In his diaries, Cecil Beaton called Florine Stettheimer "one of the most wistfully mothlike creatures" of her day. At her 1944 funeral, friend Georgia O'Keeffe delivered a eulogy that equivocated and described the artist as "perfectly consistent with any of her inconsistencies."
It's important to choose words carefully for the wall text about any artist but the Jazz Age designer, poet and painter poses an especial challenge of vocabulary – adjectives in particular.
"You always see words like unique, extraordinary, eccentric," curator Georgiana Uhlyarik says during a break from hanging the Art Gallery of Ontario's (AGO) Stettheimer exhibition this week.
Uhlyarik, the AGO's Fredrik S. Eaton curator of Canadian Art, co-curated Florine Stettheimer: Painting Poetry, a show of about 50 works, from paintings and poetry to costume designs and scenography maquettes, jointly organized with curator Stephen Brown at The Jewish Museum in New York, where it was shown prior to Toronto.
"For me, it was key that I consider the fact that most Canadians have not heard of her," Uhlyarik says of the first Stettheimer exhibition in Canada, "without having to justify her or place her in a lineage." The word eccentric can be patronizing, as are "intuitive" and "naive" often ascribed to Stettheimer's work that Uhlyarik put in the "no" column.
"We use words like refined, witty," she says. "This is someone who was in full control and exposed herself to as much variety of art and artists and culture, and she always knows."
The work itself has a compositional use of flowers, an expansive colour sense that combines unexpected saturated hues (like the chrome yellow grass of Picnic at Bedford Hills) with a chalky incandescent white that Brown has called "cocaine white." Over the years, as Stettheimer has amassed a cult following thanks to retrospectives at the Museum of Modern Art and by gallerists such as Jeffrey Deitch, some critics persist in reading her work as quaintly domestic, while others classify her sensibility as camp or dismiss her as a saccharine dilettante.
"I think it says much more about the needs of writers at the time, who, in a way, used Stettheimer to be able to make an argument for themselves rather than what she actually had to say," Uhlyarik says. "[Andy] Warhol sees something in her because he needs something validated, and for him, there is no higher compliment than usurping mass media and pop culture and presenting it as high art; [critic Linda] Nochlin needs to make her a socially conscious artist because otherwise she's just pink and fluffy things and confectionery and lace. But they are all complimenting her.
"What's fascinating about Stettheimer is she can withhold and withstand all of it. She's valuable enough to embrace it all, whatever you project."
Born into an affluent Jewish family in Rochester, N.Y., Stettheimer spent her first decades living, studying and travelling throughout Europe, immersed in culture with her mother and erudite sisters: Carrie, who spent years crafting the celebrated dollhouse that is now ensconced in the Museum of the City of New York, and Ettie, a novelist who earned her doctorate on philosopher William James.
Upon their return to New York City in 1914, Stettheimer, by then 43, studied with Kenyon Cox at the Art Students League and created her own idiosyncratic language of form, operating in the early modern art community as an outsider who was also the ultimate insider. After her first (and because it was a flop, only) solo show in 1916 at the Knoedler Gallery, Stettheimer controlled her image and and restricted access to her work. Her paintings were seldom shown outside her studio in the Beaux-Arts Building at Bryant Park or at the Upper West Side home she shared with her mother and sisters; they preferred to host cultural salons and intimate gatherings.
The circle of friends counted artists and critics such as O'Keeffe, Alfred Stieglitz, Gaston Lachaise, Carl Van Vechten, many of whom became portrait subjects, including both Marcel Duchamp and, famously, his elusive female alter-ego Rrose Sélavy (a pun of the French adage, Eros, c'est la vie).
One side of a curved wall in the gallery features a projection of archival footage filmed during the dress rehearsal of Virgil Thomson's groundbreaking all-black opera Four Saints in Three Acts. Staged on Broadway in 1934 and choreographed by Frederick Ashton with a libretto by Gertrude Stein, the costumes are by Stettheimer. In the populous tableaux nearby, Stettheimer's distinctively androgynous, sylphlike figures are languid and slinky, as though clay melting into liquid. Many paintings, such as Spring Sale at Bendel's, have an almost theatrical use of space and play with the idea of performance, with the canvas a stage set that hosts overlapping narratives and monologues. On the other side of that wall, character designs are arranged in a joyous procession. Stettheimer was so inspired in 1912 after seeing Nijinsky perform that she created these elaborate concepts for an unproduced ballet called Orphée of the Quat-z-Arts. Figure of a Woman, for example, is dimensional with fabric, hair, fur and yarn. The procession relates to the Stettheimer self-portrait with a painter's palette and a faun that is the first painting that exhibition visitors see. It is undated but marks the moment after she saw Nijinsky and arguably solidified her creative vision. Other maquettes in the series inspired by his Afternoon of a Faun include bits of tulle, modelling putty, fine beaded chain and cellophane, the transparent synthetic film she used in both her art and studio decor that became something of a signature.
"I thought about that tactility, and started to think about how she lived," Uhlyarik says of the space she created with exhibition designer Kristina Ljubanovic, and visitors will be immersed in the feeling of her world: pink is prominent, with metallic surfaces, mirrors and cellophane-like materials.
It suggests how the select few would have seen her work while she was alive – in a universe fringed in gold, and on her terms.
Florine Stettheimer: Painting Poetry runs at the Art Gallery of Ontario through Jan. 28.