Published: October 24, 2017
By Jessica Skwire Routhier
TORONTO – Her paintings are exuberant, enigmatic and wildly colorful: lithe balletic figures and flowers in complex symbolic settings that seem to beg to be seen, interpreted and understood. Yet for a long time much of Florine Stettheimer’s work was, in fact, little seen since the moment of its creation, at least compared to other notable artists of her era. This was at least as much by the artist’s own design as it was the result of any neglect on the part of Twentieth Century museums and galleries.
Nevertheless, the lingering effect has been that this idiosyncratic artist’s significant contributions have generally gone underrecognized by the art world as well as the public.
Addressing this lack, and offering new audiences the opportunity to reckon with her confoundingly engaging works, the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) presents “Florine Stettheimer: Painting Poetry,” on view through January 28.
“She’s never been mainstream,” says Stephen Brown, curator at the Jewish Museum in New York City, which co-organized the exhibition and presented it at the museum’s Fifth Avenue location earlier this year. Even so, Stettheimer has received some attention from major museums in recent years. She was one of four painters included in 2016’s “Women Modernists in New York,” organized by the Norton Museum in West Palm Beach, and New York’s Whitney Museum hosted a retrospective of her work in 1995. Her dazzling, ambitious four-painting series “Cathedrals of Art” is also a mainstay of the galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Brown believed that it was time for a reappraisal of her work and that the Jewish Museum was the right place for this quintessentially New York artist who was, famously, part of a tightly knit Jewish family.
It might seem perplexing, then, that the other venue for the exhibition is in Toronto, a city that, while it can certainly stake its own claim to urban as well as Jewish culture, is far removed from the kinds of distinctively American entertainments and individuals that Stettheimer painted: a comic near-riot at Bendel’s department store or a joyfully rowdy mixed-race crowd at Asbury Park, for instance, or portraits of writers Carl Van Vechten and Henry McBride, among others.
But there is a notable context for this northern venue, which is a community of scholarship on Stettheimer centered at Toronto’s Ryerson University. There, professor Irene Gammel has led a course on Stettheimer and has edited a reprint of Stettheimer’s posthumous poetry volume, Crystal Flowers, originally published by her sister Ettie Stettheimer in 1949. And yet, says the AGO’s curator Georgiana Uhlyarik, who co-curated the exhibition with Brown, “she has never been exhibited in Canada and is unlike any artist that Canada has ever produced.”
Perhaps in recognition of these differing audiences, the museums and their curators have taken differing approaches to presenting this selection of Stettheimer’s work. Brown focused on establishing and reaffirming Stettheimer’s place in the formal canon of art history. He argued persuasively during a recent conversation, for instance, that she can be firmly categorized as a Symbolist, that she anticipated Matisse’s groundbreaking “Jazz” portfolio by some 30 years and that she “was the link” between popular prewar European theater and “what happened in American theater after the war.”
Uhlyarik, on the other hand, doubtless inspired in part by local literary interest in Stettheimer, says that she is “trying to deliver as much as possible the original voice of the artist.” In both venues, however, the curators have tried to get past that almost visceral desire to “decode” the paintings – to unravel their mysteries through Stettheimer’s biography and those of the people she painted – and get visitors to really look at her artwork.
“I think one of the problems with Stettheimer,” says Brown, “is that it’s difficult for people not to approach the material in an entirely self-identificatory way” – as a woman, as a Jew, as a member of any outsider avant-garde. Uhlyarik agrees. “I think that the way in which we think about identity these days has nothing to do with whatever it was that she was trying to work through,” she says, observing that the artist’s motivations and intents are ultimately “unknowable” even as they seem to “sustain so many ways of seeing it that have more to do with us and what we want to see.” She adds, “I’m not sure she had any interest in revealing herself in any way.”
It is true that, for all that Stettheimer was interested in public theatrical performances, she was ambivalent at best about performing any kind of public role as an artist. Her engagement with the theater began in Paris, when she saw a Ballets Russes performance that inspired her to create set studies and costume designs for a ballet based on the myth of Orpheus, in which she hoped Vaslav Nijinsky would dance the title role. The interest in mythology, dance and theater is a thread that runs throughout her work.
A telling example is her undated self-portrait in which she sits beneath a tree, holding her painter’s palette and wearing bright red high-heeled pumps, accompanied by a Nijinsky-like faun. Her work for the theater reached an apex with the 1934 production of the opera Four Saints in Three Acts: music by Virgil Thompson, libretto by Gertrude Stein, sets and costumes by Florine Stettheimer. The exhibition features a wealth of material for both Orphee and Four Saints: watercolor designs, costume maquettes, performance photographs and more.
Stettheimer’s theatrical work seems to have been less about putting herself forward as an auteur than it was an expression of her private creative life or an opportunity for fruitful collaboration with others – or both. The same is true for her career as a painter. Scholars have often puzzled over her seeming reticence to display her work in her own lifetime. She had a one-woman gallery show in 1916 and then her work was rarely exhibited publicly – and never in a solo exhibition – until after her death.
While in this, too, her motivations must always be largely unknowable, neither curator believes that it has anything to do with a lack of confidence. Brown points out that in order to keep producing over a 30-some-year period, she had to have had tremendous confidence in and commitment to her identity as an artist. And Uhlyarik argues that Stettheimer “understood very well” what it was to perform the role of an artist, as her friend Marcel Duchamp did, and that indeed she did perform that role in the context of the private showings and salons hosted by her family and friends. It is just that, with few exceptions, and for whatever reasons, she was not interested in performing that role for the public. It is worth acknowledging that as an independently wealthy woman, she simply did not need to.
Uhlyarik’s essay in the catalog digs deep into a single painting that illustrates, above any other, that interplay between interior and exterior life that makes Stettheimer’s paintings so alluring and yet so impossible to read. In “Family Portrait II” fringed curtains part to reveal Florine, her two sisters, Ettie and Carrie, and their mother, who all lived together in their Manhattan apartment, arrayed across a curved red and gold Art Deco marquetry floor.
Florine is in black with a different pair of red heels, and the others all wear cobwebby black lace over white. The background is a powdery blue sky, against which are silhouetted bleached-out versions of New York landmarks – the Chrysler Building, Radio City Music Hall, the Statue of Liberty – mimicking the aesthetic of Wedgwood pottery. In the center of the composition, completely free from rules of space or proportion, are three flowers in full bloom – a red poppy, a white gardenia and a vivid pink blossom that is either a peony or a cabbage rose.
“It’s this massive apparition in the center of the painting,” Uhlyarik notes. “It’s almost disturbing how beautifully she resolves these giant flowers floating about in this family portrait.” Again, it is impossible to know what Stettheimer’s intentions were. Uhlyarik thinks that whether or not the flowers “mean” anything, they are a “clue” that the painted scene is “a creation and apparition of her own imagination and is ultimately unreachable.”
A viewer can appreciate the harmonious whole of the painting, despite or perhaps because of its idiosyncrasies, and understand to some extent that there is a relationship among the figures depicted, the space that they occupy and the city that glimmers behind them. But the viewer is not a participant in those relationships, and so any zealous interpretive effort is doomed to be a largely “self-identificatory” one, to use Brown’s term.
Something similar is at play in paintings like “Picnic at Bedford Hills,” “Beauty Contest: to the Memory of P.T. Barnum” and “Asbury Park South,” all of which feature cameo appearances by members of her milieu: Duchamp, McBride, Van Vetches, photographers Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen, sculptor Elie Nadelman and others. There is a historical reality to these works – “They really did all pile into the Rolls-Royce and drive into Coney Island,” Brown says – and yet there is an interiority even amid the humor and inviting palette. The average viewer is just as likely to feel herself outside the joke as inside it – if indeed she understands the joke at all.
“Even at that affluent level,” notes Uhlyarik, “society functioned in a very segregated way,” so people who were able to do so simply created their own private worlds and communities. Within them, as evidenced by Stettheimer’s painting, there was a kind of lavish freedom, but even so, “there’s an exclusivity to that,” says Uhlyarik. She adds, “I often feel very conflicted about whether we are supposed to look at her works at all. They were intended for a very private audience, and people had to earn the right to look at them.”
To exhibit Florine Stettheimer’s works, then, arguably serves as much to misunderstand as to understand them. In the end, we should grapple with the personal and social history out of which her work was produced in order to make it at least somewhat legible to Twenty-First Century viewers. That the AGO has divided the exhibition into sections titled “In the Family,” “By Invitation Only” and “Acting Out” expresses this necessity.
It is essential to know how important her family was to her, and that they were her most frequent subjects. It is essential to know that she was part of – and one of few Jews and even fewer women in – an elite band of artists and writers and thinkers in interwar New York. And it is essential to understand the theatrical engagement that bookended her career and provided the backbone of her aesthetic language. And even when conclusions are elusive, if not impossible, it is equally essential to invite viewers and scholars to draw threads of meaning from those facts to what they actually see in her enthralling, bewildering painted poems.
“Florine Stettheimer: Painting Poetry” is accompanied by a 168-page catalog of the same name, published by Yale University Press in cooperation with the Jewish Museum, with essays by Brown and Uhlyarik.
The Art Gallery of Ontario is at 317 Dundas Street West. For information, www.ago.ca or 877-225-4246.
Jessica Skwire Routhier is managing editor of Panorama, the journal of the Association of Historians of American Art. She lives in South Portland, Maine.
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