Hedda, ca. 1963-65, Photographer: Theodore Brauner. (Image from "Uninterrupted Flux: Hedda Sterne," a catalog of a retrospective of Sterne's work, published in 2006 by the Krannert Art Museum and Kinkead Pavilion at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, edited by Karen Hewitt, exhibition curated by Sarah L. Eckhardt. The images and quotes in this post are from this catalog.)
Hedda's second husband was Saul Steinberg, the artist probably best known today for his New Yorker magazine covers. Below is a page spread published August 27, 1951 (titled "Self Portrait With Wife") from Life magazine with Steinberg's work on the left and Hedda's on the right. (Note that the famous Irascibles photo was published in Life earlier that same year in January 1951.)
In the Uninterrupted Flux catalog, the exhibition curator, Sarah Eckhardt, divides Hedda's work into 11 categories in order to bring some order to the "consistent inconsistency" that Hedda practiced. Two of Hedda's continuing interests were machines and motion, and she visualized machines as having human characteristics that made them become "anthropographs." She thought that machines were designed as self portraits of their creators and displayed "their needs and insatiable desire for consumption."
Two notable results of Hedda's interest in machines and motion were, first, an exhibition at Betty Parsons' gallery in 1954 where tondo (round) paintings were mounted on central axes and viewers were invited to rotate the canvases as they wished. Secondly, also in 1954, Hedda was included in "Seven Painters and a Machine," where the seven were commissioned by Fortune magazine to produce their responses to a machine called the "Continuous Miner." Hedda's painting was chosen a year later for the cover of World At Work: 25 Years of Art for Fortune. In the early 1960s, Fortune arranged for Hedda to tour several John Deere factories, which provided the impetus for a series of paintings that portrayed tractors. The CEO of John Deere purchased the entire series for the company.
Tractor Seat, 1961, mixed media on heavy paper, 20 x 25 inches framed. Owned by John Deere, Moline, IL
In the 1980s Hedda painted large, architectural paintings such as the two in the page spread below from about 1982. She referred to these works as "Patterns of Thought" and "Architecture of the Mind."
Both untitled. The one on the left is 44 1/2 x 64 inches; the right one is 51 x 78 inches. They are oil and pastel on canvas.
Art as Diary/Diary as Art
It seems to me that the most appropriate way to view Hedda's work is in the context of her long life. "Maybe I am saying something which is a truism," she said, "but I feel that my work all along was like a diary." Her interests were wide ranging, she read continuously and quoted or paraphrased from her reading or conversations with "poets, novelists, philosophers and theologians." In 1976 she made her art a literal diary by placing sections of unstretched canvas on the floor of her living space. She drew a grid on the canvas and then filled in one square each day with either a quote, her activities or her thoughts and the date. She alternated between all caps and cursive script so that the grid had a checkerboard look.
Diary, June-October 1976. Acrylic and ink markers on unstretched canvas, 103 x 54 inches.
Closeup of Diary, showing variance in handwritiing that made a checkerboard effect.
In later years, Hedda suffered declines in her health that included macular degeneration. She had to stop painting in 1998 but was able to continue drawing aided by a magnifying glass and motivated by her unswerving determination and devotion to creating art. She drew hundreds of small-scale drawings in pencil, pastel and sometimes thinned Wite-Out. The drawings are untitled but dated with the date of completion.
Left: June 25, 1999, pencil and pastel on paper, 12 1/4 x 9 1/8 inches. Right: August 24, 2000, pencil and pastel on paper, 12 1/4 x 9 1/8 inches.
Untitled, May 30, 2004, pencil and pastel on paper, 12 1/4 x 9 1/8 inches.
"Sometimes I react to immediate visible reality and sometimes I am prompted by ideas, but at all times I have been moved, to paraphrase Seamus Heaney, by the music of the way things are. (One can find secret significance at the depth of the ordinary.) I believe that simplicity is an invention of man. Nature is never simple. And, the habit of careful study of the visual immediate opens our eyes to the presence of mystery in the seemingly obvious. In art the retinal, intellectual, and spiritual necessarily collaborate, alternating in importance. Art is essentially revelatory. The desire for clarity drives us....
"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." Based on a conversation with Sarah Eckhardt, May 30, 2004.
Hedda Sterne, ca. 1977. Photographer probably Lillian Bristol.