Exhibit of the week
Florine Stettheimer: Painting Poetry
The Jewish Museum, New York City, through Sept. 24
“This is a good time to take Florine Stettheimer seriously,” said Peter Schjeldahl in The New Yorker. The New York–based artist (1871–1944) has for decades “seemed an eccentric outlier to American modernism.” When Andy Warhol named her his favorite artist, he was probably half joking. But what happens if we stop thinking of Stettheimer as a dilettante who painted folksy group portraits of her famous friends? What happens if we stop pigeonholing her as a sidekick to luminaries like Marcel Duchamp and Carl Van Vechten? In the current retrospective at the Jewish Museum in New York, she emerges as a central player in a “world-changing” avant-garde.
She is, in truth, a contender for the title of America’s greatest modern painter before Jackson Pollock, said Roberta Smith in The New York Times. Looking at a faux-naïf work like 1918’s Picnic at Bedford Hills, “you don’t hear history screeching to a halt, the way you do, say, with Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon.” But the painting’s depiction of several artists lounging on a bright-yellow hillock while laborers gather wheat in a distant pink background distorts space and establishes patterns that work an edge-to-edge magic, and “you know something marvelous—and radical—is going on.” The spark for such masterpieces had come several years earlier, when Stettheimer saw a Ballets Russes production in Paris and developed an instant passion for celebrating the body in motion. She soon created a ballet of her own, and was granted a New York gallery exhibition—albeit one so disappointing she thereafter showed only at her private salons. Still, the “ravishing” canvases she produced from her late 40s on “demand to be recognized.”
Of the many reasons Stettheimer isn’t better known, her whimsy might have been the most decisive, said John Yau in Hyperallergic.com. In 1915, she became the first female artist to paint a nude selfportrait, and she followed that with Studio Party (1917–1919), in which the same painting hangs above a crowd too bashful to look. But Stettheimer’s whimsy often cloaked more serious purpose, and “the painting that got me” is 1920’s Asbury Park South, a scene of black and white families frolicking on a New Jersey beach that was, in reality, strictly segregated. “It is a fantasy and it is whimsical and it is something more.”