San­ford Schwartz

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Florine Stet­theimer:

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

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