Art of the Americas


Machine 5, 1950
Hedda Sterne (Romanian-born, United States, b. 1916)
Oil on canvas
51 x 38 1/4 inches
Festival of Arts Purchase Fund 1950-7-1

Hedda Sterne was trained in Bucharest, where she was born, and later in Vienna. In the 1930s, her compatriot and fellow artist Victor Brauner introduced her to the surrealists in Paris, and late in the decade she began exhibiting with them. In 1941, Sterne narrowly eluded a roundup of Jews in German-occupied Bucharest and escaped to New York, where art patron Peggy Guggenheim introduced her to a vital community of émigré artists, including Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, and Piet Mondrian. After her first solo exhibition in New York in 1943, Sterne joined the roster of the Betty Parsons Gallery, which included Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Ad Reinhardt, and became a significant presence in New York.

Machine 5 is an outstanding example of what Sterne has called her "anthropographs," images of machines with human-like qualities that she painted from the late 1940s through the early '50s. The concept of the anthropographs stemmed from Sterne's observation on arriving in the United States that the American landscape was more surreal than any surrealist invention. She was intrigued by the idea that human beings, possessing an insatiable desire for consumption, make machines that unconsciously serve as portraits of their own inner needs. Most likely inspired by a New York City construction site, the abstract and impossibly top-heavy industrial equipment in Machine 5 undermines any notion of conventional function. The vibrant red background detaches the machine from any setting. At once whimsical and frightening, it has come to life, with multiple eyes wide open and jaws ready to devour.

Text by Sarah Eckhardt, from Krannert Art Museum: Selected Works, 2008

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