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 - 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