Artists Among Friends: Florine Stettheimer at the Jewish Museum and Robert Rauschenberg at MoMA

By Franklin Hill Perrell

No one has yet observed that these two exhibitions address a number of parallel points: here are artists situated amidst a cultural ambience defined by their connections with musicians, composers, dancers, photographers, and fellow artists in relationships that became embodied in the spirit of their art- with Rauschenberg, specifically, of collaboration, and with Stettheimer (though a significant moment of actual collaboration did occur) , the relationship with other artists was overtly manifest through her famed salon and as the portrait subjects, often in groups, of her art. Only one person, however, significantly overlapped in contact with both artists, the notably long lived Marcel Duchamp.

Looking at either Rauschenberg or Stettheimer in this sense, a portrait of their eras emerges in respect to avant-grade figures and trends.

While it is obvious that the elegant lifestyle of Stettheimer, and her elite origins, contrasted with the hard won success of Rauschenberg who overcame an array of social and financial challenges, the degree of commonality, otherwise, is astonishing. It appears that neither artist could create alone.

Movements like Impressionism, cubism, surrealism, and pop were the product of group efforts and thinking. Both Stettheimer and Rauschenberg were singularly atypical as cultural figures. Stetheimer’s styule is hers alone, and Rauschenberg, said to straddle abstract expressionism, pop, minimalism and conceptualism, is different from anyone else. He managed to do absolutely everything: installation, photography, and virtually every form of visual art media within the range of printmaking through drawing, painting, and sculpture. Can we call Stetheimer an art-deco symbolist? She was not at all a cubist, nor was she specifically a Neo-classicist or a Dadaist, though many of her friends were.

The careers of Stettheimer and Rauschenberg become a fascinating vehicle through which to access significant cultural trends of their times. From Stettheimer, we can explore links to artists like Marcel Duchamp, Elie Nadelman, Gaston Lachaise, Albert Gleizes,and William Zorach and cultural figures or phenomena like Nijinsky and Diaghilev, Alfred Steiglitz, Gertrude Stein, Virgil Thompson, Carl Van Vechten, the Harlem Rennaissance, Jazz age New York, Prohibition, Mayor Jimmy Walker, Woodrow Wilson. For Rauschenberg, start with Jasper Johns, Cy Twombly, John Cage, and Merce Cunningham, and continue with Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol, James Rosenquist, John Chamberlain, Jean Tinguely, Niki de Saint-Phalle, Brice Marden, and the dealers Bettty Parsons, Leo Castelli, and Ileana Sonnabend, and fine art printers like Tatyana Grossman and Bill Goldstrom. A unifying factor with both Stetheimer and Rauschenberg is that these relationships were inextricable to their careers and productivity, being incorporated into the work and fore fronted in amazingly tangible and even tactile ways. It is a rare treat to have the opportunity to see the extraordinary exhibitions of both artists during the summer of 2017.

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