FLORINE STETTHEIMER Hieroglyphs of Pleasure
THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART
PERMANENT COLLECTION, AMERICAN PAINTING AND SCULPTURE,
1900 – 1950
“...a frivolity which, precisely because it is aware of what is serious, refuses to take seriously that which is not serious, can be profound.”
—W.H. Auden, “Postscript: The Frivolous and the Earnest” (1962)
cried Fifth Avenue, all I want to do is kiss you, kiss
your silver grey temples and your charming St. Bartholomew’s
—Frank O’Hara, “The Lay of the Romance of the Associations” (1959)
Paintings are, more than anything, physical facts. And it is in this way, in the way that Florine Stettheimer’s paintings disclose themselves to me as surfaces, that I love them. At the Metropolitan Museum there are four from the Cathedral series—the Cathedrals of Wall Street, Broadway, Fifth Avenue, and Art—all painted between 1929 and 1942. Each painting is five feet tall and just over four feet wide, and these, as with all Stettheimers, want you to come close despite the distance large paintings usually need to be viewed properly. Keep walking right up to them so that you enter their visual field completely; begin to enjoy their play with texture and color and the strange rhythms they create. The overall matte surface is built up, almost as if out of stucco, in shades of pale pink, dark mint, or lavender gray. These expanses are structured by lines incised into the thick, at times paste-like surfaces, in which a rough texture or flurry of scrapes becomes shading or detail. Contours emerge, simultaneously clear and ambiguous. Suddenly this powdery surface meets a metallic paint and is charged with a particularly tactile kind of power. Something similar, but of a different order, happens when a pastel passage gives way to a shock of overly saturated color, like a red so electrified that it becomes orange. Experienced this closely, Stettheimer’s paintings are immensely pleasurable.
Perhaps this insistence on intimacy, on a kind of haptic feeling instead of distanced seeing, has encouraged a queer mode of addressing Stettheimer’s work, at least historically. Whether due to this formal dynamic, or to the campy colors and rococo performances of her sexually ambiguous characters, Stettheimer (1871 – 1944) is one of those painters who have held a special place in the hearts of gay men of the 20th century. During her lifetime, Marsden Hartley, Henry McBride, Carl Van Vechten, and Virgil Thomson all sang her praises in print, with posthumous additions made by Parker Tyler, John Bernard Myers, and most recently Trevor Winkfield, each in varying shades of purple prose (a phenomenon in which I now participate in the 21st century).
Each of Stettheimer’s four paintings is structured around a central arch form, not dissimilar to the basic compositional structure employed by her friend Hartley in works like “The Warriors” (1913) or “Painting No. 49” (1914). This iconic, enveloping shape was playfully underscored by Alfred Stieglitz when he photographed Marcel Duchamp’s urinal in front of one of Hartley’s paintings in 1917. (Duchamp was also, of course, a close friend of Stettheimer’s.) In her work this central niche does not create pictorial depth, serving rather as an armature for the organization of each two-dimensional surface. On the level of imagery, the objects and figures herein function as symbols, and it is remarkable that they are at the same time so schematic and specific. In every aspect they are polysemic, contributing to a total atmosphere in which words seamlessly function as images and figures merge with literal “signs” in the form of advertisements: a cosmology both hermetic and expansive.
In his memoir Popism (1980), Andy Warhol describes meeting Henry Geldzahler, who in looking around his studio declared, “We have paintings by Florine Stettheimer in storage at the Met. If you want to come over there tomorrow, I’ll show them to you.” Thankfully, we can now look at these same paintings out of storage in the Metropolitan’s galleries of American Modernism, where they occupy pride of place on a central wall. To consider the reality of Stettheimer’s paintings, themselves, is indeed wholly wonderful.