A retrospective of Florine Stettheimer, the great early American modernist, is a once-in-a-generation pleasure. Her old friend Marcel Duchamp organized one at the Museum of Modern Art in 1946, two years after her death from cancer at the age of 72. The ICA Boston staged the next in 1980, and the Whitney followed in 1995. Now Munich’s Lenbachhaus, a temple of early German modernism, has stepped up. It is the first Stettheimer survey ever organized in Europe, and it is joyous and illuminating, filled with rarely seen pictures that elegantly make the case that she is one of the greatest artists of the 20th century and could serve as a useful model for those of the 21st.
You enter on a long ramp dressed with a carpet in a rich red—a color that Stettheimer cherished and used ingeniously—and then the thrills start coming, one after another, fast and furious, in a row of the action-packed, wide-angle scenes that she painted in her sui generis, flat, faux-naïve style around 1920. They show her social and artistic circle at the time, when she was at the height of her creative powers, when the Manhattan salon she hosted with her sisters Carrie and Ettie attracted the best and brightest of the day—Picabia, O’Keeffe, Lachaise, Duchamp.
There’s Duchamp at the segregated beach, in Asbury Park South (1920)! He’s in a pink suit, leading the actress Fania Marinoff down the boardwalk, which depicted in dazzling gold. People are diving, flirting, playing, and promenading in their finest. The writer Carl Van Vechten is in a stand above it all, quietly examining the Brueghel-worthy view. Stettheimer stands near the center of the action, absolutely still under a green parasol.
She’s often like that—in the thick of things, while at the same time maintaining a slight distance, or lingering on the edge of the activity, taking it all in. In Lake Placid (1919), which the MFA Boston owns, she’s wrapped in a rose-colored robe, tiptoeing into the spearmint-green water. In Natatorium Undine (1927), which is in Vassar’s collection, she wears gold and lounges on a pink chaise at a fantastical spa. Around her, ladies recline on huge seashells (and one odd, gigantic swan), make wild dives, get rubdowns from dark-amber-skinned men, dance to the band. These are rollicking paintings about the relentless pursuit of pleasure, the realization of wild fantasies, the ridiculousness of it all. They ooze a good-natured charm that is knowing but also indulgent. They’re ambivalent.
Stettheimer was certainly ambivalent in her involvement in the New York art world (which seems the only proper way to approach it). She regular accepted invitations to show her paintings at Whitney Annuals and Carnegie Internationals, but agreed to only a single solo show, at Knoedler, in 1916, for which she created a bit of installation art, avant la lettre, by bringing in furniture and curtains she had designed. She refused all other solos, even turning down the ever-powerful Alfred Stieglitz, who asked her to do an exhibition with him in December 1930—“during Xmas week you could add an Xmas tree if you wished,” he wrote, appealing to her prescient desire to control the environments in which her paintings hung. She preferred to unveil new paintings to select friends at “birthday parties” she held at her studio overlooking Bryant Park.
Nothing sold in that lone show. She was 45. (Take note, young artists whining about a lack of exhibitions and sales.) Major public success came about 20 years later, when she designed rococo, cellophane-heavy costumes and sets for Virgil Tomson’s Four Saints in Three Acts, which had a libretto by Gertrude Stein, and played on Broadway. Her preparatory materials for that project are here—hilarious little wire models of the performers—along with sketches and collages for an unrealized opera that she dreamed up around 1912, while living in Europe with her mother and sisters. They actually spent time in Munich, and Florine studied art there, making this current show something of an unexpected homecoming. (The father, Joseph, abandoned the family around the mid-1890s, leading them to decamp from Rochester for Germany. They returned to the U.S. in 1914, fleeing the war.)
It’s easy to adore her inventiveness on canvas, but her sly personality, the zest she brings to performing herself, is what makes her a truly fascinating figure. In the showstopper Portrait of Marcel Duchamp (1923)—for which she designed a frame lined with silver Ms and Ds—Stettheimer paints the young master in an armchair, carefully manipulating his alter ego Rrose Sélavy. Stettheimer was also adept at manipulating her self-presentation. In Portrait of Myself (1923) she paints herself with large red-rimmed eyes in a red cape and black headscarf, pulling a bouquet as she floats through a pale blue sky. It is one of the most alluring, otherworldly self-portraits I have ever seen.
And about a decade earlier, just before she settled on her mature style, she painted a gargantuan self-portrait, about 48 by 68 inches, of herself nude atop a bed, reclining like Olympia, bouquet in hand. She has a head of fiery red hair, which she props up with her finger, meeting our gaze with almost-regal self-confidence.
Columbia University owns those previous two paintings, along with a trove of other works, like an undated late-night party scene on a dark lake, lit by a huge blaze, and portraits from 1923 of her sisters Carrie, who poses by the famous dollhouse she made of the family home (the Museum of the City of New York has it now), and Ettie, who basks in the glow of a burning Christmas tree, lying on a red couch. Ettie’s estate left that bounty to Columbia in 1967. They’re all here.
Ettie, as it happens, spent the last years of her life making careful donations of Florine’s works to various American museums—one here, one there—which spread the gospel, but makes organizing surveys rather labor-intensive. Museums, happily, often keep the painting they have on view these days. But the works that she gave to Columbia are almost always in storage. They should not be, and if the university cannot find a place to show them regularly and publicly on campus, they should give them as long-term loans to institutions that are sans Stettheimers. No major museum should suffer that absence.
Not every major Stettheimer is in Munich (the Met’s four “Cathedral” works did not make the trip), but the show’s curators, Karin Althaus, Matthias Mühling, and Susanne Böller, have assembled enough of the great ones to present Stettheimer, quite clearly, as an extremely rare talent, and something even more unusual: an artist determined to do things exactly as she pleased. She made paintings that are effervescent and readily lovable, completely out of step with what one imagines when thinking of early modernism.
She was an alluring figure in her time—“they were so funny, and so far out of what American life was like then,” Duchamp wrote of the three unmarried sisters. This sentiment is even more appealing now that conformity rules so much of the art system.
Stettheimer wanted her art destroyed after her death. Ettie thankfully ignored that request, but she did edit her sister’s diaries, meaning there are details about her life that will never be disclosed. The artist did, however, offer an explanation of her compulsion to create her strange, intoxicating, beguiling works in a poem, published after her death. She wrote:
For a long time
I gave myself
To the arrested moment
To the unfulfilled moment
To the moment of quiet expectation
I painted the trance moment
The promise moment
The moment in the balance
In mellow golden tones . . .
Then I saw
Forcing me in joy to paint them . . .
“Art of the City” is a weekly column by ARTnews co-executive editor Andrew Russeth.