Monday, 5 August 2013

Hedda Sterne; The 31 Women number sixteen. Her birthday is 4th August

Hedda Sterne was not an unknown woman artist, neither is she an entirely forgotten artist, though those who do remember her may be surprised to learn that she celebrated her centenary in 2010, passing away the following year. Those who have never heard of Hedda Sterne have only themselves to blame. She was first recognised by the Surrealists in Paris in the 1930’s, exhibited with them in the 40’s and was then associated with the New York School, when she was the only woman artist in the famous 1951 Life Magazine photograph, The Irascibles, by Nina Leen. They had all signed a letter of protest at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s attitude to contemporary American artists.

Hedda Sterne in 1977
That image has unfortunately dogged her ever since, tying her name to one moment in time, when she had a career spanning sixty plus years; Hedda Sterne had more than forty one-woman exhibitions and participated in many more group shows during her life. Her work was first seen widely in the 1940’s at Peggy Guggenheim’s Gallery, Art of This Century, appearing in four shows during the gallery’s first two years, though Guggenheim couldn’t claim to have given Sterne her first solo exhibition. This was down to Betty Parsons, who took over when Guggenheim left New York in 1947, however Parsons had actually staged Sterne’s first one woman show in 1943, while she was responsible for exhibitions at the Wakefield Gallery.

Parsons was also responsible for confusion about Hedda Sterne’s age, when she included Sterne in a group of young artists publicised in Life Magazine in March 24th 1950.  Sterne was already thirty-nine so six years were taken off her age, making her supposed birth-date 1916 - many later records use this erroneous date.
Hedwig Lindenberg was born on 4th August 1910 in Bucharest, Romania. Her parents were Eugene Wexler and Simon Lindenberg and she had an older brother, Edouard, who became a musician. The family were cultured and literate, Eugene wrote poetry and Simon was a language teacher. Hedda was tutored at home by her father and also began art lessons early, copying drawings from books on Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Titian when she was seven and having private drawing lessons from Romanian sculptor Friederic Storck before she was ten. Surrealist artist Victor Brauner was a family friend. Her father died when she was ten and her mother re-married, after which Hedda was sent to school in Bucharest.

Hedda left school at 17 and attended art classes in Vienna, then briefly studied art history and philosophy at the University of Bucharest. She dropped out, determined to become an artist. She travelled, spending much time in Paris where she continued to develop her technical skills as both a painter and sculptor. She had several exhibitions in Romania in the 1930’s and was married in 1932 in Bucharest, to her childhood friend Frederick Sterne. He was a highly intelligent man who became a financier and although they didn’t live together for long and divorced in the 1940’s, they remained friends and Sterne ensured Hedda’s financial security.
In Paris she took classes at the atelier of Fernand Leger, though she said Leger himself was never there. Throughout her career she experimented with various subjects, mediums and techniques, so when she renewed her friendship with Brauner and he introduced her to the surrealists, she explored their working methods with enthusiasm. In 1938 she was working on surrealist collages and some were shown at the Paris "Surindependents" exhibition. Hans Arp saw them and recommended Hedda to Peggy Guggenheim, who was putting on an exhibition of collage at her London gallery, Guggenheim Jeune.

In 1941 Hedda Sterne joined the exodus and fled Europe and the inexorable progress of Nazism, escaping via Portugal to New York, where her husband was already working. By 1945 she and Sterne were divorced and she had married another Romanian, Saul Steinberg. He too was an artist, he had trained in Italy as an architect but became best known for his New Yorker cartoons; although they separated in 1960, they remained close friends and never divorced. When Steinberg died in 1999 she was beside him.
In New York Hedda initially exhibited with the Surrealists and their enthusiasm for varied and novel techniques certainly tallied with hers. She never stuck to one style or technique and her work soon moved away from surrealist concerns, she had anyway never painted the traditional surrealist subject matter and American technological living began to interest her more. She created a series of paintings of bridge structures which veered towards abstraction and later work included interests in vehicles and skyscrapers. Her shifting from one style and technique to another may have hindered her career, making her less easy to market, but her association with the New York School should have helped her.

Unfortunately she was not, and could never have been at the core of the Abstract Expressionists, even though she exhibited with them. Despite appearing above the men in that iconic photograph, as a woman Hedda Sterne was marginalised, along with Buffie Johnson, Lee Krasner, Sonja Sekula, Helen Frankenthaler and may other significant artists. The macho ethos which grew around the art of Pollock, De Kooning, Motherwell and others had little time for women artists. It remained for Betty Parsons to champion Sterne and the other women, after Pollock, Rothko, Clyfford Still and Barnet Newman walked out on Parsons because she refused to dump her other artists, mostly women, and concentrate on them. The women, although all associated in name with the abstract expressionists, subsequently found their work often dismissed as lacking the ‘heroic, masculine’ qualities of those whose egos had made them abandon the Betty Parsons’ team.
Hedda Sterne refused to allow the association with ‘the Irascibles’ to tie her down and Betty Parsons gave her a total of 15 solo exhibitions. One of the most memorable of these was in 1970 when she gathered dozens of her drawn head portraits in an installation work, “Hedda Sterne Shows Everyone.”  She exhibited widely across the USA, as well as in Rome, Brazil, France, Japan and in Venice, after she received a Fullbright Fellowship in 1963.  She continued to be her own woman, working in whatever manner her muse took her.  She became known for exhibiting a stubborn independence from styles and trends, including Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism, with which she is often associated.

When macular degeneration began to take her eyesight she gave up painting but continued to make powerful, detailed drawings with the aid of strong magnifiers. She said in an interview after her career finally ended due to blindness, “at all times I have been moved…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.”

Hedda Sterne died in April 2011.
Her uninterrupted flux was the title given to a large retrospective of Hedda Sterne’s work in 2006 - Uninterrupted Flux: Hedda Sterne, A Retrospective – Krannert Art Museum, University of Illinois, which issued a detailed monograph in the catalogue.

*   Hedda Sterne quote is from an interview she gave to Joan Simon, published in 'Art in America' February 2007

*  Oral history interview with Hedda Sterne, 1981 Dec. 17, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

You can read about each of the 31 women as their birthdays arrive, earlier ones will remain on this blog. Just click the 'Project 31 Women' label below to see the others.

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