Anything Went: Florine Stettheimer at Columbia University

She threw Duchamp’s 30th birthday bash, designed cellophane sets for a Virgil Thomson opera and found a fan in Warhol—but who was she really?

Courtesy Yale University
Courtesy Columbia University Art Properties
Courtesy SFMOMA
Courtesy Florine Stettheimer Papers, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University
Courtesy Florine Stettheimer Papers, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University

“Fame is a most uncertain garment,” art critic Henry McBride wrote in 1946, in a catalogue essay for an exhibition of work by an old artist friend. “Yet fame, apparently, is what the Museum of Modern Art now desires for the late Florine Stettheimer.”

McBride had high hopes for the MoMA show, which was organized by no less a luminary than Marcel Duchamp, who had once tutored Stettheimer in French, and who admired her work—party scenes from her family’s salon, and wispy, witty, faux naïf portraits of that group’s illustrious members. Stettheimer, who often appeared in her own paintings, sometimes hiding under a wide hat, had died two years earlier, at the age of 72. She had staged only a single one-person show during her lifetime; none of the pieces in it sold.

By the time of the retrospective, McBride wrote, she was cloaked in “semi-obscurity … not so much due to the public’s indifference as to her own.” When dealers, including the pioneering Alfred Stieglitz, approached her about solo shows, she refused. “I wish you would become ordinary like the rest of us and show your paintings this year!” painter Georgia O’Keeffe wrote her.

Although she showed regularly in group exhibitions, including the Carnegie International and the first Whitney Biennial, in 1932, she pretty much refused to part with her paintings, giving away only a few, and never selling them. “She claimed she didn’t want her work to end up in the bedroom of some man,” art historian Barbara Bloemink told The Observer. Money wasn’t a concern.

“The trial by the public of Miss Stettheimer’s work begins,” McBride declared in his MoMA essay. “I have no doubt whatever but that it will win permanent regard.” Stettheimer would have preferred such a trial never take place: in her will she had asked that the art in her studio be destroyed after her death. Her family had other ideas.

But her triumphant moment never arrived. After the MoMA show, her name sank into near-complete obscurity. “She’s so hard to typecast that she’s fallen between the cracks,” said Jennifer Lee, curator of Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library. “She hasn’t been taken seriously enough as an artist.”

Ms. Lee is readying an exhibition for the library called “Florine Stettheimer: Alternative Modernist,” which opens Feb. 28 and runs through June 1 and includes some works that have never before been exhibited. It’s timed to coincide with the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s display of the highly anticipated traveling exhibition “The Steins Collect.” Gertrude and Leo Stein were, for a short period, associates and collaborators of Stettheimer’s.

The fourth of five children, Florine Stettheimer was born in 1871 to wealthy German-American parents, in Rochester, N.Y. Her father abandoned the family early, and mother and children lived in Europe. The family, sans children Walter and Stella, who had started their own families, moved to Manhattan in 1914, as war loomed.

“The sisters were three … all of uncertain age,” the composer Virgil Thomson recalled in his memoirs, “and they lived with their invalid mother in the most ornate apartment house I have ever seen.” There was Ettie, who had a PhD in philosophy, Carrie, a reserved woman best known for the doll’s house replica she made of the family’s living quarters, an apartment in Alwyn Court on West 58th Street—it is now on view at the Museum of the City of New York—and Florine. They were in their mid-40s at the time, and unmarried.

In a recently restored self-portrait from around the time of her return to New York, Stettheimer, in a turban and smock and holding a palette and brush, stands in front of a Chinese screen. She looks confident, but also a little annoyed, as if, as Ms. Bloemink has written, “we, the viewers, are interrupting her work.” Around those years, she was working through various modern styles—Fauvism, Impressionism, Post-Impressionism—but she would soon veer into more eccentric territory, channeling Bruegel the Elder and Bosch in heady scenes that showed women frolicking in department stores or African-Americans relaxing on public beaches.

She worked in a studio overlooking Bryant Park decorated with furniture of her own design—large white pieces with rococo flourishes, trimmed in gold. (They were donated to Columbia also, used as stage furniture and discarded.) She hung billowing cellophane curtains and devoted a whole room to George Washington, whose bust sat in one corner. She had the studio meticulously documented with professional photographs, a hint as to the ways in which life and art were combining in her work.

It’s easy to cast Stettheimer as an eccentric outsider, but she was a central figure in an intellectual community that included photographer and critic Carl Van Vechten, Thomson, Duchamp and other artists of the day. With her sisters, she staged parties in New York and picnics around rented houses upstate from the 1910s through the ’30s.

There are also, in her work, remarkable innovations and biting humor—in a number of paintings, characters, always waifish and oddly ageless and androgynous, appear in multiple places, a technique Duchamp termed multiplication virtuelle. Duchamp may be riding by in a car with Picabia in one corner of a painting, laying on the ground in another.

However fanciful, Stettheimer could also be brutal. In a 1917-19 painting called Soirée, she portrayed Leo Stein holding his hearing aid far from his head, so that he wouldn’t have to listen to anyone else talk. Stein was known to be egocentric, Ms. Lee explained.

There is, in Stettheimer’s career, an early example of art making as an interdisciplinary exercise. She created costumes and sets for Thomson’s Four Saints in Three Acts, which featured cellophane backdrops and a libretto by Gertrude Stein.

She spent years developing the story and costumes for a ballet about Pocahontas, which was never realized, but extant materials remain—tiny Indians sporting pink outfits that would not look out of place in her more imaginative paintings.

She wrote poetry, too, in a brash, vernacular style. “You Stirred Me” reads: “You made me giddy / Then you poured oil on my stirred self / I’m mayonnaise.”

The 31-year-old artist Nick Mauss, who’s in this year’s Whitney Biennial and recruited artists and writers to record an album based on Stettheimer’s posthumous poetry collection, Crystal Flowers, wrote in a recent essay that “in a surprisingly homophobic and theoretically stale New York art school atmosphere, to come upon the scenes Stettheimer had painted between World Wars I and II offered secret elation and a sense of kinship.”

Warhol loved her work, visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art with contemporary art curator Henry Geldzahler in the 1960s to see paintings that the museum kept in storage. They’re now on view at the museum: her star has risen in recent years, helped along by a 1995 Whitney retrospective organized by Ms. Bloemink and Elisabeth Sussman, co-curator of this year’s Biennial.

There is a great deal that we will never know about Stettheimer. She lived with her mother into her 60s and became reclusive later in her life. All of her contemporaries have died. Ettie edited out “family matters” from her sister’s journals and papers before donating them to Columbia and Yale, so details about her personal life are scant.

“One of my dissertation readers dismissed her as a fag hag,” Ms. Bloemink said. In truth, no one has a definitive answer about her sexual orientation. Her poems provide a few cryptic hints: one, titled “To a Gentleman Friend,” begins, “You fooled me you little floating worm …” Her embrace of sexual difference looks prescient from today’s perspective. “Our eyes are open to unconventional relationships,” Ms. Sussman has written. “The salon of the Stettheimers was a very protective atmosphere for these kinds of relationships.”

The intimate circles of cultural patronage and elite, high-minded pleasure like the one the Stettheimers cultivated have been largely replaced today by vaster worldwide networks. Cultural elites meet periodically in Doha or Basel, at the Venice Biennale or the PinchukArtCentre in Kiev. So Stettheimer’s paintings, journals and watercolors are a relic of a bygone age. Ettie made a point of spreading her sister’s work to a variety of institutions, and some 40 museums have at least one piece in their collection. Every once in a while they come out of storage, providing glimpses of the birth of modernism as a far messier, more diverse experience than it is in most textbook accounts.

In 1918, McBride wrote of a Stettheimer painting that showed Duchamp’s 30th birthday, “The shadows are such colors as pleased the artist, and that is the reason, I think, they now please others. Under the trees the refreshments were served. Mrs. Stettheimer appears to be a good provider.” He had not yet met the artist, but nevertheless went on, “The more I think of it the more miffed I am that I wasn’t asked to that party.” He didn’t miss out on future Stettheimer affairs.

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