PRINT Summer 1995


Jutta Koether talks with Elisabeth Sussman

I THINK OF FLORINE STETTHEIMER as both an outlaw and an insider, a condition peculiar to the haute-bohemian milieu she knew well in ’20s and ’30s New York. Her paintings offer social commentary but they also celebrate sheer leisure, and the time is ripe to shed a broader light on them, and on Stettheimer’s whole persona. So far, interest in this artist and phenomenon (1871–1944) has been relatively clandestine. One signpost was Linda Nochlin’s 1980 essay “Rococo Subversive,” which detected in Stettheimer’s paintings, and in her way of fusing life and work, evidence of the possibility of being simultaneously a “snob and social activist”; another was Elisabeth Sussman’s 1980 Stettheimer exhibition at the ICA in Boston. Still, she remains something of a cult taste.

Now, 15 years after her first Stettheimer exhibition, Sussman is once again trying to introduce a broader audience to the work, this time in a show at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, where she is a curator. Sussman’s show will reflect new scholarship that has accumulated in the intervening years, as well as recent art-historical methodologies that have opened the discipline to issues of context and resuscitated previously marginalized figures, but which have left Stettheimer’s contribution relatively unexplored. For me, Stettheimer’s marginality, together with her particular painterly awkwardness and her quirky “originality,” provided the initial attraction; other artists somewhat off the beaten track, artists like Gustave Moreau, Pavel Tchelitchev, and Louis Eilshemius, supplied an ersatz genealogy for her—ancestors who, in the eyes of art history, might be called the magnificent failed ones. But if the “perversity” of these underground styles was the initial lure, my fascination quickly opened onto questions of context—of what kind of attendant creative activity provided the groundwork for the painterly idiom she developed. It is this relation between the life and the work that has made Stettheimer such a key figure for me; my own art has involved a repositioning of the relation between painting, social activity, and communication. So I welcomed the chance to talk with Sussman, in anticipation of the full-scale Stettheimer show, cocurated with Barbara Bloemink, that opens at the Whitney July 13.

Jutta Koether

JUTTA KOETHER: You curated a show of Florine Stettheimer’s work back in 1980. How did you get interested in her, and how has that interest developed into the larger commitment behind the survey you’re curating at the Whitney?

ELISABETH SUSSMAN: I initially came across Stettheimer in a biographical entry about her in Notable American Women, a women’s encyclopedia. I was interested in the ’20s, in Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, etc.—all these stories about bohemian Greenwich Village, the mixture of theatrical and literary types, and the roles of women in that milieu—and everything I was interested in at the time seemed to figure in this biographical entry. Virtually the minute I read it, and before I’d seen even one of her paintings in the flesh, I fired off a proposal for a show.

I knew her milieu from my own background. The biography made quite a bit of the fact that she was German-Jewish, and I had always felt that identification very strongly.

JK: I discovered Stettheimer somewhat later, when a friend gave me her 1973 Columbia University catalogue as support and inspiration for my own art. For me, finding out about her was like crossing paths with a kindred spirit outside painting’s conventional history. Over the years I’ve discovered other advocates: Linda Nochlin, and later Jay Gorney, who showed me her significance as a figure in an as-yet-unwritten history of gay esthetics.

ES: Back then the show involved a lot of detective work. I read the journals, which are in the Yale library, and found quite a bit of material at Columbia. A biography was published in a limited edition in 1963. It was commissioned by her family and written by Parker Tyler, an important gay writer and film critic at the time. As it turned out, it was Tyler who had written the encyclopedia entry I saw. I got interested in his whole network of involvements: he was a link between the gay cultural community of the ’20s and the gay community within an art scene I knew something about—New York in the ’60s. It was through Tyler and View magazine, where he worked, that Andy Warhol came in. Tyler, who had met Stettheimer and reviewed her work in View before writing the biography, also wrote about Warhol’s films. And Warhol, through other channels, was by the ’60s a Stettheimer fan.

Stettheimer was interesting enough to me as a kind of intersection for untold or half-told histories; then her work turned out to be great in its own right. I must have seen something, like these completely crazy colors, that told me I was on the right track; the more of her work I saw, the more I liked it.

JK: She had an unorthodox versatility, an ability to have a noncareer in art and still be at the center of things, an attractor and a trigger of conversation. These qualities—not to mention her interest in decorating—suggest a kind of anti-Modernist disposition. Could she be seen as a precursor of today’s involvement of artists in popular culture?

ES: She was certainly interested in dance and theater, especially when the staging was ornate. She was actually involved in avant-garde theater; she did the stage designs and costumes for the Virgil Thomson Gertrude Stein opera Four Saints in Three Acts. All the performers were black and the decor was mostly white! Her decorative interventions stretched the Thomson/Stein vision. One of her trademarks, which she used in the production, was cellophane. She had a thing for cheap glitter, which features in all of her early work. Her studio was hung with cellophane curtains; there were nets, beads, and see-through clear stuff all over the place. Cecil Beaton was a fan and wrote about her interiors, besides creating paper interiors himself. And of course Warhol covered the walls of the Factory with aluminum foil.

JK: So she wasn’t entirely an esthetic isolate. Wasn’t she considered a painter, though?

ES: She was definitely a painter. One reason her studio attracted so much comment was that it was the only place she showed her paintings. You could see single works in group shows, but she didn’t have solo exhibitions in avant-garde galleries like Alfred Stieglitz’s. Or, rather, she did have one show in 1916 at Knoedler, but it came at a bad moment for her and the work wasn’t really any good. Everything was taking off in American art at that instant, but her work still owed a lot to a neoclassical academic approach—she had yet to arrive at her own adventurous style. So Stieglitz didn’t take her up then, and nor did the art world of the time. The upshot was that she lost faith in exposing her work publicly. Because the work didn’t fit in, her studio became an important site.

JK: Her relatively private development was made possible by her family’s support.

ES: Yes, her mother and her sisters, Ettie and Carrie. They ran these regular evenings, elegant yet bohemian. They were rich in the sense that nobody had to work to make a living, but they weren’t really rich; their first house, in the West ’70s, was modest and bourgeois. By 1924, though, they came into some money and moved into a 14-room apartment in the elegant Alwyncourt Building, a block from Carnegie Hall. Florine’s mother was always around, and she was also bound up with this sister act. Her real individual identity was reserved for her studio work; at home she was always part of a threesome. Tyler called it the “virgin cult.”

Though the family stuck together, there was an element of competitiveness. Ettie, the youngest of the three sisters, was the intellectual of the family. She studied in Freiburg and had a flirtation with Marcel Duchamp. The sisters never celebrated their feminine independence in the way Gertrude Stein did, or Colette. They didn’t split up until after their mother’s death; that’s when Florine moved into her own studio. Ettie dutifully did all she could to distribute Florine’s works after her death, and she had the studio photographed. Unfortunately she also cut pages from Florine’s diaries before donating them to Yale. Only a handful of scholars have done any serious research on Ettie, and they all come out thinking she was a little evil. In any event, she was not a happy camper.

JK: Florine was both protected and determined by that scene, yet she was extremely independent in her art. Her paintings are diaristic or journalistic at the same time that they’re full of symbolism and dream. They’re very pop in a way, yet very naive. What made her tick?

ES: She was very committed to the things that turned her on. She had this great appreciation for New York, for the particular world she lived in, and for elegant or slightly offbeat rituals—shopping, conversation, arranging bouquets, wearing fancy clothes, giving parties. Everything she painted came from her life. Some of her paintings evince a quality of longing, but nothing destroys the glitter. She read Vanity Fair. She knew about caricature, theater, and fashion, and brought them together in art—for the first time in American culture.

JK: How extensive is this show compared with previous ones?

ES: There’ll be stage designs—dolls, collages, figurines—sketches for a ballet production, and most of the paintings. The show will also include photographs of the famous dollhouse created by Carrie Stettheimer, which contains a mini version of Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase that he painted himself. We’re showing photographs we commissioned from David Levinthal, because the actual dollhouse is too fragile to move.

JK: So you want the camp subtext to shine through, making it clear that something can, as Nochlin puts it, be simultaneously "serious and lightheartedly outrageous, giving evidence of the artist’s view that admiration and social criticism are far from mutually exclusive.”