Monday, May 22, 2017

Florine Stettheimer

Florine Stettheimer’s current exhibition on view at The Jewish Museum, Florine Stettheimer: Painting Poetry, is an incredibly charming show. Stettheimer is a cultish artist in some circles and those that love her work are smitten and those that don’t, well perhaps you shouldn’t go because it is to the tilt with Florine.

She was a New York socialite in the blossoming days of Modernism and her works reflect this completely. They are of friends, all upper crust or avant-garde, as well as her idyllic fortitude inhabited by her sisters (three) and mother. Everyone goes on and on about her close friendship with Marcel Duchamp and while that might be a spur in her recognition as an artist herself these days, it shouldn’t be seen as the only reason why.

Stettheimer paints like she is frosting a cake. There is a sweetness, a slathering type of giddiness that goes right to the edge of over-doing it. Her palate is like icing too. Whites, yellows, blues and pinks whose unnaturalness makes them festive. Objects as well as people have a prop like quality to them and it should be no surprise that she did some theatric design and loved all things staged.  Her works have this stilled posing that promotes vacancy but this doesn’t take away from their fabulousness. It’s as if her only directive while painting was to make it ‘Fab-u-lous and Fun.’

She was a rich girl with lots of free time on her hand and this might make some viewers annoyed and dismissive but she knew it too. She painted for herself, her pleasure, her want. We just happen to be given access to them because her sister, Ettie, disobeyed her wish and didn’t destroy them when she died. Good for Ettie and for us because these are simply lovely and feel so wonderful to see.

The heaviness of Modernism the malenessmakes such lightness and yes; I’ll say it, femininity, of Stettheimer’s work not only delightful but important. How many women, wealthy or otherwise, do you think actually did/have burned their works because it was just not ‘heavy’ enough? And yes, her privilege allowed her to indulge her fancies but should we really hold that against her when men from time eternal have been given this latitude?

The focuses of her works feel surface and seem a bit shallow or simple; picnics, parties, shopping, lazy summer days, but that’s life sometimes and who are we to say what can or cannot be subjects? Below this surface there is the actual painting though. It is faux-naif as they say but it’s got so much personality and panache that it is undeniably ‘art.’

Stettheimer was a woman who lived a charmed life and her work reflects this. I find her embracing this type of attitude enlivening and let’s be honest, rare for any artistsmale or female.

Go see this show if you want to teleport to a time, to a spot of sunshine under a tree, where the world is your oyster and filled with all the people you love most.

I leave you now with some of her poems because they too reflect this exposed wonderment and lightness.

The breaking waves
Look like
Ruffled-edge petunia leaves


is all adoration
for all the fringes
all the color
all tinsel creation

I like slippers gold
I like oyster cold
and my garden of mixed flowers
and the sky full of leaves
and traffic in the streets
and Maillard’s sweets
and Bendel’s clothes
and Nat Lewis hose
and Tappê’s window arrays
and crystal fixtures
and Walt Disney cartoons
and colored balloons


You stirred me
You made me giddy
Then you poured oil on my stirred self
I’m mayonnaise



I was pure white
You made a painted show-thing of me
You called me the real-thing
Your creation
No setting was too good for me
Silver --- even gold
I needed gorgeous surroundings
You then sold me to another man