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To All Tomorrow’s Parties: Break Out the Bubbly—Florine Stettheimer’s Back

Florine Stettheimer, Asbury Park South, 1920. COLLECTION OF HALLEY K HARRISBURG AND MICHAEL ROSENFELD, NEW YORK

Florine Stettheimer, Asbury Park South, 1920.

COLLECTION OF HALLEY K HARRISBURG AND MICHAEL ROSENFELD, NEW YORK

At Florine Stettheimer’s funeral, in 1944, her longtime friend Georgia O’Keeffe delivered a eulogy. Referring to Florine’s sisters, Carrie, who ran the family salon and built a famous dollhouse, and Ettie, a novelist who held a Ph.D. in philosophy, O’Keeffe said that Florine “put into visible form in her own way something that they all were, a way of life that is going and cannot happen again, something that has been alive in our city.”

What Stettheimer put into visible form was her wealthy family’s dazzling parties at their Manhattan home, attended by the likes of Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia, Carl Van Vechten, Henry McBride, and Viola and Elie Nadelman; luxurious flower arrangements, which she called eyegays; rollicking scenes at the segregated beach in Asbury Park, New Jersey, and on the water at Lake Placid in Upstate New York; and wry portraits of her sisters, their teacher, their nurse, and their friends, and best of all, herself—once as a floating pixie in a fire-red cape and black cap, another time, in 1915, as Manet’s Olympia, naked on a bed, gazing at the viewer, a painting that scholar Barbara Bloemink believes is one of the first nude full-body self-portraits by a professional woman artist.

In 1946 Duchamp oversaw a posthumous Stettheimer retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, with more than 50 of her inimitable paintings—resplendent with the whites, pinks, and yellows she applied like cake frosting, and filled with people who are sinewy, flowing shapes, almost always engaged in some form of pleasurable activity. And then, as the story goes, Stettheimer’s name faded from view.

Florine Stettheimer, ca. 1917–20. PETER A. JULEY & SON COLLECTION/SMITHSONIAN AMERICAN ART MUSEUM PHOTOGRAPH ARCHIVES, WASHINGTON, D.C.

Florine Stettheimer, ca. 1917–20.

PETER A. JULEY & SON COLLECTION/SMITHSONIAN AMERICAN ART MUSEUM PHOTOGRAPH ARCHIVES, WASHINGTON, D.C.

Stettheimer’s disappearance constitutes a master class in all the reasons why an artist is forgotten. To begin with, despite a relatively long life (she lived to age 72) she was hardly prolific: she made a couple hundred paintings and watercolors over half a century, and rarely parted with them. She had a single solo show, at Knoedler gallery in New York in 1916, just as she was entering her mature period. After that, she declined all invitations for solos and displayed her work only in group exhibitions and at her own studio. After Stettheimer’s death, her sister Ettie dispersed some of those paintings, one at a time, to a variety of institutions (here’s a guide), until she herself died in 1955 (unmarried and childless, just like Florine and Carrie). In the 1960s, the family lawyer gave the few dozen remaining works, including masterworks like the nude self-portrait, to Columbia University, which was planning to build a museum. It never did, and so they often sat in storage.

The idiosyncrasies of Stettheimer’s practice and estate were only part of the problem. Humorously fantastical, unabashedly feminine, and action packed, her paintings gleefully disregard the strictures that came to define high modernism, with its zeal for abstraction and repudiation of narrative. “Stettheimer’s work poisons the canon, it fits no category,” as the artist Nick Mauss put it in a recent essay, adding, “the conversations sparked by her work continue to this day in semiprivate, among a few friends, in a parallel discourse, since Stettheimer’s work still lives outside consensus.”

These days a new consensus is forming around Stettheimer. Museums are rushing to show her work, and Mauss is just one in a growing legion of fans. In 2014 Lenbachhaus in Munich staged her first retrospective in Europe (another problem: almost all of her works are at U.S. institutions). It was Stettheimer’s first museum show since a pioneering one organized by Bloemink and Elisabeth Sussman at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1995. Last year, the Norton Museum in West Palm Beach, Florida, put together a show on O’Keeffe, Stettheimer, Helen Torr, and Marguerite Zorach. This past March, dealer Jeffrey Deitch, an early Stettheimer devotee, restaged his 1995 exhibition “Florine Stettheimer Collapsed Time Salon” at New York’s Armory Show art fair, displaying her works alongside those of artists inspired by them. In May the Jewish Museum in New York will open a full-dress survey.

Why Stettheimer now? One explanation is that scholars are finally addressing the historical marginalization of women artists in the modernist canon, and in the process giving Stettheimer’s joyous, witty, and sophisticated paintings their due. But, like many rediscoveries, Stettheimer’s is also attributable to shifting tastes: her renegade work and freewheeling methods are in tune with the concerns of many of today’s most interesting artists.

Stettheimer’s whimsical, floral palette redounds in the abstract mélanges of Laura Owens, the bright-hued installations of Lily van der Stokker and Mira Dancy, the heartbreakingly intimate portraits of Sam McKinniss and landscapes of Karen Kilimnik, and Charles Ray’s floral still lifes. The frenetic activity in her paintings—ladies going wild for clothes at Bendel’s, 1930s art world swells posing and preening on a giant stage—looks back to Bruegel and Bosch even as it points the way to Jamian Juliano-Villani, Hilary Harkness, and Jules de Balincourt.

But setting aside the look of her paintings, what makes Stettheimer’s story so alluring and influential today is the sense one gets that—like her friend Duchamp and another avowed fan, Andy Warhol (his early drawings owe a debt to her)—she lived her life as one grand artwork that manifested itself in the parties she threw, the way she decorated her home, and the way she presented both her work and herself. (She typically refused to be photographed, but placed herself in numerous paintings as a sprightly, mysterious, and often reclusive figure, off to the side, observing the action.)

Florine Stettheimer, A Model (Nude Self-Portrait), 1915. ART PROPERTIES, AVERY ARCHITECTURAL AND FINE ARTS LIBRARY, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY IN THE CITY OF NEW YORK, GIFT OF THE ESTATE OF ETTIE STETTHEIMER, 1967

Florine Stettheimer, A Model (Nude Self-Portrait), 1915.

ART PROPERTIES, AVERY ARCHITECTURAL AND FINE ARTS LIBRARY, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY IN THE CITY OF NEW YORK, GIFT OF THE ESTATE OF ETTIE STETTHEIMER, 1967

Turning down opportunities to show with esteemed dealers like Alfred Stieglitz and Kirk Askew, Stettheimer instead debuted new paintings at parties in her studio in the Beaux-Arts Building overlooking midtown Manhattan’s Bryant Park, a studio decorated with cellophane curtains, elaborately ornamented furniture, and a bust of George Washington. Her paintings became cordial invitations to sociability—props in larger narratives, in the same way that, say, the young New York artist Heather Guertin has used her own paintings as trays to serve cocktails or as the backdrop for comedy performances.

And like so many artists today, from Cady Noland to David Hammons to Andrea Fraser, Stettheimer was deeply skeptical of institutions. “In the Mus-e-um/The Directors drink Rum/For Art is dumb/In the Mus-e-um,” she writes in one of her cracklingly concise poems. In another, “Art is spelled with a capital A/And capital also backs it/Ignorance also makes it sway/The chief thing is to make it pay. . . .” My favorite reads, in full, “Look at my/painting/look at my/painting/cried the boy/Groaned the/public/go play with a/toy.” (One suspects she would have been great on Twitter.)

Stettheimer delved into theater and fashion design, working on two unrealized ballets and crafting the sets and costumes—cellophane figured prominently—for the all-black cast of the opera Four Saints in Three Acts (1928), written by Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson, which was a hit on Broadway. Her passion for leaping mediums and collaborating on theater makes her a forebear for artists like Ei Arakawa, who in recent years has staged winsomely amateurish musicals with leading lights of the international avant-garde, and Calla Henkel and Max Pitegoff, whose New Theater, a short-lived Berlin company, had a retrospective at the Whitney Museum in 2015.

After decades defined by mass production (Damien Hirst churning out spot paintings, Jeff Koons stamping out editions), Stettheimer’s low-key, hands-on approach to making art is refreshing. She made what she wanted, showed where she wanted, and generally did what she wanted. (Her fortune helped.) Her work celebrates and transmutes pleasure—the pleasure to be had in seeing beautiful bodies, or a voluminous flower arrangement—but, daringly, also throws barbs at those who try to mute art’s power, whether in museums or the marketplace.

So: Stettheimer’s time has come. We are finally ready for her. What happens now? Too often, the plight of artists’ artists is to be perennially underrated, to have the regard of certain cognoscenti while never actually winning a wide audience and being welcomed into mainstream art history. There are still major hurdles for Stettheimer on that front, like the limited number of her paintings, and the fact that they are scattered among a number of institutions. But what if the Jewish Museum show could travel widely—to points throughout the United States, and the world? (Right now, it is scheduled to make one stop, at the Art Gallery of Ontario, in Toronto, in October.) What if Columbia University could build for its Stettheimer trove a Stettheimer Gallery, a mecca with the ambition of Dia:Beacon, the Rothko Chapel, or the Spiral Jetty?

Then again, maybe that is too much. The Stettheimer salon has always been invite-only. “The first step in the process of acquiring fame is to obtain six followers,” critic Henry McBride wrote in the catalogue for Stettheimer’s posthumous show at MoMA in 1946. “These, Florine Stettheimer had. We will shortly be able to estimate their leavening power.”

A version of this story originally appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of ARTnews on page 26 under the title “To All Tomorrow’s Parties.”

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