The Stettheimer Dollhouse & Duchamp’s Little Known Miniature


A dollhouse and Marcel Duchamp. Not exactly two words you expect to have a strong relationship.

But that would be incorrect, I was amazed to discover recently, when I came across the Stettheimer Dollhouse at the Museum of the City of New York. Peering through the glass that now encloses it, I saw a dollhouse taken to new, opulent heights with 16 rooms of elaborate themed decoration in a miniature two-story mansion that speaks of upper-crust 1930s New York. No detail was too small: tiny pieces of Limoges porcelain, carefully fashioned window drapes and swag, elaborate wall murals and mirrored doors as well as chandelier after chandelier. In fact, it is a replica of the Stettheimer sisters’ home created by Carrie Stettheimer. If the decor seems fantastic, it is also surprisingly mimetic; the Stettheimer home was also decorated in such a whimsical way. Stettheimer reproduced in detail period furniture, trim, and light fixtures and painted tiny wallpaper like the Noah’s Ark scene in the children’s nursery. She began it in 1916 and worked on it through the 1930s, her constant and singular artistic pursuit.

Ballroom Stettheimer Dollhouse

Beyond the care taken with this dollhouse, and its panache, is another surprise. Stettheimer asked some of the artists who frequented their home to create tiny copies of their paintings and sculptures for the dollhouse. The Stettheimer home was a hub of cultural activity as the sisters entertained a bohemian milieu, as evidenced by the dollhouse’s ballroom. The ballroom boasts an art collection to rival full-sized collections with works by Alexander Archipenko, George Bellows, Gaston Lachaise, and Louis Bouche. The stunner is a 2 x 3-inch rendition of Nude Descending a Staircase contributed by Marcel Duchamp. Lachaise did a miniature alabaster nude statue that appear outside the ballroom doors alongside William Zorach’s tiny bronze Mother and Child. The collection is displayed in carefully composed environment where the striped floor matches the gilded chairs and fireplace, complete with tiny logs waiting to be lit.

Carrie Stettheimer. Photographed on October 8, 1932 by Carl Van Vechten.

Carrie Stettheimer, photographed on October 8, 1932 by Carl Van Vechten.


Florine Stettheimer is known as the artist of the family: her original paintings are now prominently hung in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s modern wing, where they stick out as separate from the larger Modernist conversation. Florine’s work also appears in the dollhouse: she contributed a miniature portrait of Carrie (it hangs in Carrie’s favorite bedroom of the dollhouse). Yet her sister Carrie’s dollhouse can be considered a unique work of art in its own right, a fantasy world perhaps all the more enticing because of its roots in reality. Carrie Stettheimer died in 1944 and, in 1945, her surviving sister Ettie gave it to the Museum of the City of New York, so that now Carrie’s life work is now on permanent view at the Museum of the City of New York.


Relative size of my thumb and Duchamp’s miniature Nude Descending a Staircase (bottom center).


William Zorach’s bronze Mother and Child (L), and Guston Lachaise’s alabaster nude (R).

History & Body in Copper: Nari Ward at Lehmann Maupin Gallery

Installation view, "Nari Ward, Breathing Directions"

Installation view, “Nari Ward: Breathing Directions”

“Nari Ward: Breathing Directions” uses cryptic copper charts to bring the viewer bodily into an entanglement with history. The main room of Lehmann Maupin’s Chrystie Street gallery features three large cooper sheets with mottled surfaces at the far end, in front of which you encounter what appears to be another large copper sheet, flat and more clearly patterned than the others. In fact, this installation by Jamaican-born artist Nari Ward, entitled Ground (In Progress), consists of some hundred-odd bricks wrapped in copper sheeting that has been oxidized to different degrees to create patterns. Every day a different household item is laid on top and visitors are invited to walk on it to activate the space. It’s a subtly rickety, crinkly experience, and it changes my understanding of the panels hanging on the walls.

Breathing Panel: Oriented Center (2015)

Breathing Panel: Oriented Center (2015)

These vertical pieces, called “breathing panels,” are made of oak wood covered in a copper sheet, punctured with copper nails, and treated with a darkening patina. While you literally stand on Ground, you can discern the trace of footsteps in the work opposite, Breathing Panel: Oriented Center, where shoe imprints tend to hover around the mid-center, high diamond constellation of holes and raised nailheads. The artist applied a darkening agent to the bottom of his shoes and walked across the works to create their differing levels of oxidation. Footprints bring physical presence into the work, implicating our physical presence as well as the artist’s. Walking on the patterned bricks underscores how the wall works are not representational like a traditional photograph or formal exercises like an Abstract Expressionist painting. Rather, they create meaning through their materiality which invokes the body and particular historical circumstances.

Details, Breathing Panel: Oriented Center (2015)

Details, Breathing Panel: Oriented Center (2015)

In these works, Ward represents a facet of the Underground Railroad made known to him during a visit to a church in the South. At the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Georgia, one can still find breathing holes in the floorboards. They were created to help escaping slaves hide underneath while on their journey north. The pattern of the holes refers to Congolese cosmograms, designs that Ward also saw in the church. To me, they also suggest constellations by which one can navigate. Ward refers specifically to navigation symbols in Ground, where the patterns are derived from instructive codes used in quilts that communicated directions north. Breathing holes, defunct secret symbols, and footprints signify a specific type of illicit migration, turned here into personal invitations to connect oneself bodily to that distant history, to hear the bated breath of a darkened room of waiting bodies, to search the sky and household tokens for direction.

Installation view, "Nari Ward: Breathing Directions"

Installation view, “Nari Ward: Breathing Directions”

“Nari Ward: Breathing Directions” is on view at Lehmann Maupin through November 1. A performance organized by the artist will take place in the gallery October 4, 2015 at 3PM.

Romantic Predilections: Simon Schubert at Foley Gallery

Simon Schubert, Multa Nocte at Foley Gallery

Installation view, Simon Schubert, Multa Nocte at Foley Gallery

German artist Simon Schubert presents gothic interiors with minimalist means in his current exhibition “Multa Nocte” (meaning “deepest night”) at Foley Gallery. To the left, an entire gallery wall is covered with white paper, on which the artist has created interior spaces simply by folding and creasing individual sheets. To the right, the entire wall is dark, covered with graphite paper, among which the artist has placed finely rendered charcoal illustrations of house exteriors, candles, and Edgar Allen Poe.

Poe House, 2015 (L), Portrait Edgar Allan Poe, 2015 (R)

Untitled (Poe House New York), 2015 (L), Portrait Edgar Allan Poe, 2015 (R)

The subject matter is not just Poe, as in the portrait above, but the architecture associated with the American Romantic author of mysteries and detective stories. Schubert portrays historical addresses associated with Poe or those described in his writings. Houses, a single candle, entryways, candelabra, a tree, Poe himself….all embrace Romantic cliche. The medium works to the the artist’s advantage as the black-on-black creates something like the slippery image of a daguerreotype: disappearing and reappearing depending on where you stand in relation to the light source. It works because it is simply  done, leaving the excess to the imaginative subject matter: burning 19th century homes, the waning candle, the ill-fated Poe’s stare.

Simon Schubert, Multa Nocte at Foley Gallery

Installation view, Simon Schubert, Multa Nocte at Foley Gallery

Lacking human figures, aside from the presiding portrait of Poe, the spaces themselves become protagonists. Especially in the folded white paper works, where Schubert creates empty interiors, the artist implies a psychology of space. For example, there are several stairways, one in particular with a perspective to induce vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock also favored stairs as sites of psychological resonance). These atmospheric constructions of space manage to convey drama and loss without a human subject.

Simon Schubert, Multa Nocte at Foley Gallery

Installation view, Simon Schubert, Multa Nocte at Foley Gallery

In a seeming concession to the melodrama of the subject matter, a small model of a house created of dark green iridescent feathers sits in the middle of the gallery. A large seascape in charcoal anchors the back wall. If you want to indulge yourself, and you know you do, head down to the Lower East Side to view these carefully made works on paper.

On view through October 18. More about the exhibition here.