“Florine Stetteheimer: Painting Poetry,” at The Jewish Museum
By PHOEBE HOBAN, SEPT. 2017
The Jewish Museum’s delightful Florine Stettheimer retrospective does its best to make a convincing case that Stettheimer belongs in the canon. While she has always had a cult following, Stettheimer has never been considered among the greats, marginalized in part because she was female, although her work is now recognized for its perspicacious feminist content. While this show often dazzles with paintings that range from engagingly decorative to cleverly satirical, Stettheimer remains, to this eye at least, a fabulous illustrator, not a major 20th century artist.
Indeed, if anything, Stettheimer might be thought of as an elite, upper-class outsider artist (albeit one who inhabited a rarified insider world), obsessively painting in intimate detail her nearest and dearest—and the heady cultural salon created by Florine and her sisters, Carrie, and Ettie--which included such leading lights as Marcel Duchamp, Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keefe, and sculptor Elie Nadelman. It comes as no surprise that Stettheimer was an Andy Warhol favorite.
In a sense, Stettheimer turned her and her family’s Jazz-Age dilettantism into an art form. Although her canvases reveal obvious traces of Bonnard and Chagall, and the artist incorporated into her unique work elements of both Dada and Surrealism, while also applying Symbolist influences to American subjects, she was not truly an innovator. However, she may be credited with doing one of the first nude female self-portraits, depicting herself, at 44, in an odalisque pose derived from Manet’s Olympia, as something of a femme fatale, (A Model (Nude Self-Portrait), 1915).
The show, which in addition to about 50 paintings, includes a number of set designs, maquettes and costumes, does make a case that Stettheimer--whose introduction to the Ballet Russes during her travels to Europe had a lasting influence on her--could well have made her name in theatrical design, if that had been her focus. Her creations for the Virgil Thomson/Gertrude Stein 1934 opera “Four Saints in Three Acts,” in particular, are wonderfully inventive and charming.
As are many of her paintings. In Picnic at Bedford Hills, (1918) Marcel Duchamp and sister Carrie have set up the ornate picnic cloth, complete with lobster and cake, while Elie Nadelman, on his stomach on the lawn (painted an acid yellow, a favorite Stettheimer color), chats with a supine Ettie. Seated a bit apart, Florine is ensconced beneath a white parasol; all three sisters have parasols inscribed with their names.
Heat, (1919), a group portrait of the Stettheimer sisters at their mother’s 76th birthday party,would have provided Freud with a field day. At the top of the canvas, setting the scene, are two wilting weeping willow trees. Just beneath them, enthroned in a chair, is Rosetta, the black-garbed matriarch and birthday girl. Floating languidly below her, in the tangerine/blood-orange canvas, are the four sisters, including Stella, the only one to marry.
Except for Stella, they appear to be almost swooning from the near-tropical heat. At Stella’s feet is her abandoned knitting basket. To her right, Carrie although clutching her knitting, seems caught in a reverie. At the bottom left, Florine, in pink, is laid out flat on her chaise lounge. And to her right, Ettie seems to have actually fainted from the temperature, having lost one shoe and appearing entirely oblivious to a cat scratching her hand. At the very bottom of the canvas is a table with a vase of flowers and the birthday cake, its candles lit.
Stettheimer was also quite capable of skewering her glitzy world, as she deftly does in Asbury Park South, 1920. The satirical painting of the New Jersey summer resort includes a virtual circus of animated figures carousing on the yellow beach. Florine is there, under a green parasol, as is her friend Marcel Duchamp, who often appears in her group portraits. On a closer glance it can be seen that the white and black members of the summer crowd are strutting their stuff with equal pleasure. In fact, at the time, Asbury Park South was strictly segregated, as Stettheimer pointedly indicates by including the word South in the painting’s title, in reference to the beach’s controversial segregation policy.
Stettheimer perfectly sums up both her exclusive milieu and her modus operandi in her poem, Our Parties. Our Parties/Our Picnics/Our Banquets/Our Friends/Here at last a raison d’etre/Seen in color and design/It amuses me/to recreate them/to paint them. WM
Phoebe Hoban is an American journalist perhaps known best for her biographies of the artists Jean Michel Basquiat and Alice Neel. Her most recent book is "Lucian Freud: Eyes Wide Open," 2014. Her Basquiat biography, "Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art," came out as an e-book in May 2016.
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