Hedda Sterne, 1950. © LIFE Magazine.
By Stephanie Buhmann
She stands tall, dressed in black, her arms crossed, eyes focused on the photographer’s lens without hesitation. She seems strong minded and self-assured. In this scene, she is the only woman among a group of fourteen men, all of whom are artists and many of whom have become legends, including Barnett Newman, James Brooks, Mark Rothko, Richard Pousette-Dart, Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still, Willem de Kooning, Adolph Gottlieb, and Ad Reinhardt. In this context, these men are her peers.
This is how we encounter Hedda Sterne in the famous photograph taken by Nina Leen in 1951 for LIFE magazine. It shows Sterne towering over the men - she had arrived late, the story goes, and Leen had asked her to stand on a table. Whatever the actual circumstance, it makes for an iconic depiction. Since then, this document has become a crucial footnote to the history of Abstract Expressionism. At the time the photograph was taken, Sterne was a mature artist. She was nearing forty, approaching the halfway point of her career. The picture shows her at the peek of her recognition. For the next six decades, she would accomplish much and create an extensive body of work. However, she would also always be referred to as the only woman in THAT picture. It was a blessing and a curse.
But who was Hedda Sterne before and after this brief moment? How to describe her work? Until recently, when one of her paintings was included in the Abstract Expressionism exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (October 3, 2010 – April 25, 2011), few remembered her name. When The New York Times published an extensive obituary on April 11, 2011, many of those who knew her were surprised to learn that she had still been alive. In fact, until her health declined in recent years, she had continued to paint. She was a gifted and unpredictable artist as well as a witness to a whole century.
Sterne was born Hedwig Lindenberg in Bucharest in 1910, the second child to Jewish parents. Her father, Simon Lindenberg, was a high school teacher, while her mother Eugenie cared for the home and children. From early on, Hedda and her older brother Edouard, who later became an acclaimed conductor in Paris, were raised with artistic values. The Surrealist artist Victor Brauner was a family friend, who further supported Sterne’s interest in the arts. After graduating high school in 1927, she began to attend art classes in Vienna and briefly studied philosophy and art history at the University of Bucharest. Equipped with a strong will and an independent mind, she soon opted to pursue her art training independently. To her, this meant travel. During the 1930s, she went to Greece, Egypt, and Paris. Beginning in 1930, she would visit Paris periodically and stay for several months, taking classes at Fernand Léger’s studio, as well as at the Académie de la Grand Chaumière.
At the age of twenty-two, she married her childhood friend Frederick Stern. In 1938, Victor Brauner encouraged her to show some of her collages in 11th Exposition du Salon des Surindépendants, a Paris group show organized by Hans Arp. Sterne’s work from this time is characterized by compositional clarity, a sense of playfulness and the occasional touch of whimsy. Her collages frequently incorporate aerial views of cities, fragments of animals, and human features such as eyes. They translate as dreamscapes that are rich in abstract storylines. While reminiscent of Max Ernst’s collages or Alfred Otto Wolfgang Schulze’s (Wols) altered photographs, works that were shown in Paris's most prestigious galleries at the time, they reflect a distinct sensibility. Following her group show participation, Sterne’s affiliation with the Surrealists deepened. Upon Arp’s suggestion, Brauner introduced her to Peggy Guggenheim, who then presented Sterne’s work at her London gallery the following year.
Hedda Sterne in The Irascibles, 1951. Photo: Nina Leen for LIFE Magazine.
In 1939, shortly after the outbreak of World War II, Sterne returned to Bucharest, where the violence against Jews steadily worsened. In 1941, with the help of Frederick, who had emigrated to the United States in 1938, she was able to escape Europe just before a Nazi Raid at her apartment building. She briefly joined Frederick, but by 1944 they were divorced and Sterne remarried to the Romanian cartoonist Saul Steinberg. In New York, she quickly found her footing in the local art community. She revisited with Peggy Guggenheim and soon exhibited at her Art of This Century gallery. In 1942, André Breton and Marcel Duchamp included her work in their landmark exhibition First Papers of Surrealism at Whitelaw Reid Mansion, which also featured Frida Kahlo, Kay Sage, Leonora Carrington, and Meret Oppenheim, among others. A year later, Betty Parsons organized a solo exhibition for Sterne at the Wakefield Gallery.
Guggenheim and Parsons became Sterne’s link to the Abstract Expressionists and she soon met Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, Robert Motherwell, John Graham, Adolph Gottlieb, Theodore Stamos, Ad Reinhard, William Baziotes and Barnett Newman. In 1950, Reinhardt, Motherwell and others called a meeting of artists during which an open letter to the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art was conceived. It accused the exhibition committee of being too conservative and generally antagonistic towards advanced or modern art. While almost fifty artists were present at this meeting, only Sterne and seventeen others signed. Considered an act of bravery by some and simply outrageous by others, the letter caused a sensation. The chief art critic of The New York Herald Tribune, Emily Genauer, dubbed the group The Irascible 18. When Nina Leen portrayed 15 of the signers, the movement was provided with a visual statement.
Despite her friendship with many of the movement’s members, Sterne appears to have been barely influenced by them. Her work does not share the same embrace of abstraction. Instead, her compositions from the 1940s are dominated by complex constructs of machine parts. Set against plain backgrounds, these mechanical organisms seem to take on a life of their own. Altnough Sterne was settling into her new American life, her work remained rooted in European Modernism.
Hedda Sterne, Machine 5 (1950). Krannert Art Museum, University of Illinois.
Sterne frequently compared her work to a diary. In this context, major life changes, be they of a geographical or an emotional nature, initiated major change in Sterne’s art. This is most evident in the paintings she created after leaving Europe. “When I came to the United States, I was struck that this country was more Surrealistic than anything anybody imagined. Already in ‘41, I’d seen in California, buildings in the shape of ice cream cones and oranges that you could walk into. That kind of freedom, that romanticism about the future, was utterly delightful to me.” This fascination led to a series of works inspired by American home life, cars, and later, machinery. In “Machine 5” (1950), for example, a conglomerate of fragmented forms turns into a mysterious, anthropomorphic machine. Elements are interlinked and co-dependent, like mechanical organs, whose functions remain unknown. In a Surrealist manner, some pieces of machinery, such as crane-like elements, have eyes. This aids in animating the industrial fragments and bestows a sense of personality upon them. Progress, playfulness, humor, and mystique are all valid sentiments here. Meanwhile the negative space is rendered in a saturated cherry red, evoking Henri Matisse’s “Red Studio” (1911). The tribute becomes more evident on the upper right side of the composition, where the outline of an easel (an element found repeatedly in Matisse’s painting) also suggests the artist’s domain.
For the following decades, Sterne continued to work steadily. She exhibited with Betty Parsons and later, with Clara Diament Sujo’s CDS Gallery. However, unlike many of her colleagues, Sterne refused to limit herself to one specific style or aesthetic. In an interview with Anney Bonney for BOMB Magazine (39/Spring 1992), she remarked: “In our time, artists are inclined to believe that art is like honey, the product of their own subconscious, their own minds, and I do not. I see myself as a well-working lens, a perceiver of something that exists independently of me: don’t look at me, look at what I’ve found.” This attitude may explain why Sterne was able to move freely between figuration and abstraction from the 1950s on. To Sterne, genres were not restrictive and her aesthetic approach would depend on her subject matter. In her time, Sterne’s multifaceted interests must have seemed inconsequential to most of her peers. In particular, to the Abstract Expressionists, who had moved through figuration via Surrealism, then rigorously abandoned it. Today, when an artist like Gerhard Richter, for example, is not just accepted but celebrated for his ability to excel in both Realist and Abstract painting, Sterne would have fit in more naturally.
Hedda Sterne, Vertical-Horizontal I (1963).
Sterne's abstract paintings, such as “Vertical-Horizontal I” (1963), reveal a striking sense of minimal immediacy. Featuring a sensual alignment of horizontal banners of warm greys, yellows and browns, the composition convinces through gestural restraint. Through simplicity and formal elegance, Sterne has captured a glimpse of the inherent infinity of her subject. In contrast, Sterne’s portraits, which are less known, strive for accuracy and detail. Her depictions of Barnett and Annalee Newman (both 1952), Harold and May Rosenberg (both 1964), Elaine de Kooning (1953), Joan Mitchell (1955), Frederick Kiesler, (1954) and Victor Brauner (1967) are insightful and reveal the artist’s attempt to express personality through the use of line rather than palette.
Sterne’s most spiritual work was completed during the 1980s. It is comprised of a series of paintings that at first glance simply seem to combine various geometric forms. The palette is consistently grisaille, a Cubist reference. While forms, such as squares and rectangles are slightly modeled, they also appear flattened. It is upon closer inspection that these shapes fuse into constructs, which take on an iconic presence. The Star of David, the Crucifix, or the upward blossoming of a Lotus petal, they all seem to leave their mark here without pointing at a sole direction, religion or evocation. It is a mélange, something ethereal and not concrete, like a mood or sentiment. The subject, one gathers, is the peaceful coexistence of spiritual influences, democratized under the mantle of geometry. What the paintings from this decade, such as “Further I” (1985), have in common is a unique sense of light. Each canvas is reminiscent of a prism or stained glass window through which a strong light beam enters and suggests a higher presence. The compositions seem to both veil and contain this light.
Recently, The Tate Modern in London acquired one of Sterne’s later canvases, an indication that her work is valued by major institutions overseas, and she was the subject of retrospectives at the Montclair Art Museum in New Jersey (1977) and the Krannert Art Museum at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana (2006). Nevertheless, her work is surely overdue for a high profile museum exhibition. For an artist whose oeuvre is eclectic and comprises various styles, a comprehensive survey is essential. Though the differing currents in her work might have caused critics in the past to see her as inconsistent, a focused look would prove the opposite: be they abstract or figurative, Sterne’s works translate as one continuous investigation of form and light.
Furthermore, for an artist whose creative period spanned over seventy years and saw two major art movements, Sterne remained inspiringly independent. Though she met and exhibited with some of the most prominent Surrealists and Abstract Expressionists, she never was a true member of either group. Her path, its historic and cultural circumstances, is unique. She remained an individual during a century marked by upheaval and tragedy, in which movements and categories bestowed a sense of order. In her conversation with Anney Bonney, Sterne remarked: “people are so desperately looking for a formula.” The examples of Richter and many others show that the art world is now much more open to artists who take stylistic eclecticism as their hallmark. Perhaps this will enable us to take a fresh look at artists whose careers suffered from their being hard to categorize. Hedda Sterne should be first on the list.
Hedda Sterne, Untitled (1983).
Stephanie Buhmann is a freelance writer based in New York. Her articles and interviews with artists have been published by various art magazines. She is a contributing editor for Artcritical.com