HEDDA STERNE, UNTITLED, 1983. OIL AND PASTEL ON CANVAS
Like many others, I have been curious about Hedda Sterne, the lone woman in the hat standing in the last row of the formally staged photograph of 15 New York School artists who became known as "The Irascibles" when this image was published in Life magazine on Jan. 15, 1951. Now, a traveling exhibition, "Uninterrupted Flux: Hedda Sterne," organized for the Krannert Art Museum by Sarah L. Eckhardt, together with its accompanying catalogue, offers a detailed look at the artist's long and varied career. Initially identified with the Surrealists, then the Abstract Expressionists, Sterne followed her own imperatives, changing subjects and techniques and moving wherever her ideas and observations led her.
In the decade between arriving in the U.S. in 1941 until the photograph was taken, as Eckhardt writes:
Sterne actively engaged in the artistic dialogue in New York. Sterne's work had been featured in four solo exhibitions (each organized by Betty Parsons) and numerous important group shows, including five at Peggy Guggenheim's Art of This Century, one at Sidney Janis Gallery, two Whitney Annuals, and three Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art Annuals. In the subsequent decade, Sterne had nine more solo shows and participated in more than forty group exhibitions At the Betty Parsons Gallery and elsewhere, Sterne's art hung alongside that of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, and Theodore Stamos.
Sterne's abstractions were noted as examples of "advanced" or "radical" art by Clement Greenberg in a 1947 article in the Nation.
Hedda Sterne was born in Romania in 1910. As she notes, she was familiar with advanced art from childhood and "grew up with Surrealism." She credits her early experience of this work to a fellow Romanian and family friend, the artist Victor Brauner. After studying in Vienna and Bucharest, Sterne left in 1930 for Paris where she lived and exhibited her work. When she participated in the "Surindependents" exhibition of 1938, Arp saw her work and, through Brauner, arranged to have one of her collages sent to Peggy Guggenheim for exhibition in her Guggenheim Jeune gallery in London.
Escaping the Nazi onslaught, Sterne left Paris for the U.S. via Portugal in 1941. She has lived and worked in or near New York ever since. In New York she exhibited at Art of This Century Gallery until Guggenheim closed it, and then joined Betty Parsons's newly opened gallery, where she exhibited throughout its tenure. Since 1981 she has showed with Clara Sujo of CDS Gallery, New York.
The source of the Krannert exhibition's title is to be found in a 2004 statement by the artist published in the exhibition catalogue, where the fluidity of her practice as well as the down-to-earth poetics and metaphysics of her daily endeavor are evoked. She opens by saying:
Sometimes I react to immediate visible reality and sometimes I am prompted by ideas, but at all times I have been moved, to paraphrase [Irish poet] Seamus Heaney, by the music of the way things are... And through all this pervades my feeling that I am only one small speck (hardly an atom) in the uninterrupted flux of the world around me.
The exhibition is divided into thematic, roughly chronological (at times overlapping) groupings. These are designed, as Eckhardt writes, "to highlight a few key phrases in Sterne's career," 65 years of which are spanned in this retrospective. All but one of the works included in the exhibition were made in the U.S.
The exhibitions first grouping focuses on Sterne's Surrealist works of 1941-42. Two torn-paper works from that period were the first of Sterne's pieces to be exhibited publicly in the U.S., when they were included in "First Papers of Surrealism," 1942, and later in two exhibitions at Art of This Century. Using an automatic, chance-driven technique characteristic of Surrealist practice, Sterne let pieces of paper she had torn fall to the floor, and then amplified images she perceived within their shapes with pencil drawing. Also included in this section are a number of collages.
Several paintings made between 1942 and 1945 present images of domestic life in Bucharest. Among these is a painting of young violinists in a salon that recalls Sterne's musician brother practicing at home. These are soon followed by observations of her new domestic surroundings in New York. An extended series of canvases and works on paper depicting agricultural machines begins in the late ‘40s and continues through the ‘50s.
In the ‘50s, many works were devoted to Sterne's adopted hometown, some of them monumental in scale. In these canvases, the structure, speed and motion of the city are invoked in abstractions often made by applying paint with a commercial spray gun. Sterne would also use a spray gun for a series of abstracted views of highways in which she is preoccupied with rendering the motion of cars.
"Vertical-Horizontals," made during the ‘60s, portray multiple horizons within tall vertical canvases, and they are among her most fully nonfigurative works, having a kinship with Minimalist abstraction. By contrast, a group of drawings made from mid ‘60s to the early ‘70s employs elaborately convoluted, leafy organic forms.
Sterne has made portraits throughout her life. The earliest of these included in the show (a stylized likeness of Mrs. Massimo Campigli from 1938) is the only piece dating from her European years. Her portraits of friends and colleagues in New York, among them John Graham (1943), Barnett Newman and his wide Annalee (both 1952), Frederick Kiesler (1954) and Harold Rosenberg (1964), vary in size and format and are characterized by a sensitive use of line and extraordinarily keen observation.
In the late ‘60s, portraiture led her to an unusual, large-scale project titled "Everyone." It is an environment comprising a cluster of faces, each one different an ensemble of portrait heads. Though keyed to specific individualism the images are flattened, simplified, somewhat abstracted, and arranged in ranks on unstretched canvases, originally exhibited stapled to the walls of a room. The piece was first installed in her home in 1969 (where it was photographed by Duane Michals) and then exhibited at Betty Parsons in 1970. He work triggers associations with the repetitions of Warhol's wallpaper, and his own serial, somewhat abstracted portraits. Though Sterne ranged between abstraction and figuration through her career, her "Everyone" environment was seen by some as traitorous to the modernist tradition. (It might be noted that in the same year Guston's return to figuration provoked even stronger public reaction, when his cartoon-based images were presented at Marlborough.)
Also encompassing in its scale was a 1976 work, Diary. For this pieve Sterne worked on a huge canvas placed on the floor of the large entry-level room in her home. It is a gridded drawing consisting entirely of text. For more than a year, she inscribed observations and excerptes taken from her extensive reading, the words tightly packed, each line of text touching the next. Seen from afar the work resembles a densely textured, gridded abstraction. The words in the blocks are oriented horizontally or vertically in alternation.
In following her own imperatives, Sterne almost intuitively was part of the zeitgeist. The diary project, a conceptual work drawing on systems and repetition, grid and "found" verbal content, is reminiscent of a range of ideas of the period, including Carl Andre's gridded floor plates, the diaristic writings of "narrative" and "story" artists, or Conceptualists' note cards. It shares with contemporaneous Pattern and Decoration artists a recognition of rugs and other textiles as imagery to be read, and echoes the patchwork forms reclaimed in many feminist works.
The grid functions differently in her next series, titled "Patterns of Thought." During the ‘80s, she found a serial form of intimate geometric abstraction, characterized by repetitive systems whose internal divisions, structured by an implicit grid, imply spatial depths. Their forms bring to mind Smithson's earlier interest in crystallization, as well as the geometric serial repetitions of a number of artists who often worked on architectural-scale public projects in the ‘70s and ‘80s, including Jackie Ferrara and Mary Miss.
Late in her career, Sterne embarked on an intense, eight-year period of free abstract drawing that ended when she suffered a stroke in 2004. The critical position of drawing in Sterne's oeuvre is recognized in the concluding essay of the exhibition catalogue, Lawrence Rinder's "Hedda Sterne: Life Drawing." The following interview was conducted in New York on June 3, 2006.
HEDDA STERNE: Do you have a good memory?
JOAN SIMON: Yes. Do you?
HS: Yes. For 96 years old.
JS: There are so many ways to begin an interview. We could begin with the past, we could
HS: I'm with you no matter what you want.
JS: All right then. Is there one thing you would like to say—perhaps answer a question that no one has asked you before? Or something that you think about, or something about how you work or why you work? Something you would like others to know?
HS: Why I'm a painter altogether, I suppose. Because that's the most important part of my life. I never thought in terms of a career, but I worked with tremendous urgency. I have a feeling that in art the need to understand and the need to communicate are one.
JS: You've made your art in many ways. Why?
HS: I took it for granted that art is essentially an act of freedom. You react to the world totally freely. I met many artists in New York who believed progress is linear, from figure to abstract. In my work I never followed that idea. Now there's a retrospective of my work, and there's a catalogue made by a wonderful girl called Sarah Eckhardt. You may have read her essay.
JS: I did.
HS: She is taking her doctorate in art history, and I am her subject. She is astonishing as a researcher. She did a chronology with fantastic, fantastic care and accuracy. Unexpectedly, I had a survey of my work life. And she totally freed me of regrets. Because I saw why I did things, what prompted me, what moved me, and I saw that it was all right to live the way I have lived.
JS: Let's start by talking about the exhibition.
HS: I had two other retrospectives. One was at the Montclair Art Museum , and it was nice. They gave me lots and lots of space, and that was good—I have a large body of work. And the other was at the Queens Museum . They did a very, very nice job. But it didn't compare to the depth and thoroughness of analysis and research done by Sarah Eckhardt for this one. If you want to discuss various periods, there is a chronology in the catalogue where she divides the work in groups in ways that I think are very interesting.
JS: Surrealism is her first group.
HS: Yes. I grew up with Surrealism.