An active member of the New York School, Hedda Sterne, who was born in Bucharest, Romania in 1910 and fled to the US in 1941, created an extensive body of work that intersected with some of the most important movements and figures of the twentieth century. A bridge between European Modernism, in particular Surrealism, and American Abstract Expressionism, Sterne’s work stands as a testament to her independence of thought, moving freely between figuration and abstraction throughout her career. Her work has enjoyed increased critical visibility in recent years, featuring in major exhibitions such as Making Space: Women Artists and Postwar Abstraction, held at MoMA in 2017, and the ongoing display Epic Abstraction at The Met Fifth Avenue. Paintings by Sterne were included in Surface Work at Victoria Miro in 2018, which celebrated a century of abstract painting by women. Sterne’s 1954 painting New York VIII is featured in MoMA’s reinstallation of its permanent collection.
Early international recognition came when collages included in a Paris exhibition in 1938 were singled out for praise by Jean Arp. Through him, Sterne was recommended to Peggy Guggenheim, and was later included in five exhibitions at Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery in New York. Embraced by fellow Surrealist exiles in the city, Sterne was also included in the exhibition First Papers of Surrealism in 1942, organised by André Breton and Marcel Duchamp. While her first works completed in the US retain the influence of Surrealism, Sterne quickly absorbed the spirit of the metropolis, drawing inspiration from its architecture, its scale and dynamism. Industrial forms such as farm machinery start to appear in her work of the 1940s following a visit to Vermont with her second husband, fellow artist and Romanian émigré, Saul Steinberg, whom she married in 1944.
By the 1950s, Sterne was increasingly concerned with motion and light, combining formal innovation with material experimentation in her use of commercial aerosol spray paint in her attempt to interpret the increasing speed of the world around her. Looser and increasingly atmospheric, works from this period are characterised by a sense of mergence – of manmade and organic forms becoming as one. Sterne is widely remembered for her appearance at this time in a now iconic photograph for Life magazine, published in 1951, of the ‘Irascibles’ – a group of artists who protested against the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s failure to include abstraction in its exhibitions of American art. Notably, she is the only woman in the image.
The works in this exhibition are drawn principally from the early 1960s when, inspired by a year and a half spent living in Venice as a Fulbright fellow, Sterne embarked upon a series of ostensibly quieter works composed of numerous horizontals that read as multiple horizon lines. These meditative Vertical Horizontals are at once self-contained, having a kinship with minimalist abstraction, and poetic intimations of landscape, with water and sky seemingly repeated and reflected multiple times within a single image. Sterne described her work as a process of ongoing exploration and discovery. The romantic tendency on display here – with opalescent whites, creams and greys and sonorous umbers interspersed with flashes of ochre, green and gold – is characteristic of a restless, searching quality, elaborated upon in a quote by the artist in which she states, ‘I believe… that isms and other classifications are misleading and diminishing. What entrances me in art is what cannot be entrapped in words.’