by Florine Stettheimer

“For Florine’s friends and the friends of her paintings.” Karl Holmqvist, Dignity Sister, and Dan Fox voice the poems of Stettheimer’s Crystal Flowers, with an introduction by Nick Mauss.

“Études” was produced by Triple Canopy as part of its Immaterial Literature project area, supported in part by the Brown Foundation, Inc., of Houston, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, and the New York State Council on the Arts. Thanks to Irene Gammel and Suzanne Zelazo, Dial Records, and Galerie Neu.

Florine Stettheimer’s costumes and set for act 1 of the 1934 production of Four Saints in Three Acts. Photo: Harold Swahn. Courtesy Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
I associate Florine Stettheimer with moving to the city to begin art school, with making a friend, and

with struggling to find a motif in history that I could relate to, something to project into. During the late 1990s, in a surprisingly homophobic and theoretically stale New York art school atmosphere, to come upon the scenes Stettheimer had painted between World Wars I and II offered secret elation and a sense of kinship. I felt strangely close to her raucous, dissonant milieu—something other than a “scene”—which animated its conversations into a variety of experimental works (Stettheimer’s set and costume designs for Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson’s opera Four Saints in Three Acts, for example). Flipping through issues of Charles Henri Ford’s View magazine in the library, I came upon Thomson’s 1943 “Portrait of Florine Stettheimer,” a musical composition as portrait, which, like Stein’s portraits in text, aimed for something like an affectionate caricature of a peer. This encounter with Stettheimer, seen through the lens of musical notation, reminded me of the charge of so many first encounters: the way in which the new object remains opaque yet also shimmeringly open. Its legibility requires time.

Ken Okiishi and I made a record on which each of us performed a sight reading of Thomson’s portrait on the piano. The effect was awkward, amateurish—interpretation gave out under the technical challenge of simply trying to play the unknown piece—in some sense magnifying the tensions and pitfalls inherent in trying to invoke Stettheimer, or anybody. Some years later, Ken found a copy of Crystal Flowers, from 1949, published posthumously in an edition of 250 by Florine’s sister Ettie. We were thrilled to read the poems and the texts written “as ‘tho from a diary” in the voice of Florine—to find that like her paintings, her poems are so present. Stylized, ornate, jazzy, sharp, wistful, sugary—they jubilantly synthesize in Stettheimer’s unmistakable tone the pleasures, pangs, and aspirations of a life in culture.

It seemed to lie on the hand for these poems to find other voices, or to see what response they call out for, perhaps as a means to measure the difference between now and then. I wanted to republish this small volume, intended for “Florine’s friends and the friends of her paintings,” in a warped way, and landed on the form of an LP collection of songs and voice tracks by various individuals interpreting or refracting the text. I went to the New York Public Library, ordered their copy of Crystal Flowers from the depths of the closed stacks, and Xeroxed the fraying little book in its entirety, so that I could send out a facsimile to people I thought might like to read the poems, too, and be inclined to respond to my invitation. While some of those I invited already knew Florine’s work very well, for others this was an entirely new encounter.

Nick Mauss