It was probably the garish pink walls and the gaudy iridescent sea green curtains pushed to the side that drew me into Jeffrey Deitch’s The Florine Stettheimer Collapsed Time Salon at the 2017 incarnation of the Armory Show. I mean, how could I not resist something so irresistibly tacky?! Not to mention, the simply decadent patterned chairs, couch and bizarre faux cake set between them that all looked like they belonged in Susan Sontag’s list of camp objects in her Notes On Camp.
I apparently wasn’t the only one, as swarms of art fair-goers, were drawn inside the space like moths to an ornate flame. However, the interior decorating wasn’t the only engrossing part of the booth.
Hung salon style, the walls are covered with brightly colored artwork, clashing just the right amount with the hot fuchsia walls. Shockingly, there are many Filthy Dreams favorites–artists that you dear faithful readers will recognize from these pages. Karen Kilmnik’s kitschy cat sticker-filled period rooms mirror the opulent exterior of the art fair booth, while three mixed media collages by filmmaker and aesthete Jack Smith depict his notoriously queer orientalist utopian worlds, confusing the boundaries between gender and sexual identity.
Similarly, the booth also includes artists that I can’t believe we never featured here like the trash-to-treasure, camp excess of Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt, Chloe Wise’s gastronomic erotica and queer New York School painter and writer Joe Brainard’s transcendent, vibrantly colored religious collages featuring Mary holding baby Jesus.
Overall, the booth, with a couple exceptions, looked like an effective ode to feminist and queer creativity. So why did I leave feeling so unsettled? While I’ve resisted writing about art fairs on Filthy Dreams, refusing to sully our upstanding blog with the stink of capitalism, I was conflicted enough about Deitch’s The Florine Stettheimer Collapsed Time Salon that I had to dredge it up to expose just why.
The art fair booth inadvertently raises the age-old question: How are we supposed to take feminist and queer gestures launched in a consumerist space like an art fair? But, questions surrounding the booth dig much deeper: what if it feels like an insincere performance of allyship–an attempt to show allegiance with women and queer communities in order to prop up the business career of a white cisgender male dealer?
And as a preface, I’ll admit I’m not one of the main Jeffrey Deitch haters (and there are those). His theatricality and over-the-top curatorial style often fits right in line with my own similar proclivities. And hey, his dramatic departure from Los Angeles’ MOCA was nothing short of heroic, alienating the anal retentive board by suggesting a retrospective on disco. I still laugh about conceptual stick in the mud John Baldessari resigning from the board days after the disco show announcement. What, John?! Do you not like “The Hustle”?
Now that’s out of the way, understanding the Armory booth takes some context and knowledge about Deitch’s career as a dealer. This is not the first time Deitch launched a revival of Stettheimer’s salon. In 1995, he resurrected her studio in the Gramercy International Art Fair, a more subtle precursor to the overblown spectacle that is the Armory (and if you’ve never been, dearest readers, trust me, you’re lucky).
Who is Stettheimer in the first place, you ask? Well, she was a feminist badass. She, and her sisters, held regular salons for artists and other creators like Marcel Duchamp, Georgia O’Keefe and Carl Van Vechten, known for his photographs of the Harlem Renaissance. Not just a patron of the arts, Stettheimer was a radical artist herself, painting from a distinctly feminine sensibility. In an article on Hyperallergic Weekend entitled “Florine Stettheimer: Feminist Provocateur,” Barbara Bloemink explains, “In 1915 she completed, Self-Portrait, the first known example of a woman painting herself entirely nude.” Bad girl!
Honoring Stettheimer’s painterly legacy, Deitch includes one of the artist’s beloved paintings in the Armory booth–Asbury Park South, which depicts a scene on a segregated beach that also includes Van Vechten, Duchamp and the artist herself. With an angular 1920s aesthetic, Stettheimer, at least from the painting, seems to treat race in a different manner from the exaggerated depictions of say, Josephine Baker by white artists of the same time period. Instead these lithe figures don’t feel othered, but are a celebratory and sensitive depiction of a joyous day at the beach.
Like her inclusive painting style, her salon, as Bloemink notes, featured “a remarkable mixture of gay, lesbian and bisexual members whom the artist included in virtually all of her compositions, beginning as early as 1920.” In attempting to reflect the spirit of Stettheimer’s salon, as well as her artwork, Deitch’s booth displays a similar mixture of queer artists.
Even some artists in The Florine Stettheimer Collapsed Time Salon don’t seem like they would be out of place at Stettheimer’s actual salon itself. Hence, the collapsed time aspect of Deitch’s project. Take, for example, the painting by McDermott & McGough, which depicts their seminal pansy figures in front of a well, floral pansy. Emblazoned with the words “pansy craze,” reflecting on the popularity of drag balls and other gay culture in the 1920s, their painting asks, “Is it true blondes have more fun?” Three men appear onstage, representing, on some level, the feyly subversive performance of the “fairy.”
Not only showcasing artists romanticizing Stettheimer’s era, Deitch presents a mix of artists he included in his original 1995 show with younger artists of today. The overall effect is a collection of work that looks in line with Stettheimer’s feminist history. It also feels distinctly separate from the eroticizing and objectifying, masculine gaze. Even Lisa Yuskavage’s work is still a overblown version of sexuality made by a woman.
While this would normally be a great achievement, particularly for a booth in an art fair, it becomes suspect when read in combination with Deitch’s past art fair project, Desire. Launched in Miami in time for last year’s Art Basel Miami Beach, Desire, co-organized with Larry Gagosian and Diana Widmaier-Picasso, was billed as an exploration of “modern and contemporary approaches to eroticism in art.” But, with a monumental sculpture of Howdy Doody-looking Jeff Koons fucking his then-wife Dirty–Jeff on Top as a central part of the show, the exhibition succeeded in limiting eroticism to whatever would get straight white men’s rocks off. Sure, the organizers also included a sprinkling of women artists like Marilyn Minter and Nan Goldin between the extensive roster of male artists. But, their appearance only seemed, in context, to reinforce the objectifying gaze of the viewers.
Between Desire and The Florine Stettheimer Collapsed Time Salon, I suffered from some serious whiplash. Why the sudden switch? On some level, it felt like penance for Desire, a woman and queer-centric apology for all that nonsense. And, on the other hand, it also appeared like a studied judgment call on the newfound popularity of identity politics. With Desire, sex sold and similarly with the Armory booth, so does, in fact, feminism in a time of pussy hats and women’s marches. But, only a white male dealer could make this rapid of a shift without enduring some serious critique from his peers.
The question remains: why now? Sure, Stettheimer is undeniably an under-recognized feminist hero that deserves our attention at a time when we’re all looking for foremothers (and will soon get a retrospective of her work at the Jewish Museum). In a New York Times article on the booth, M. H. Miller writes, “If Deitch’s goal in ’95 was to introduce Stettheimer to an unsuspecting public, the mission now is illustrating her wide influence.” However, if Deitch really wanted to show support of this important woman artist’s legacy, he would have placed it in a public gallery space not the short-lived, mega-collector-driven Armory Show.
While Deitch’s original recreation of her studio might have been a reminder of the arts community she constructed around her and its legacy in today’s art world, the Florine Stettheimer Collapsed Time Salon was a resurrection of HIS 1995 recreation. It’s not here to bolster her legacy, but his–an appropriation of the collective feminist gesture embodied by Stettheimer. Taking on Stettheimer’s strengths and visual language, Deitch plants himself in the glow of historical female radicality.
And it’s no mistake this is happening now. Allyship is in. You just have to look at the sudden popularity of “progressive” exhibitions by major galleries without a clear legacy of supporting these types of shows, as bigger galleries scramble to prove they’re on the right side of history. But, there’s a right way and a wrong way to be an ally. And this feels like an example of “ally theater,” a term coined on the blog Black Girl Dangerous by writer Princess Harmony Rodriguez.
According to Rodriguez, ally theater describes the self-centered performance of being the “good” (white person, straight person, cisgender person, etc) on social media. Instead of making space for minoritarian voices, these theatrical allies make it all about them, reinforcing the prominence of privileged voices.
As Rodriguez writes in “Caitlyn Jenner, Social Media and Violent ‘Solidarity’: Why Calling Out Abusive Material by Sharing It Is Harmful,” “The goal is, for some, to perform “ally theater.” The performance, played out on social media for all to see, gets you kudos, likes, faves, shares and even career opportunities…the people who are doing it with the sole intent of getting a pat on the head and a treat are dangerous. “Allies” who perform theater for a reward (real or imagined) do damage to the communities they’re supposed to be allied with.”
Hmmm…can you think of anything more rewarding than ingratiating yourself with collectors and critics at an art fair?
Black Girl Dangerous has been skeptical about allies previously, notably in an article, “No More ‘Allies’” by Mia McKenzie. They explain, “Allyship is not supposed to look like this, folks. It’s not supposed to be about you. It’s not supposed to be about your feelings. It’s not supposed to be a way of glorifying yourself at the expense of folks you claim to be an ally to. It’s not supposed to be a performance. It’s supposed to be a way of living your life that doesn’t reinforce the same oppressive behaviors you’re claiming to be against.”
And unfortunately, at the Armory show, Deitch seems to be doing exactly that–glorifying himself and his gallery and branding it as a space of progressive gestures both historically (in 1995) and currently. Should we be more wary of these performances of allyship, particularly moving forward in the sometimes, selfie-motivated activism of the Trump era? I think so.