I walked into MOMA in 1976 and fell in love: with a painting. It was a coup de foudre. The first thing that drew me to it was the wacky, white scalloped frame. The painting it surrounded (Family Portrait II, 1933) was impossibly girlish, personal and completely against the prevailing grain. I stood transfixed. Who was this woman? How could she paint like this is the 1930’s, in this deceptive schoolgirl hand? Forty years after my introduction to her work, we have caught up to Florine; her calculatedly naïve approach to painting seems familiar, no longer the work of an outlier, she is one of us. But then, she was dancing and twirling to a prescient tune wholly her own.
Stettheimer received traditional training in art academies in Germany, where she and her family lived until the First World War forced them to return to the States. Her early paintings are competent and rather unimaginative – there is little hint of what was to come, though as early as 1917 she used unorthodox materials: tassels, velvets, paste jewels, glitter, net and quantities of putty she mixed into oil paint to give it volume and substance, applying it to the canvas with a putty knife. She made a conscious decision to radically alter her style in about 1918, painting scenes and dreamscapes of her life in and near New York in a way so original for its time that most people in the art world simply did not know what to make of it. Some did: her dear friend Marcel Duchamp admired her work and mounted a posthumous retrospective of her paintings at MOMA in 1946. One wonders why he took so long. Should anyone doubt Stettheimer’s wry sense of humor, or her acute awareness of her choices, just look at the riotous summer painting Asbury Park South, 1920. On the far left of the canvas, a poster advertising a performance by the famed singer Enrico Caruso is rendered in a perfectly realistic style, while the rest of the canvas is painted a la Florine. Paintings two ways.
Family Portrait II, in MOMA’s permanent collection since 1956 (a gift to the museum by Stettheimer’s surviving sister, Ettie) is a luscious poem of a painting, with a huge bouquet of flowers floating center stage in a surreal, dreamy space, a device Stettheimer would use often. Beneath the blossoms is a round rug, another familiar symbol, and on it are written the names of her family. Unlike other American artists using text at the time, Stettheimer chose words not as signifiers but as points of information, making sure we knew everyone’s name and status. Family Portrait is suffused with red, one of her favorite colors. We are both inside and outside, simultaneously. Each flower represents one of Florine’s perennial cast of characters: her mother, and her two sisters. Stettheimer represents herself both as the tendrils that bind the flowers together and in a self-portrait standing stage left (all her paintings are highly theatrical), dressed in an elegant pants suit and stiletto heels, palette and brush in hand, as she surveys the scene. Stettheimer often inserted herself in her paintings – a silent, lithe and ageless observer. In the background on the left, a chalky Empire State Building stands next to a gigantic crystal chandelier; and on the right a diminutive Lady Liberty holds her flame aloft.
Stettheimer continued to use unusual materials, to create a stage set for Virgil Thompson’s opera Four Saints in Three Acts, to fabricate inventive, customized frames for her paintings, and to construct what we would now call an “installation” for the sole one person exhibition she had in her lifetime at Knoedler in 1916, bringing into the gallery a copy of her gold and white bed canopy, and hanging the walls with diaphanous materials. Florine Stettheimer was an eccentric (she originally wanted all her paintings buried with her, like an ancient royal!), a sophisticate, a fashionista, social butterfly, and a poet.
“I was pure white
You made a painted show-
Thing of me
You called me the real-thing
No setting was too good for me
Silver – even gold
I needed gorgeous surroundings
You then sold me to another man”
– Florine Stetteimer
If you ‘d like to read more about Stettheimer, see Zucker’s article in Art News, February 1977. “An Autobiography of Visual Poems,” vol. 76. no 2. pp. 68-73.
Barbara Zucker lives and works in Burlington, Vermont. www.barbarazuckersculptor.com