Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Who Was That Woman?

As you may recall, I've been reading that interminable book on Rothko, and after several years (slight exaggeration), I'm about half way through. You'll be glad to know that he's finally breaking through to his signature style, and he's nearly the Rothko that we who live in the future know.

Anyway, I came to the part where the AbEx group that Rothko belonged to sent a letter of protest about the overly-conservative jury appointed to select work for the Metropolitan Museum in 1950. They protested that the jury was biased against the "advanced art" (namely Abstract Expressionism) then being made in New York that should be made part of the Museum's collection.

That letter actually prompted a front-page story in the NY Times (can you imagine that happening today?) and inspired a story in Life Magazine in January 1951 that termed the group "The Irascibles." Life included what became an iconic photo of 15 of the AbExers.

L to R: Theodoros Stamos, Jimmy Ernst, Barnett Newman, James Brooks, Mark Rothko, Richard Pousette-Dart, William Baziotes, Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still, Rotert Motherwell, Bradley Walker Tomlin, Willem de Kooning, Adolph Gottlied, Ad Reinhardt, Hedda Sterne. Photo by Nina Leen in Life Magazine, January 15, 1951.

So I was thinking that I would do a post about two women gallerists who promoted Rothko - Peggy Guggenheim and Betty Parsons. As far as I can tell from reading the Rothko book and several others, Peggy and Betty were responsible for establishing Abstract Expressionism and launching the careers of many important artists. While Peggy Guggenheim's New York gallery, Art of This Century, originally specialized in Surrealism and was oriented mainly toward European artists, it also introduced and continued to show work by Rothko, Pollock, Cornell, Newman, Gotlieb and many others beginning in 1942. Peggy had first had a gallery in London (Guggenheim Jeune), but was forced by the war to close it and move back to the U.S. After the war, Peggy closed her New York gallery and returned to Europe in 1947, finally settling in Venice.

Betty Parsons was an artist herself and not trained as a gallerist. She took over most of the American artists who had been with Peggy and established a gallery that eventually became very sucessful, operating until her death in 1982. Helen Frankenthaler said of her, "Betty and her gallery helped construct the center of the art world. She was one of the last of her breed."

I may still write more about Peggy and Betty, who so vitally served this 99.9% male group of Abstract Expressionist painters, but meanwhile, I became interested in Hedda Sterne, the lone woman in the Irascibles portrait, who stands so prominently above the men seated below her.

Hedda Sterne was born Hedwig Lindenberg in 1910 in Bucharest, Romania to a non-religious Jewish family. She escaped the Nazi onrush by way of Portugal and arrived in the U.S. in 1941, where her first husband, childhood friend and fellow Romanian, Frederick Sterne, had already established himself.

Saul Steinberg and Hedda Sterne, photo by George Platt Lynes, c. 1944-45.

Her second husband, whom she married in 1944, was Saul Steinberg, artist and illustrator, made famous by his New Yorker magazine covers.

Iconic New Yorker cover from March 1976 by Saul Steinberg, "View of the World from 9th Avenue"

Hedda's appearance in the Irascibles photo had nothing to do with Saul Steinberg or anyone else but herself. She was an artist who had shown with the Abstract Expressionists and signed the letter of protest, but she refused to categorize her work as Abstract Expressionism. She "grew up with Surrealism" thanks to an artist friend and studied art in Vienna, Bucharest and Paris. She exhibited collages in the "Surindependents" exhibition of 1938 in Paris, where Jean Arp saw her work and arranged to have one of her collages sent to the Guggenheim Jeune gallery in London.

Throughout her life she experimented with various subjects, mediums and techniques, sometimes prompted by observation and other times by ideas, but "at all times I have been 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." (This quote is from a wonderful article and interview by Joan Simon in Art in America from February 2007 when Sterne was age 96 .) "Uninterrupted Flux" provided the title of a traveling show and catalogue that organized her varied career and work into thematic and chronological groupings.

"Further I", 1984, acrylic and crayon on canvas, 72" x 52." (This image is from a 2007 article in The Brooklyn Rail.)

Sterne said that she had originally been interested in architecture but that she was bad at math so she studied art instead.

"Machine 5" from 1950. "I had a feeling that machines are unconscious self-portraits of people's psyches: the grasping, the wanting, the aggression that's in a machine. That's why I was interested to paint them. And I called them "anthropographs"--maybe it was pretentious thinking [laughs]." (from the Joan Simon interview in Art in America)

Sterne went her own way throughout her career: "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." (from the Joan Simon interview)

Untitled, 1968

Photos of work by Sterne are difficult to find on the internet. Although she drew and painted portraits throughout her life, I could not find any to show here, but just from these three images, you can see how varied her work is. And yet, she is known not for her work but for her appearance in that Irascibles photo, which must have been very annoying.

From everything that I could find, Hedda Sterne is still alive. She would now be aged 99. During the interview that Joan Simon did with her in 2006 when Sterne was 96, she referred to her macular degeneration that began in 1997 causing her to stop painting and the stroke she suffered in 2004 that ended her drawing. She was then mostly blind and able to read for only 15 or 20 minutes at a time with a machine.

Joan Simon asked Sterne how she spent her days, and her reply was so evocative and especially meaningful to me because of my mother's age and infirmity. It gave me greater insight into the feelings of someone who is so old but still has her mental capacity and ability to express herself:

"Now that I am so old and incapacitated, I don't do anything with great enthusiasm. You know, thinking, dreaming, musing become essential occupations. I am watching my life. As if I'm not quite in it, I watch it from the outside. Because after so many years of working unceasingly, and enthusiastically, being idle is a tremendous effort of concentration and adjustment.

The luck is that there is less energy. That's a compensation. It makes it easier. Just sitting. I saw peasants in Romania, you know, on Sunday, when they get up all summer at 4 and work incessantly until noon, let's say. And Sunday they just sit, and their resting is so active - like an activity, resting. It's a beauty to behold, you know. It's not just doing nothing. It's being and existing in a certain way. In a way old age is a little bit like that. It has its beauties."


Frances Pico said...

Thanks for the information. I adore Rothko and have followed the movement. Could you please tell me the title of the book you read with all this information? Thanks, Frances Pico

Nancy Natale said...

Thanks for your comment, Frances. If you click on "interminable book" in my post, it will lead you to Amazon, where you will see the Rothko book. I got the hardcover used for around $15 or $16 plus shipping. As far as info on Hedda Sterne, I got that from the internet.

Leslie Avon Miller said...

Fabulous post Nancy. I adore reading your art history posts. Thank you for all the work I know they entail. A labor of love. I especially love the way you dig out information that includes what women were doing outside their major role in the homes of the time. In my current series of questions to the artist who read my blog, “I need a wife” came up several times when speaking of the need to balance time pressures.

Nancy Natale said...

Thanks so much, Leslie. I'm glad you enjoyed it. You are exactly right about the wives. Rothko's first wife was an interesting story of someone who didn't conform either. I was thinking of her when writing about Peggy, Betty and Hedda. Believe me, I have a wife and they don't make them like they used to (thank God).

Véronique Lindenberg said...

Who IS this woman, and how is she ?
Very well, thank you, just in the room dowstairs having dinner with appetite.
She's 99 and a half, and, as she always was a struggler, her mind and body are sooo strong.

Veronique Lindenberg said...

N.B. Thank you for the post, it's fabulous.
I hit it by chance when typing "Hedda Sterne" on google...

Nancy Natale said...

Veronique - It is so wonderful to hear from you and to know that Hedda is still very much alive. I am happy that she still has an appetite for life and is still struggling. Congratulations and best wishes to her!

Veronique Lindenberg said...

And it's great to read you. I love your blog.
Actually, I have some photographs of her work, and this wonderful catalog, written by Sarah Eckard, called "Uninterrupted flux" from the name of her travelling exhibition.
(She definitely would need a web site. I'll think about it.
Thank you again for this post.


Nancy Natale said...

Hello Veronique,
Thanks so much for commenting on my blog.

A website for Hedda would be a great thing. An artist really needs to have a web presence today - and Hedda especially. She deserves to be known and recognized for the Foremother she was - and is. I would love to see more of her work and to see it presented in a more organized way.

I hope that you will decide to do it as a legacy for her and her work.



Spanierman Blog Team said...

Hi Nancy, we've really enjoyed your posts on Hedda Sterne and thought you might be interested in this interview with Betty Parsons where she talks a little on Sterne in her gallery and some other female artists of their time.

weisess said...


A wonderful post! I was wondering where you were able to get your info from. Hedda's work is beautiful, and I want to see more, but! Looking up possible books on her life and work, I found out that I'd have to shell out at least one hundred bucks just to see her work all in one place. I really want to get to know her! What to do, what to do....

Anonymous said...

I saw Sterne's New York, VIII last night at MoMA and liked it so much I looked for more information about her online and was happy to find your writings - and that great Life photo. NY, VIII can be seen on the MoMA website (though having just seen the original, the image looks desaturated to me). I will have a good time following the links provided by you and your readers. Thank you, Candace

sukipoet said...

Leslie avon Miller sent me the link to your post about Hilda Sterne and I am fascinated. I just love reading about women writers/artists who have been overlooked. She stood so tall and strong in that photo, yet then disappeared from the general art world view.

thanks for this and for that wonderful quote from Hilda in her old age.

sukipoet said...

oops, i meant Hedda.