Florine Stettheimer Painting Poetry

The Jewish Museum
May 5 – September 24, 2017

Not long after Columbus landed on Hispaniola, a new word entered the English language: “whim-wham,” to refer to “a quaint or decorative object or trinket.” This new coinage in turn led to the word with which we are now more familiar, “whimsy,” to refer to “behavior that is unusual, playful, and unpredictable, rather than having any serious reason or purpose behind it.” These parallel developments—Europe’s first encounter with the Americas and the invention of a term to refer to caprice and to the pleasure that surface brings—may have taken place centuries ago, but they are the historical undercurrent that flows beneath the surface of painter, poet, and set and costume designer Florine Stettheimer’s oeuvre. In its cozy narcissism, focus on the superficial, and setting in a timeless present, Florine Stettheimer’s work is nothing if not a distinctively American notion of modernity.

Installation view: Florine Stettheimer: Painting Poetry, the Jewish Museum, New York. May 5 – September 24, 2017. Photo: Jason Mandella.

It is this whimsical, if at times satirical, spirit that permeates Stettheimer’s faux-naïve style, and one embodied in a poem she wrote that greets visitors at the entrance of the exhibit:

My Attitude is One of Love

is all adoration

for the fringes

all the color

all tinsel creation

I like slippers gold

I like oysters cold

and my garden of mixed flowers

and the sky full of towers

and traffic in the streets

and Maillard’s sweets

and Bendel’s clothes

and Nat Lewis hose

and Tappe’s window arrays

and crystal fixtures

and my pictures

and Walt Disney cartoons

and colored balloons

Stettheimer (1871 – 1944) was the Grandma Moses (1860 – 1961) of New York City during its jazz age. Relentlessly sincere and unapologetically nostalgic, Moses drew on her memories of the rituals of the New York countryside in which she grew up, from weddings and harvests to ice skating parties and sleigh rides, to capture the sentiment, not the reality, of rural life in a timeless New England. Stettheimer’s depictions of the rituals of domestic and urban leisure of New York City in the 1920s and ’30s are similarly extracted from history, untouched by time, in a hyper-modern present. Influenced by the Symbolists, represented in painting by figures like Gustave Moreau (1826 – 98), Edward Munch (1863 – 1944), and Gustav Klimt (1862 – 1918), whose work she encountered during an extended sojourn in Europe between 1906 and 1914, Stettheimer stressed the subjective, the emotional, and even the imaginative and fantastical over the representational and historical.

This is precisely what makes her work so effective, so enthralling. In Christmas (1930 – 1940), for instance, the improbably vanilla-yellow Christmas tree and cool mint-green pond in the foreground are eclipsed by the neon-pink sun in the background that peeks out from behind a skyscraper crowned with the word “BANK.” The garish, almost chemical colors that dominate the scene are not the sort of which you would encounter in nature. For this very reason, though, they burn that much hotter, singeing you with the allure of the artificial.

The mood is distant and ironic—though the lure of surface is no less great—in her massive, panoramic tableaus devoted to depicting the newly emergent rituals of mass leisure and consumption. In Asbury Park South (1920), Lake Placid (1919), and Spring Sale at Bendel’s (1921), Stettheimer invites the viewer to indulge in the voyeuristic pleasures of observing a crowd of strangers at play. That a voyeur’s pleasure was on her mind is made clear by the fact that in these works she includes herself, and members of her coterie, such as Marcel Duchamp, photographer Edward Steichen, and art critic and writer Carl Van Vechten. None join in the action, preferring instead to watch from the sidelines, their faces bearing slightly sardonic expressions of slight condescension toward the participants. What exactly are they watching, though? What is inspiring such gazes of detached amusement?

Whether a trio of young black women in Asbury Park South, donning their Sunday finest or a pair of swimmers arms upraised as they cut through the water in Lake Placid, all of Stettheimer’s subjects have impossibly willowy limbs and do not merely walk or swim but appear to tip-toe, glide or skim across the boardwalk or atop the surface of the lake. In Spring Sale at Bendel’s (1921), the women appear almost intoxicated in their frenetic dash to snatch up the discounted stoles, lace, and other department store fripperies, joyfully trying on the wares. They resemble not so much wild animals at the kill—a metaphor often invoked by male observers of female department-store consumption around the turn-of-the-century—as they do long-limbed dancers, letting their bodies be pulled along by the beat of a dance-hall jazz band.

Stettheimer channels a similar spirit of merriment and affection tinged with a bite of satire and irreverence in her more personal pieces as well. From the portraits of her famous friends, Portrait of Marcel Duchamp and Rrose Sélavy (1923), to those of her family, Portrait of My Sister, Ettie (1923), and of herself, Portrait of Myself (1923), there’s an undercurrent of narcissism and devotion to self-presentation that feels very contemporary—selfies from the pre-internet era. Whether featured alone or amidst a group of friends or strangers, the individual figures rarely touch or interact with one another. Instead, they appear highly self-conscious, aware that they are being observed, and perhaps privately enjoying it.

We are far from the communal scenes of the New York maple harvests and hay rides that Grandma Moses was painting around the same time. These are individuated, atomized urbanites, who might be liberated from toil and from the bonds of community, but who nonetheless take joy in being a part of a crowd, or being seen. Stettheimer’s most important sources of artistic inspiration might have been of European origin, but her spin on them was all her own and very much a uniquely American expression of modernity, in all its surface splendor.

Contributor

Michelle Standley

Michelle Standley is a historian, writer, and artist with a PhD in History from New York University. She teaches at Pratt Institute in New York. For more see, michellestandley.com.

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