength that was quite similar to Stettheimer’s. The sculptor’s cherrywood pieces, touched with white and blue paint, don’t automatically suggest her pictures. Yet, made in the late 1910s and early 1920s, when she was creating her most distinctive works, Nadelman’s almost mannequin-like sculptures are, like Stettheimer’s pictures, artworks with a double life. His couple performing the tango, say, is at once indebted to the rounded, simplified, and tapering forms of folk-art toys and figurines and a work that embodies the cosmopolitan world of New York at the time. It is a piece that seamlessly conjoins the seemingly untutored and the sophisticated, which is exactly what Stettheimer was doing. Stettheimer’s work in the second half of her career is not very evident in the Jewish Museum’s show. She finally did get the opportunity to work in the theater when she designed the scenery and costumes, which she made in part out of cellophane, for the celebrated opera Four Saints in Three Acts, with music by Virgil Thomson and a libretto by Gertrude Stein. Frederick Ashton was the choreographer. It opened in 1934 at the Wadsworth Atheneum, in Hartford, and later moved to Broadway. Aspects of the event, in the form of maquettes, stills, and some sequences recorded on film, are part of the exhibition, but the effect, unless you bring with you a strong prior interest in the topic, is wan and distant.
In her last fifteen years, Stettheimer’s larger effort went into four paintings that she called Cathedrals, and these works are not in the current show. They are, however, in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and are on view there. Each composed with an arch of sorts at the center, with people, banners, words, objects, and façades of other structures flowing in and around the center, the paintings are titled The Cathedrals of Broadway, The Cathedrals of Fifth Avenue (a society wedding is the main event), The Cathedrals of Wall Street (liberal use of gold paint), and The Cathedrals of Art. Stettheimer made them on slightly larger canvases than she normally used, and she may have thought of these linked works as her collective masterpiece.
Each presents a kind of gala opening, and the pictures, which blend together as you absorb them, are packed with people and events of the time. We see a marching band with a majorette, FDR, representatives of the Salvation Army at a reviewing stand, flags flying, red carpets, store signs, a seen-it-all bellhop, a movie cameraman filming, a waiting limousine, Mayor Jimmy Walker at a ball game, little recreations of artworks to be found at the Met and the Modern, the Stettheimers watching from the side, ringing bells, balloons and flowers, theater marquees, and so forth. One can imagine a study being written on how fully the canvases encompass the texture of the era. Looking at these paintings (which are reproduced in the current catalog), a viewer can’t help but be impressed by Stettheimer’s skill and ambition. If one ever thought of her as an amateur on a lark, these grand endeavors will show how wrong that estimate is. There are, too, beautifully rendered details everywhere. One of the finest is a doorman at a theater who wears a dazzlingly light-filled, yellow and white outfit. But one also finds the pictures, in their encyclopedic fullness—and their centered compositions—dutiful and impersonal; and it does not help that at the Met the four canvases, each placed in a painted gold frame of the artist’s devising, are hung numbingly close to one another. One Cathedral would seem sufficient. Taking them in makes you wonder whether in some sense Stettheimer’s art was all along a balancing act between her private life and the public sphere. She may have believed that there was no distinction between them. Or she may have felt she needed all those eagles and stars and stripes to offset her truly nervy desire to emphasize in her art her family, their friends, and their outings. In her last years, though, it was the public realm—and, really, her view of city life as so many separate seats of power—that took over. But she was a more lovable, and maybe a more original, artist when her subject was a spring sale, or an afternoon with family and friends in Bedford Hills.
Florine Stettheimer: Picnic at Bedford Hills, 40 5/16 x 50 1/4 inches, 1918
Florine Stettheimer: Portrait of Henry McBride, 30 x 26 inches, 1922