New York City, New York
Summary of Hedda Sterne
Probably most famous for her inclusion in a 1951 photograph of notable Abstract Expressionists, Hedda Sterne's ceaseless artistic exploration and decades-long output defies the strictures of Abstract Expressionism's definition. A Romanian immigrant steeped in Parisian Surrealism, Sterne created collages inspired by automatic drawing, captured the dynamism and beauty of industrial New York, painted subtle landscape-abstractions, engaged portraiture, and even her version of conceptual art in the 1970s with monumental word paintings. While never conforming to stylistic mandates, Sterne's artistic path touched upon many of the postwar styles but in a way that was quieter, more thoughtful, even stranger than what was expected by critics and the public.
Though happy to remain out of the spotlight, Sterne's wide-ranging artistic practice, her role (for better or for worse) as a female artist, and her dismissal of the art market variously inspired artists like Elaine de Kooning and Grace Hartigan, but her experimentation and artistic legacy remain to be fully realized.
- While there are distinct stylistic groupings of her work, Sterne was always interested in the idea of flux - not just the flux of stylistic change, but the flux of nature, of relationships, of ideas. Within this philosophy, Sterne recognized herself as "one small speck (hardly an atom) in the uninterrupted flux." Much of her work is an attempt to capture this flux in all of its guises.
- While she came of artistic age with the Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko and while she showed her work next to theirs, Sterne does not easily fit within the movement. While others homed in on signature styles, Sterne resisted such stylistic constraints, preferring instead to experiment with techniques and styles throughout her life.
- With her outlook on life as being a small part of the world, of nature, Sterne shunned egoism of all sort (another reason she does not fit within the annals of Abstract Expressionism). She insisted that her paintings operated by way of reciprocity, that is, that the viewer was necessary for their completion, or rather the viewer entered into a relation with the painting. It is in that relation - not just in the painting or in the viewer - that Sterne felt beauty resided.
Progression of Art
Sterne was first and foremost a Surrealist, and she experimented with collage, creating her own technique that she called papier déchiré et interpreter, loosely translated as paper torn and interpreted. The technique entailed ripping up paper and letting the scraps fall, forming uncanny images and associations in her mind that she then brought to life by gluing the pieces together and supplementing them with pencil. Untitled is similar to the work of fellow Surrealist Dora Maar in its elegant but unnerving juxtaposition of recognizable anthropomorphic elements and inscrutable shapes. In the center of a pale pink and white background a curious figure rests. It appears to be a woman's torso, with one languidly arching slim hand that, from the mid-forearm up, is swathed in gray fabric. That fabric seems to be part of a blouse or dress, but it never fully coalesces into such a garment; instead, it curves into the shape of a diminutive, birdlike head with one large human eye staring askance at the viewer. Out of the back of the "head" is a curved appendage, almost like the neck of a swan. Sterne creates a degree of unity and harmony in the work by picking up the thin but dense lines of the creature's garment/head/neck and extending them out around it in diaphanous veils.
Sterne believed that "art is essentially an act of freedom," a sentiment that is embodied in her Surrealist works. Surrealists sought to liberate themselves from the strictures society placed on the conscious mind, letting free association, chance, and dreams play central roles in artmaking. With that came a blurring of the real and the surreal, the individual and the universal, fact and mystery. Sterne's collage takes familiar elements - the woman's hand, an eye, a garment - and combines them to elide any possibility of a metanarrative or truth. The image is unsettling, evocative of Freud's concept of the uncanny, which he deemed "that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar."
Collage - The Hedda Sterne Foundation
In the 1940s Sterne and her second husband Saul Steinberg took frequent drives through the city of New York and its more idyllic outskirts. There she saw agricultural machines and began to incorporate them into her work. In the bottom half of the canvas, on a background awash in blues, grays, and taupes, nebulous geometric structures resembling buildings, bridges, and a tower assert themselves vertically. One of the structures morphs into a disproportionately large mechanical shape, though not a decipherable one. Gears, bolts, and rotors limned in copper rusty hues combine together, and Sterne's almost whimsical, thinly painted lines arcing off of the bolts give the machine the appearance of whirring. A few random splashes of bright red and jungle green paint prevent the machine from appearing merely utilitarian.
Sterne's obvious influence here is Marcel Duchamp, whose most famous work The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) (1915-23) was, by mid-century, an iconic, much-analyzed work, probing the erotic interplay between the human and the machine. Sterne stated frankly that she saw machines as "unconscious self-portraits of people's psyches: the grasping, the wanting, the aggression that's in a machine." She deemed these works anthropographs, the word clearly designating that she understood the organic to manifest itself within the inorganic. Van Doren Wexler Gallery explains that Sterne "distills [her] fascination [with machines] into a series of almost futurist forms, rendering inanimate machinery with alternatingly humorous, aggressive, and menacing physical attributes, evoking America's subconscious preoccupation with post-war infrastructure." One viewer of Monument wrote in a letter that the work was "a lymphatic, neat affair[,] subject matter of which appears to be bridges and entrails." The hanging appendages, curved shapes, and dull ochre tones support that observation, but Sterne is content to leave the viewer with more questions than answers.
Oil on linen - The Hedda Sterne Foundation
Third Avenue El
Sterne told an interviewer that New York in the 1950s "seemed to me at the time like a giant carousel in continuous motion - on many levels - lines approaching swiftly and curving back again forming an intricate ballet of reflections and sounds." She delighted in painting scenes of bridges, glowing street scenes, skyscrapers, and, as seen in Third Avenue El, the famous elevated train track running along Manhattan's east side. The viewer's perspective is from the street level, looking up at soaring girders and tracks. It is a night scene, the background a deep blue. Shimmery white light illuminates part of the sky above the shadowy tracks, most likely a streetlight casting its glow. Coppery sparks tumble down one of the girders as if a train has just rushed by above.
Despite the concrete title, the work has an abstract quality. Because Sterne used spray enamel, the paint application is diffused, hazy, and moodily atmospheric. She was entranced by the "super-fine continuous ink line permitted by Rapidograph pens," critic Nancy Princenthal writes, and her New York series experimenting with the preferred brand of pens that architects and engineers used are "among her richest and most enigmatic compositions." Sterne also deliberately kept her shapes abstract; the strong verticals of the girders and tracks resemble Franz Kline's calligraphic markings. Third Avenue El is a classic New York city painting, much like Joseph Stella's Brooklyn Bridge series, Georgia O'Keefe's Radiator Building (1927), and Charles Demuth's I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold (1928), all of which celebrate the city's mercurial magic and indomitable impulse to modernize, expand, bemuse, and beguile.
Oil and spray enamel on canvas - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Vertical Horizontal #1
Vertical Horizontal #1 is a completely abstract painting that, as its title suggests, plays with the tension between the vertical height of the canvas and the horizontal bands of color that fill the picture plane. The bottom half of the canvas features swaths of gray paint, sometimes thin and sometimes thick in size. The band of gray at the middle is so dark as to be almost black, which contrasts strongly with the colors that fill the top half of the canvas. Soft mint green, glowing yellow, and a subtle lavender-gray give the impression of a fading storm or a cold sunrise, especially as the black line is reminiscent of a horizon.
That evocation of a horizon is key here, for while all of the works in this series are undeniably abstract, a hint of representation, of atmosphere, weather, sea, and sky, is often discernible within the penumbras of paint. Everything is so subtle as to be almost imperceptible; however, she once stated, "I get enormous pleasure out of very small contrasts." Sterne was unwilling to adhere to the prevailing aesthetic trends and movements of the day; while her work was similar to Mark Rothko's Color Field paintings and1960s Minimalist painters such as Agnes Martin and Robert Ryman, she avoided Minimalism's penchant for elision of all representation. Instead, Sterne probes and validates the viewer's unconscious impulse to identify, order, and ultimately find illusion within a canvas that seemingly desires to preclude such components.
Oil on canvas - The Hedda Sterne Foundation
While she had made portraits of loved ones from childhood and, later, her friends in the 1940s and 1950s, Sterne took up portraiture in a sustained fashion during the 1960s and 1970s, and Everyone can be considered the apotheosis of this engagement. Everyone is a unique, immersive installation of dozens and dozens of faces, first exhibited in Sterne's home and then in the Betty Parsons Gallery. The faces are of specific individuals - "people from the drugstore, in my life, that I saw all the time" - but Sterne flattens and abstracts them, highlighting prominent features. The faces are arranged in rows on unstretched canvas with no background adornment other than some occasional shading behind some faces. In some places on the walls, they cluster together or are smaller than those around them, while in others they are exhibited in neat regularity and are proportionate to those around them.
Critics compare the work to Warhol's repetitive wall paper or his serial portraits, but largely Sterne was criticized for her turn to figuration, just as her colleagues Willem de Kooning and Philip Guston were when they themselves moved into figuration. Such criticism especially bothered her because her use of the face was more abstract and conceptual in nature, but as she put it, "this fact went virtually unnoticed because people were so involved in the fact that they were faces." Modernist critics, in the wake of Clement Greenberg, had difficulty accepting representational work and giving it its due at this time.
Installation consisting of multiple unstretched canvases painted with acrylic - The Hedda Sterne Foundation
Untitled (October 17, 1999)
Untitled (October 17, 1999) is emblematic of Sterne's embrace of drawing in the late 1990s and early 2000s. It is a subtle, ethereal work that evokes the organic but at the same time resists narrative. In the center of a pure white background Sterne limns jagged shapes and slender arcing lines, adding only the faintest washes of blue, cream, and yellow amid her gray lines. If there is illusion, it may be something geologic and natural - geodes, twisted rocks, a far-off mountain range, or perhaps formations of jagged ice.
Sterne spoke highly of her late work, calling it her best even though she was suffering from macular degeneration. She embraced her changing vision, drawing the "floaters and flashers" that she saw flit across her eyes but also realizing that drawing brought her back to the playful automatism of her Surrealist days and liberated her from worrying whether it was good.
Indeed, Untitled may be muted in color but it exudes energy. It is a spiritual work, one born from Sterne's seemingly oppositional but ultimately complementary impulses to meditate (she practiced meditation daily from the 1960s to her death) and to act. The work's title acknowledging the day of its creation and roots it in time, but its overall abstraction, amorphousness, and transcendental energy liberate it from its temporal strictures and allow it to function as a more universal exemplar of aesthetic imagination.
Mixed media on paper - The Hedda Sterne Foundation
Biography of Hedda Sterne
Hedda Sterne was born Hedwig Lindenberg on August 4, 1910, in Bucharest, Romania. Her father Simon taught languages and her mother Eugenie was a housewife. Money was tight, but Sterne was in love with reading and escaped into innumerable literary worlds. She read Dostoevsky by age eleven and stayed home for a month to read all of Proust. Though her family was Jewish, they were not religious. Her father was agnostic and her mother, in Sterne's words, "was totally uninterested and indifferent."
Sterne's formative years came during World War I, when her father stepped up to care for his deceased brother's wife and her mother. The family moved into her uncle's spacious and elegant home, which, with its multiple paintings on the walls, was much more aesthetically pleasing to the young girl. Her aunt, a singer, played Schubert and Schumann; her brother studied the violin, and she began drawing, sculpting, and creating ceramic pieces. When she was seventeen, she went to London and saw a flower show at Chelsea, which was a discovery; Sterne recalled, "It was just unbelievable. I had such an epiphany. I was changed for life by that show. I went back and had the urge, finally, to paint."
Sterne ached to get to Paris; she remembered thinking "Romania was like a colony of France. Everything that was worthwhile was happening in Paris, and if you weren't in Paris you were in exile." When she was eighteen and nineteen she began going for a few months at a time while studying philosophy and art history at the university in Bucharest. Her favorite thing to do was peruse the bookstores, marveling at the "French books" and at "Surrealist magazines", at "Cahiers d'art. All of that. Week after week I was there, looking, looking, looking."
Early Training and Work
In 1930, Sterne finally moved to Paris full-time, studying at Fernand Leger's atelier. She never saw him until she moved to New York, interestingly enough, but valued the space to work. A Surrealist artist friend from Romania, Victor Brauner (it was one of his works that Sterne maintained was the first painting she ever saw, at the age of six), introduced her to people in his circles. In 1938, Surrealist Hans Arp saw her work, consisting mostly of Dadaist and Surrealist collages, featured in the Surindependents exhibition and, with the help of Brauner, arranged to have it sent to Peggy Guggenheim for exhibition in her London gallery.
Sterne married Frederick Stern, a childhood friend from Bucharest and travelled back and forth between her hometown and Paris for a time. The marriage with Stern did not last, but the two remained good friends (after they separated she kept his last name but added an "e"). It was Stern who facilitated her escape from Europe during the early years of the Nazi persecution of the Jews. She admitted frankly that she barely escaped "unspeakable death" but did not expand upon it in interviews. Traveling through Portugal, where she had to wait because the ship to America she was supposed to take was sunk by submarines, she finally made it to New York City in October of 1941.
There she quickly fell in with other expatriates and artists due to the "kind of solidarity" that led to "immediate friendships." Her notable friends included artists Marcel Duchamp, Willem and Elaine de Kooning, and Franz Kline, as well as art historian Meyer Schapiro and critic Harold Rosenberg among others. Her experience of New York was, as she put it, "more surrealist, more extraordinary, than anything imagined by the Surrealists." She and Saul Steinberg, her second husband whom she married in 1944, loved to go sightseeing every Sunday in the city. Bridges and highways fascinated her and found their way into her work; the busy highways also inspired her to start using spray paint, which, because of its tendency to blur, evoked movement.
Though Sterne fell in with the Abstract Expressionists, frequently showing at the Betty Parsons Gallery and was named one of America's best artists under 36 by Life magazine, she never really felt part of the group and, in fact, resisted group affiliation throughout her career. Regardless, her inclusion in the now-famous photo known as "The Irascibles" meant that she was mostly known in the context of that postwar American movement. The photo, taken by Nina Leen in 1951, accompanied a protest letter signed by twenty-eight artists and directed to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which was mounting a show on so-called "contemporary art" without actually showing any of the vanguard art of the day. Leen set up chairs that had the artists' names on them, but as there was no chair for Sterne, she simply stood behind the other artists - all men. Sterne maintained that "nobody's center, and everybody is important. Nobody is neglected." However, in 1981 she told an interviewer that the male artists "were all very furious that I was in it because they were all sufficiently macho to think that the presence of a woman took away from the seriousness of it all."
Sterne and Steinberg separated in 1960, although they never officially divorced and remained friends. Sterne commented frankly that even though both were artists - Steinberg was an illustrator and cartoonist, most notably for The New Yorker - "there was never something of mine on the wall. And lots of people, our friends, didn't know I was Hedda Sterne."
Ever experimental, Sterne painted abstract compositions, some inspired by machinery, portraits, and a series based on heads of lettuce. The abstract works of the 1960s, which she begun on a 1963 Fulbright Fellowship in Venice, in particular, are indebted to her embrace of meditation, which she told an interviewer she did every day. She did not have a guru but, as she explained, "I read all the books. I gradually worked out my own system... It has to do with cleaning the lenses, you know. Developing and taking care of your mind. A mind has to be both reflective and transparent."
In the 1970s, after a decade of experimenting with everything from surrealistic machine-like contraptions, to ethereal abstract works with verticals and horizontals, and to organic formations modeled on lettuce, Sterne returned to painting portraits, having always felt that faces were interesting. She marveled that some people in the art world "were scandalized by my doing something like that, instead of 'speaking abstract.'" In the mid-1970s, she embarked on a monumental painting that consisted of thoughts and quotes from books that she read, a large-scale version of the diaristic practice that she and others had done for years but that took on new connotations in the midst of contemporary Conceptual Art practices. Reluctant to stay ensconced in one particular style for too long, beginning in the 1980s she worked in a language of geometric prisms and esoteric signs and symbols.
Later in her life, Sterne had difficulty seeing color, and shifted to drawing during the 1990s. Of her later working days, mostly in Long Island, she enthused, "I got up in the morning impatient to work." Drawing was revitalizing for her, as she was constantly "in a state of euphoria and exhilaration."
In 2004, she had a stroke, which, combined with the macular degeneration she already had, meant that her eyes were worse than ever. She largely stopped producing art and told an interviewer frankly, "Now that I am so old and incapacitated, I don't do anything with great enthusiasm. You know, thinking, dreaming, musing, become essential occupations. I am watching my life. As if I'm not quite in it, I watch it from the outside." In August 2011, Sterne celebrated her centenary with family and friends; she was the last living first-generation Abstract Expressionist painter. She died in her home of old age eight months later.
The Legacy of Hedda Sterne
Hedda Sterne lived to be one hundred years old, and within those years had a prolific and unceasingly experimental artistic career. She was an early Surrealist, her beguiling and disturbing collages reminiscent of Dora Maar, but she achieved most of her fame when she was grouped with the Abstract Expressionists in New York in the 1940s and 1950s.
Always deeply original and reluctant to eschew all elements of representation, her work inspired other female artists in the movement such as Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, and Helen Frankenthaler. Her New York City series of the 1950s was notable for her pioneering use of spray enamel paint, inspiring future artists to go beyond the paintbrush and embrace mass-produced materials. The portraits of the 1960s and 1970s were criticized for the use of figuration in a time when Minimalism reigned supreme, but Sterne cared little; her iconoclasm inspired other artists to disdain dictates and strictures and create what they wanted. Artists like Susan Rothenberg, who, when told painting was dead, famously decided to devote herself to that very medium, or Philip Guston, a former Abstract Expressionist who also decided to embrace the figure, are indebted to Sterne.