PRINT Summer 1995


the Florine Scene

WHENEVER I COME across a European painter of the ’20s and ’30s who is too weird or just too silly to fit into convenient art-historical pigeonholes—the aging James Ensor painting menus in Ostend, for instance, or the Swedish painter Nils Dardel and his similar pranks in Paris—my thoughts always tend in the same direction: toward Florine Stettheimer, her unique blend of cafe cosmopolitanism and Upper West Side hijinks, and the myriad possible relations she could have had with other tangential figures between the wars. I have been fascinated by this quintessential New Yorker since the early ’70s, when, as a Sarah Lawrence undergrad, I heard the art historian Linda Nochlin lecture on her. Now she is apparently on many other people’s minds as well.

This is probably because of her involvement with such once-verboten genres as society portraiture, flower painting, decorating, and the staging of latter-day fêtes galantes. Today, when a consummate abstractionist like Philip Taaffe hangs Carl Van Vechten’s photos of Virgil Thomson’s opera Four Saints in Three Acts, originally designed by Stettheimer, in his New York studio, we know that the vanished world of ’20s and ’30s dandyism is once again apropos.

At the Gramercy International Art Fair, held this spring in the bedrooms of the Gramercy Park Hotel, the art consultant Jeffrey Deitch curated “Florine Stettheimer Collapsed Time Salon,” styling the setting with cellophane curtains and fancy highball glasses to evoke the artist’s Manhattan apartment. Deitch also had two Stettheimer-designed pieces of white and gold furniture re-created by craftsman Thomas Kerns; the originals were used for years as props by Columbia University’s theater department (to which the artist bequeathed them), and were eventually thrown away. Deitch also borrowed several Stettheimer paintings from Columbia, the most spectacular of these being a large idealized self-portrait of the artist posing nude in the manner of Manet’s Olympia.

To stress Stettheimer’s New York Dada connections, Deitch exhibited a delicate portrait of her by Marcel Duchamp. Like the self-portrait, this was hung directly on a mirrored wall, playing up the room’s air of glittery preciosity. Examples of Andy Warhol’s ’50s commercial and homoerotic work made a kind of retroactive sense, since Warhol saw Stettheimer’s work when exploring the cellars of the Metropolitan Museum with Henry Geldzahler. Of the more-contemporary artists, Jane Kaplowitz stole the show with her sketchy blowups of artworld portraits, book-party invitations, and memorable dinner menus. Life as a collapsible salon, full of brilliant wits, soulful women, and effeminate men, was here most properly evoked. David McDermott and Peter McGough came in a close second with an updated version of one of Stettheimer’s “Cathedrals of Art” paintings, complete with several recognizable portraits, including one of myself.

In a different mood, the L.A.–based writer Michael Duncan plans a Stettheimer-related show in September. Tentatively titled “Love Flight of a Pink Candy Heart” (after one of Stettheimer’s paintings), the show will emphasize her rediscovery by feminists and P&D artists in the ’70s. It will include an installation by Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt, with tinsel and glitter; a dollhouse by Miriam Shapiro, first shown in the Feminist Art Program at CalArts in the ’70s; and perhaps the flags Ree Morton showed at the South Street Seaport Museum in 1975. Work by Lari Pittman, Thomas Trosch, Hollis Sigler, Tina Barney, Mira Schor, Andrew Masullo, Robert Greene (also seen in Deitch’s show), and Kaplowitz will also appear. And the show will take place at the Holly Solomon gallery—perfect, since Solomon, the doyenne of the Pop and P&D movements, was a key figure in the ’70s Stettheimer revival.

Brooks Adams is a writer and critic who lives in New York.