Exhibit Highlights The Work Of The Late Avant-Garde Artist Florine Stettheimer

Sep 19, 2017
Originally published on September 21, 2017 8:50 am
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The colorful American artist Florine Stettheimer is not a household name, but she was part of some of the most exciting avant-garde movements of the 20th century. She had only one public exhibit of her paintings during her lifetime. She died in 1944, and posthumous exhibits have been few and far between. The first new exhibit of her work is at the Jewish Museum in New York until Sunday. Our classical music critic, Lloyd Schwartz, went for the art but stayed for the dessert.

LLOYD SCHWARTZ, BYLINE: Florine Stettheimer is probably less well-known for her paintings than for the cellophane set she designed for an extraordinary opera by Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein, "Four Saints In Three Acts," which had its premiere in Hartford in 1934. With its all-black cast, "Four Saints" was not just an artistic landmark but a landmark in American culture. There were three minutes of silent black-and-white film clips that are the only extant movie footage to survive of that original production, a brief flash of the opera's joyous exuberance. This film runs as a continuous loop in an exhibit of Stettheimer's paintings and poetry at the Jewish Museum.

There's something deceptively naive about Stettheimer's art. The first thing you notice are the bright, even garish colors. The figures look almost like children's drawings except that the postures and the facial expressions are very alive and revealing. Stettheimer's portraits of her mother, aunt and teacher are very similar in design but present three totally different and distinct personalities. A close friend in her artistic circle was the avant-garde master Marcel Duchamp. One wall caption reads, Duchamp was an intimate friend of the Stettheimer sisters, to whom he taught French and with whom he flirted.

This witty caption characterizes the tone of the entire show. Among Stettheimer's best paintings are her images of Duchamp. I especially like the one in which she depicts not only Duchamp but his female alter ego, Rrose Selavy, in which the name Rose begins with two R's and c'est la vie is spelled S-E-L-A-V-Y. The show also includes a telling and touching drawing by Duchamp of Florine at her most fragile and inward.

A little like the French artist Raoul Dufy, who was her contemporary, Stettheimer's images tend to shoot out from the center and cover the entire canvas. Many of her paintings are set in parks and circuses, at picnics, theatres and parties, pinwheeling images of pleasure and joy and explosions of red and orange, yellow and purple. There are also a number of fascinating self-portraits, including a particularly intriguing frank and virtually lifesize, full-length reclining nude that's a startling parody of Manet's notorious "Olympia."

The complete title of the show is "Florine Stettheimer: Painting Poetry." Stettheimer was also a delightful poet - urban, urbane and playful. In this poem, which combines her philosophy of art with her philosophy of life, the title runs into the body of the poem. (Reading) My attitude is one of love, is all adoration for all the fringes, all the color, all tinsel creation. I like slippers gold, I like oysters cold and my garden of mixed flowers and the sky full of towers, and traffic in the streets and Mallard's sweets and Bendel's clothes and Nat Lewis hose, and Tappe's window arrays and crystal fixtures and my pictures, and Walt Disney cartoons and colored balloons.

The only depressing thing about this exhibit is the incredibly tight, almost airport-like security, which I suppose an institution called the Jewish Museum must be forced to employ these days. One reward for this inconvenience, though, is that the legendary Lower East Side appetizing store Russ and Daughters now has a little cafe and takeout counter in the museum. But with the Florine Stettheimer show upstairs, it's not only the bagels and lox and babka at the Jewish Museum that are delicious.

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz teaches in the creative writing MFA program at the University of Massachusetts Boston. His latest book of poems is called "Little Kisses." He reviewed "Florine Stettheimer: Painting Poetry," which will be on view at the Jewish Museum in New York through September 24th and then move on to Toronto for three more months.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest, Harvard professor Danielle Allen, will reflect on the life and tragic death of her younger cousin. Her cousin, Michael, was arrested for the first time at age 15, when tough sentencing laws were driven by the war on drugs. He spent 11 years in prison and was shot to death three years after his release. Allen's book, "Cuz," is both a memoir and a critique of the justice system. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie and Thea Chaloner. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.