Hedda Sterne: Against the Abstract Expressionist Tide

51gDMWNuYnLOn the 4th of August 1910, Romanian-Jewish artist Hedda Sterne was born as Hedwig Lindenberg in Bucharest. Sterne is remembered as the only woman present in the Life magazine “Irascibles” photograph taken by Nina Leen in New York on the 24th of November 1950. The article in which the picture appeared documented the Abstract Expressionists’ protest against the conservatism of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and practically gave birth to the term “Irascibles” to describe a ‘dissident’ group of 18 prominent abstract expressionists of the day, including Pollock, Kooning, Newman, and Rothko.

In a 2003 interview with Sarah Boxer, Sterne said, “I am known more for that darn photo than for eighty years of work. If I had an ego, it would bother me. Plus, it is a lie. Why? I was not an Abstract Expressionist. Nor was I an Irascible.” (Sarah Boxer, ‘The Last Irascible’, The New York Review of Books,  23 December 2010). Sterne’s heterogenous styles, and her complete disinterest in the commercially driven art world, have contributed to her exclusion from the canon altogether.

The 2006 catalogue accompanying a travelling retrospective of the work of Hedda Sterne Uninterrupted Flux: Hedda Sterne by Sarah L. Eckhardt “takes previous chroniclers of Abstract Expressionism to task for ignoring Sterne and attributing her presence to “chance.” But her exclusion from canonical histories might be perversely appropriate, given her constantly shifting style, which amounted to career self-sabotage. She expressed her refusal to settle upon a marketable image parallel to that of Rothko or Pollock with the maxim, “I don’t paint logos.” (…)In the 1950s, she worked in large, bold strokes, often placing acid hues against an inky blue or black ground. Instead of the characteristic assertion of the hand as a surrogate self, Sterne worked at a literal remove through her prescient use of an industrial spr51NY301CA0L._ay gun. Her work of the 1950s also violates Ab-Ex orthodoxy through its overt reference to the everyday: Some bear the name New York, while at least one is more specific; Third Avenue El (c. 1952-53). Others were made to connote traveling on a Midwestern highway. These ostensibly abstract works overlap with a series of even more specifically referential Machines, which obliquely picture industrial and farming equipment. (…) due to Sterne’s education in Bucharest, Vienna, and Paris, she was never swept up in any single ideology, but was able to observe modernism as a set of interchangeable options. (…) Sterne is no more a Surrealist than an Abstract Expressionist, Eckhardt makes it clear that this pivotal movement’s openness to association and embrace of the irrational has been a major guiding principle. The crucial caveat is that, while many Surrealists plumbed their own depths, Sterne used its techniques to engage with unseen universal forces. (Vittorio Colaizzi, review of Uninterrupted Flux: Hedda Sterne by Sarah L. Eckhardt; Josef Helfenstein; Lawrence Rinder, in Woman’s Art Journal, Vol. 28, No. 2, Fall – Winter, 2007).

As an atypical exponent of abstract expressionism, its norm being the white male modernist genius, Sterne was entirely against the trend’s cult of personality and personal gesture. As opposed to Pollock, for instance, who explained that his art was drawn from within himself, his arm a direct conduit to his psyche, Sterne’s art was a direct response to the outside world. Her art was more of a diary, she described it as dictation and used her artistic eye as a tool akin to a camera searching the extraordinary in the ordinary and recording it through her unique creative prism. Her subjects were predominantly mundane and outwards-facing – Eckhardt wrote that, “Sterne considered ‘self-discovery’ far too limiting and repetitive. (…) she values the ideas she finds ‘out there’ more than those within her”. (Uninterrupted Flux: Hedda Sterne).

Sterne had an anti-heroic stance against her contemporaries’ ego-centred art but she also refused to develop a style based on visual signs or ‘logos’. Her 41K+K1X-xWL._compositions of stacked horizontal rectangles were vastly different from Rothko’s floating blurred shapes, for example, by the detailed analysis of gradations and definitive edges drawn from reality. Vittorio Colaizzi wrote that “this approach seems to prefigure challenges to the subjectivity of the artist-as-expresser and correspond to a later concept of the artist as a barometer of cultural forces instead of an autonomous genius, something discussed by Rosalind Krauss” in her postmodern critique in L’Amour Fou: Photography and Surrealism (1985). Sterne’s stubbornness to ride the wave of success her male abstract expressionist counterparts embarked on virtually destroyed her career and while a series of feminist critics have tried to reframe the trend over the last few decades, still very few people remember who Hedda Sterne really was and, more importantly, what her art looked like. An interesting article in The New York Review of books by Sarah Boxer sheds more light on this unique artist and a few of her pictures can be seen HERE

Feature Image: Hedda Sterne, Alaska I, 1958.