Shortly after the birth of Pop art in the 1960s came the discovery of Pop’s forerunners, the American artists who had anticipated Pop’s fascination with commercial culture: billboards, magazine advertisements, Broadway, department stores, the works. Frozen by the winter regime of absolute abstraction, these artists have come to life: Stuart Davis, with his images of Damon Runyon on Lucky Strike packs and newspaper headlines; Charles Demuth, with his grocery store signs and water tower lettering; Gerald Murphy, with his precision studies of watches, razors and safety matches, who went from being a handsome loser Fitzgerald, having inspired the character of Dick Diver in “Tender Is the Night”, to a recognition sudden as an American rhapsode alongside Fitzgerald himself.
Of all these, the painter and set designer Florine Stettheimer was the most difficult to reintegrate into the history of American art, as her reappraisal involved a number of contradictions. On the one hand, she was a perfect heroine for the emergence of a feminist-minded art history. Forty years ago, Linda Nochlin wrote an essay in Art in America reintroducing Stettheimer to the world and celebrating “The Cathedrals of New York” – a series of four paintings meant to encapsulate the secular religions of mid-century Manhattan – as a profound and lifelong contribution to our understanding of self. On the other hand, Stettheimer shamelessly belonged to a world of what we call privilege. She lived for many years in the extravagant, rococo building Alwyn Court, with her mother and two of her sisters, who, like Florine, never married or started a household with anyone, male or woman. (It seemed as unusual then as it does now.) A wealthy woman from the heights of New York’s German-Jewish society, Stettheimer rarely engaged in the vulgar business of selling her work.
A famous exemplum virtutis has young Andy Warhol appealing to the equally young Met curator Henry Geldzahler in the early sixties, the curator volunteering to get the artist to want to see the museum’s Stettheimers, then not always on view. Warhol nodded enthusiastically, and a sensibility was not so much born as modernized. Yet there was little Pop practice in Stettheimer’s work: no appropriation, no collage, no photographic or typographic imagery drawn directly from the living mainstream of popular culture. The world of movies, musicals and department store sales has always been translated into its own feathery and ornamental style, all cockatoo colors and birthday cake surfaces. She pioneered Pop topics and Pop mannerisms without Pop strategies. It was Stettheimer, however, who was perhaps the closest American friend of pop ancestor Marcel Duchamp, the inventor of the appropriation of ordinary objects and the ready-made, the man who took a urinal in a display case and brought it into the art gallery.
Today, art historian Barbara Bloemink has arrived to unravel these conflicting impulses and accomplishments, with the publication of “Florine Stettheimer” (Hirmer), the first in-depth and scholarly biography of the artist. Stettheimer is shown to have been surprisingly insightful in her judgments of others and thoughtful about her talents and motivations. Her faux-naive, fluorescent style has been considered a fountain of exuberance from a semi-trained, instinctive artist; in truth, she was a highly skilled draftsman who could spin a torso with top academics. A particular gift of Bloemink’s biography is that it presents the verse-free poetry that Stettheimer wrote alongside her paintings, and shows that her verse, although produced without the immense technical care she devoted to her visual art, are equally remarkable in their own way. . His tone foretells Frank O’Hara’s affable, flippant “Lunch Poems” of the 50s and 60s, his soda fountain haiku. (There is a small Canadian edition of the complete Stettheimer poems, but they deserve full-scale illustrated trade publication.) The image long thought to depict Rockefeller Center actually shows a forgotten skating rink in Central Park near Columbus Circle, and she explains what this urban space looked like and what it meant to New Yorkers at that time.
Bloemink can’t resist some panicking pieties, of course. She regularly insists that her subject matter was “subversive”, even though Stettheimer was a wealthy society bohemian who never had to work for a living and had the habits and mannerisms of her class and her species. To portray her as a model contemporary is to miss what was courageous in her life and work. To be subversive or transgressive is not in itself a virtue; as the Trump years have shown us, it all depends on the rule broken and the norm overturned. Stettheimer’s originality lay in how she shamelessly embraced her own condition, how clearly she looked at her world as it was, rather than trying to paint the equivalent of socially conscious cartoons in the New Masses. More than any artist, she painted as a New Yorker, in love with New York, and captured all of her culture, not so much without makeup as wearing makeup of her exultant choice, from mascara, to rouge to lips and thick glitter.
An essential book remains to be written on the American clothing and haberdashery trade in its relation to art: Gerald Murphy was an heir to Mark Cross, while Diane Arbus and Richard Avedon were shaped by money won and lost at schmatte stores on Fifth Avenue. The old European pattern of one generation making money, the next consolidating social position and the third practicing the arts has been amputated in New York, with the second generation jumping straight from dry goods to wet surfaces, from store to studio . (One could add to the story the role of Gimbels and Wanamaker in Manhattan as spaces to show advanced painting. Stettheimer has exhibited his work five times at Wanamaker.)
Stettheimer, born in 1871, was one of those heirs to haberdashery on both sides of her family tree: her maternal grandfather, Israel Walter, had a successful haberdashery business downtown on Beaver Street; his father, Joseph Stettheimer, had made money in the clothing business in Rochester. But Joseph, for obscure reasons, abandoned his family when Florine was a little girl. They moved to New York and she grew up in an entirely matriarchal environment, with her aunts Caroline and Josephine, alongside her mother, Rosetta, as the dominant figures in her life. (Caroline had married into another wealthy Jewish clothing business family, the Neustadters of San Francisco.) Bloemink reproduces an extraordinary photograph of Florine’s parents, six aunts and a single overmatched uncle. Matriarchal families have a complicated and woven relationship with feminism. Those who live in them know that women can do anything, but they do like women, among women, and can look inward for strength as easily as they fight outward for equality. This is how Rosetta and the Stetties, as her three youngest daughters were called, came together: a defensive phalanx of four.
The Stetties and their mother wandered through Europe in the last decades of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, with long stops in Rome and Florence, where Florine, having already decided to become an artist, took to love for Quattrocento painting; Botticelli’s marriage of coloring book whimsy and intricate linear decoration was a particular passion. As was then the custom among aesthetes, the family spent at least as much time in romantic Germany as in advanced Paris. They lived for about three years in Munich, where Florine studied painting academically.
Living and learning in Germany, however, produced in her a horror of German culture, with its pervasive ethic of Pflicht—duty or of great gravity. Even Beethoven did not escape his distaste for the Teutons being Teutons. “Oh horrors / I hate Beethoven,” she wrote in a private poem. “And I was raised / To revere him / Worship him / Oh horrors / I hate Beethoven / I hear the Fifth / Symphony / Conducted by Stokowski / It’s done heroically / Joyously pompous / Unfailingly infallible.” She was annoyed and irritated by what was cheerfully pompous, what was insistently infallible, what was devoutly ecstatic: anything that bore traces of solemn instruction and humorless purpose. She believed that an artist’s only duty was not to have one.
Bloemink argues, persuasively, that the pivot of Florine’s artistic life came, as with so many others, when she met the Ballets Russes, which she attended in Paris in 1912. “I saw something beautiful last night,” she wrote. in his diary. “Bakst, the costume designer and painter, is lucky to be so artistic and to be able to see his things performed.” The sharp edges and diagonal excitement of movement must have felt overwhelming and liberating. With characteristic ambition, and perhaps characteristic impracticality, she began to conceive her own never produced ballet, exploring ideas she would later return to in her designs for the opera “Four Saints in Three Acts”, by Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein.
She returned to New York in 1914, with the outbreak of war, a leap from darkening Pflicht from Europe. Where emigrants generally accepted New York while longing for Europe, she loved New York, preferring it by far to any European capital, and even after the war she remained faithful to it, never returning to the continent. One of his poems says: