Florine Stettheimer, Heat (ca. 1919), oil on canvas, 50″ x 36-1/2″; courtesy The Brooklyn Museum
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As the end of the century approaches, it becomes increasingly obvious that the standard histories of twentieth-century American art are in need of revision. Reputations that once seemed incontrovertibly major now appear meager, while so-called minor talents are beginning to look substantial, or, at least, more interesting than was once supposed. (This is assuming, of course, that artists are to be judged by their art rather than by extra-aesthetic criteria.) And while the myth of the great lost artist is largely that, there are, undoubtedly, fine painters and sculptors who have not yet met with serious appraisal and are unknown to the general public, as well as to those who make art their vocation.
Such may be the case with Florine Stettheimer (1871–1944). I first encountered Stettheimer’s paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, about four years ago, while meandering through a survey of twentieth-century American painting cobbled together from the museum’s holdings. Her Cathedral paintings, four works that take as their subject the social and cultural life of New York City from the late Twenties to the early Forties, took me by surprise. While the artist’s name was vaguely familiar, the paintings were new to me and curious. Their idiosyncrasies recalled folk art, but the Cathedral paintings were decidedly not the work of an “outsider”: their humor betrayed an artistic temperament as sophisticated as it was acerbic. I found the Cathedral paintings funny and diverting—diverting enough to make me wonder what else Stettheimer had accomplished.
Since then I have learned, from friends and colleagues, that discovering Stettheimer by happenstance is something of a commonplace among her admirers. It was reassuring, then, to read that both Elisabeth Sussman and Barbara J. Bloemink, organizers of the Stettheimer show now up at the Whitney, learned about her as a result of pursuing other projects: Sussman, while writing about Irene Rice Pereira; Bloemink, while researching the correspondence of Georgia O’Keeffe. Their shared enthusiasm for Stettheimer’s work has resulted in a most welcome exhibition.
Manhattan Fantastica is the first full-scale retrospective of Stettheimer’s work since 1946, when her friend Marcel Duchamp organized a posthumous exhibition of her paintings at MOMA. Although she exhibited sporadically during her lifetime, Stettheimer’s only solo exhibition, at M. Knoedler & Company in 1916, was poorly received, an experience which left an indelible mark on her. Subsequently, Stettheimer refused commercial representation, even turning down Alfred Stieglitz’s invitation to exhibit at his gallery, forsaking probable notoriety.
Being of independent means and, one feels, a resolute demeanor, Stettheimer could afford such isolation. For her, painting became an entirely private pursuit, and though she freely showed her work to those in her circle, it was not for sale and she did little to promote herself as an artist. It is fortunate, in fact, that her work still exists at all. Stettheimer intended that her entire artistic output be destroyed upon her death. Her sister Ettie, acting as executor, refused to do so, instead making arrangements to have Stettheimer’s paintings placed in museums throughout the country. In a roundabout way, Manhattan Fantastica has the peculiar distinction of being the product of family disloyalty.
If Stettheimer’s obscurity was, in part, of her own making, her paintings did eventually acquire an enthusiastic, if small, audience. Sussman attributes the rehabilitation of Stettheimer’s reputation to feminism, gay liberation, and Pop Art, taking pains to inform us that Jasper Johns holds her paintings in high esteem, as did Andy Warhol. Those of us less inclined to consider Johns and Warhol as oracles of wisdom are lucky that “Manhattan Fantastica” is as good as it is. By the current standards of the Whitney, the surprisingly no-nonsense presentation of this exhibition must seem hopelessly passé; it treats Stettheimer’s paintings with respect, allowing them breathing room with a minimum of pushy wall labels. Given the “inspiration seen in the installation of Edward Hopper and the American Imagination, up the stairs from Manhattan Fantastica, one should be grateful for small (and uninspired) favors.
The first painting one sees upon entering Manhattan Fantastica is New York/Liberty (1918), a view of the southern tip of Manhattan, replete with the Staten Island Ferry, the Brooklyn Bridge, Woodrow Wilson, and a lumpish, three-dimensional Statue of Liberty jutting out from the painting’s surface. What is remarkable about New York/ Liberty is neither the picture’s formal resolve—as painting, it has its problems—nor its amusing agglomeration of details, but its heartfelt celebration of the United States and, in particular, New York City. New York/Liberty is a picture about love, and it is indicative of our times that Stettheimer’s patriotic valentine is as unnerving as it is. As unnerving, one might say, as it is moving. While it is easy to see why fans of camp would find an image like New York/Liberty appealing, its corniness, if you will, is genuine. Stettheimer’s paintings carry a candor that shows up most contemporary kitsch-based art for the snobbery that it is.
Florine and her sisters, Ettie and Carrie, along with their mother, Rosetta, opened their home on the Upper West Side to some of the most important artists of the time; among those who attended the Stettheimers’ salons were Charles Demuth, Elie Nadelman, Gaston Lachaise, Marsden Hartley, and Duchamp. It was this milieu that prompted some of Stettheimer’s finest paintings, and Sussman and Bloemink are wise to concentrate on her mature period. Her pre-stylistic paintings, of which there are few on view, are best left to Stettheimer specialists. Certainly, a painting like Family Portrait #1 (1915), with its lackluster drawing and halting brushwork, makes one commiserate with the critics who panned the Knoedler exhibition. Even so, this painting holds a key to understanding the course Stettheimer’s mature work would take and it can be found in the flower arrangement which sits just right of center. It is the one part of Family Portrait #1 where Stettheimer follows the logic of painting and, as such, it delivers, especially in its use of hard, strong color. The flowers are so convincing, in fact, that they have more emotional life than the mannequins which surround them.
Stettheimer’s portraits of family and friends can be fun, but in a circumscribed way. Each portrait is crammed with incident, sometimes to an almost encyclopedic extent, relating to its subject. Writing in the catalogue, Bloemink deciphers the imagery found in some of the portraits, and it’s colorful stuff: Stettheimer made sure all the relevant information was there, including, for instance, Carl Van Vechten’s favorite tabby. But, as works of art, the portraits miss the forest for the trees. Stettheimer is so intent on making her portraits specific that they become mired in details. Consequently, they function better as rebuses, albeit nutty ones, than as orchestrated works of art. Admittedly, the portraits are filled with morsels of splendid painting—the muffled, nubby landscape seen in the distance of Portrait of My Sister Carrie W. Stettheimer with Dollhouse (1923), for instance— but they also divulge Stettheimer’s folk-art mannerisms as flimsy drawing. The one exception is Portrait of Ettie (1923), a scarily unforgettable portrait of her sister. Lying on a chaise longue while floating in a deep blue space, Ettie is overwhelmed by what appears to be a burning Christmas tree; it is as persuasive a piece of Expressionist-style dabbing as Stettheimer ever did. With Portrait of Ettie, Stettheimer’s obsessiveness achieves the visionary.
Stettheimer became more confident as a painter the more cartoonish her work became. One can see this in Picnic at Bedford Hills (1918), a picture of the artist, her sisters, Nadelman, and Duchamp lunching on what could be described as a skewed Fauvist landscape. Here Stettheimer’s figures take on a caricaturish stylishness not unlike that found in the more upscale cartoons of the time, and this comic exuberance informs her best paintings. While Stettheimer’s work suggests biography—which is, more often than not, exactly what it is—it is not necessary to read her best paintings as such to gain pleasure from them. Her work has its own oddball momentum, and the small dramas played out in the paintings gain comedic and pictorial dimension the less they rely on biographical particulars. This may be why Stettheimer’s finest paintings are her multi-figure compositions. She’s at her best when building rhythms between forms, especially a multiplicity of forms, and using her particulars for emphasis.
Such is the case with Lake Placid (1919), Asbury Park South (1920), and Spring Sale at Bendel’s (1921), the latter of which must qualify as Stettheimer’s masterpiece. One of Stettheimer’s great loves was dance—the maquettes for her own unrealized ballet, Orphée of the Quat’z Arts, are impressive and weird—and a strong sense of choreography buoys these paintings. Spring Sale at Bendel’s, in particular, is a ceaseless flow of movement, unified by an acidic pink that has Stettheimer’s name on it. (Stettheimer’s color sense veered toward the poisonous.) Its images of women shopping and trying on outfits have the cadence and theatricality of an MGM musical, and it is made up of silly bits of business: a small yellow dog wearing a sweater emblazoned with a dollar sign, women diving for sale items. Here Stettheimer’s minutiae lend comedy to a painting with an already comic momentum. The final result is an elegant giddiness, cosmopolitan and without pretension.
Sussman and Bloemink conclude Manhattan Fantastica with the Cathedral paintings, perhaps taking their cue from Linda Nochlin’s 1980 essay on the artist, “Rococo Subversive,” wherein they are heralded as Stettheimer’s masterpieces. (The essay is included in the catalogue.) Some four years later, I find the Cathedral paintings—dedicated to Broadway, Fifth Avenue, Wall Street, and Art—still funny and diverting, but something of a letdown. Like the portraits, they are bursting with telling, hilarious details, but the details are clumped together on the canvases in such a way that one’s eye tends to bump into the various scenarios depicted; there’s little pictorial flow. If Asbury Park South achieves the dynamism of dance, a painting like Cathedrals of Wall Street simply strikes a pose. Stettheimer’s spark, so present in her best paintings, is missing here, and her color and paint handling, having become subservient to illustration, are less vital. If the charm of most folk art lies in the anecdotal, then so it is with the Cathedral paintings. Despite their eccentricities, they are tame—tame, that is, for Stettheimer.
The introductory wall label of Manhattan Fantastica states that “no history of American Modernism can truly be complete without Stettheimer’s work.” This is standard curatorial hyperbole, but it is difficult to be unsympathetic all the same. That she was a fascinating character in the cultural life of early-twentieth-century New York is unquestionable. As a painter, however, Stettheimer is a minor, one could say marginal, figure. Marginality, as it has come to be known in the political sense, is, of course, what the contemporary art world finds so appealing about her: Why else would Soirée/Studio Party (1917–19) grace the cover of Artforum? Stettheimer’s marginality, however, is both her chief asset and chief liability, and to politicize her work misses the point and dishonors her art. (I wonder what Stettheimer herself would think of the “social consciousness” Nochlin foists upon her—probably come up with a biting painting or two, I’d imagine.) A handful of these paintings—Spring Sale at Bendel’s, Lake Placid, Asbury Park South, Portrait of Ettie, Beauty Contest: To the Memory of P. T. Barnum (1924), and, maybe, Russian Bank (1921)—are undeniable gems worthy of posterity. But if the artist revealed in Manhattan Fantastica is an erratic one, even the least convincing of her pungent paintings have more to offer than, say, the clever fripperies of her friend and champion Marcel Duchamp. So give the Whitney credit for doing it right. Manhattan Fantastica adds an honorable chapter to the understanding of the art of our misunderstood times.
© 1995 Mario Naves
Originally published in the September 1995 edition of The New Criterion.