Jewish Museum/Art Gallery of Ontario/Yale University Press, 168 pp., $45.00
Florine Stettheimer was known in her time and has continued to be thought of as one of the more exotic and least classifiable figures in American art. When Paul Rosenfeld wrote about her in 1945, a year after she died at seventy-two, he likened one of her paintings, which generally show festive gatherings—and are usually populated with small and boneless figures who scamper or contort themselves, or simply lounge, with an antic energy—to “theatre, the opera and even the circus.” Rosenfeld’s reaching for art forms other than painting to describe Stettheimer’s work may be what viewers first coming to her pictures still do. Although she was a trained artist who, already as a teenager, had an exacting ability to render, Stettheimer chose to work in a manner that suggests she was a Sunday painter and, more than that, a wildly self-confident, even inebriated one.
With their bright reds, yellows, and purples, their figures and forms that can be any size and drawn in any curvy, spindly, approximate way—and with the artist’s uninhibited idea of what constitutes a subject for a picture—paintings by Stettheimer can make us stare in equal amounts of wonder, amusement, and disbelief. Almost a century after she made the 1921 Spring Sale at Bendel’s, which shows the shoppers in action—and is not a small drawing but a good-sized oil painting—we can still smile at her temerity. A painting set at Bendel’s?
Rosenfeld’s words are quoted in an essay by Georgiana Uhlyarik that appears in the catalog accompanying a retrospective of Stettheimer’s work currently at the Jewish Museum. Entitled “Florine Stettheimer: Painting Poetry” (poems by the artist appear here and there in the catalog), the exhibition is a welcome and quietly revelatory event. It presents—especially for those of us who have never seen many Stettheimer pictures at the same time, or missed the last retrospective of her work, which was at the Whitney in 1995—a more considerable and a more formal artist than one might have imagined. The Florine Stettheimer this observer came away with was an artist who, in the idiosyncratic way she painted and structured her scenes, would make twentieth-century American painting tell a different story if she played a larger part in it.
Not that the exhibition itself, in its conception and in the design of the displays, leads one to this conclusion. On the contrary, the show seems to have been organized to mirror Stettheimer’s biography, and this shortchanges her art. Stettheimer came from a family of some wealth. She didn’t want, or need, to exhibit her work regularly in galleries but preferred to unveil new pictures in a salonlike setting in her studio (which, on 40th Street, faced Bryant Park). In the current show, perhaps to convey the sense of…
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