Perhaps most recognizable as the only woman in the famous 1951 photo of the so-called Irascibles, Hedda Sterne was an important member of the New York School (although she prefers not be aligned with any artistic group) and exhibited with Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Barnett Newman, and Mark Rothko. Her impressive art career spans from the late 1930s when she exhibited with the Surrealists in Paris until the present. Yet, despite her presence amongst the Abstract Expressionists in the 1940s and 50s and the dynamic body of work she has created over the greater part of the 20th century, her work has gone almost completely undocumented in art historical narratives of the post-war American art scene. Krannert Art Museum’s exhibition, Uninterrupted Flux: Hedda Sterne, A Retrospective, presents an overview of Sterne’s career, including works never previously shown to the public. Based on a series of conversations with the artist and extensive research, the exhibition explores some of the over-arching themes that unite Sterne’s incredibly versatile body of work.
Sterne’s long career has traversed both Europe and America and has intersected with several important movements. Likewise, the list of artists with whom she personally was connected reads like a veritable who’s who in 20th century art. Sterne was born in Bucharest, Romania in 1910 and although a generation younger than Constantin Brancusi, Marcel Janco, Tristan Tzara and Victor Brauner, she was aware from a young age of the Romanian artistic avant-garde surrounding her. Brauner, a Surrealist painter and a close friend of Sterne’s family, introduced her to the Surrealists in Paris in the late 1930s. Hans Arp, impressed by a work he saw in the 1939 11th Exposition du Salon des Surindépendants, brought Sterne’s work to the attention of Peggy Guggenheim, then in London. When Sterne, who is of Jewish origin, returned to German occupied Romania, she narrowly escaped a round up in Bucharest and emigrated to the US in 1941. In New York Peggy Guggenheim introduced Sterne to a vital community of émigré artists including Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, and Piet Mondrian. Sterne’s first solo exhibition was held in 1943 at the Wakefield Gallery in New York then under the direction of Betty Parsons. When Parsons opened her own gallery in 1946, Sterne joined the roster of Parsons’ most prized artists along with Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Ad Reinhardt. Since 1943 Sterne has had nearly 40 solo exhibitions and participated in countless group shows. She is currently represented by CDS Gallery in New York.
Sterne’s continual exploration of new directions in her art has yielded a diverse body of work—from her early Surrealist chance pieces, to the anthropomorphic machines of the late 1940s, to the abstract highways and horizon paintings of the 50s and 60s, face series of the 70s and geometric prisms of the 80s and 90s (to name only a few directions her work has taken). Furthermore, Sterne has moved fluidly between abstraction and figuration, as she has returned often to portraiture throughout her career. Her very spirit of exploration, encouraged by her vigorous reading of philosophy, theology, history and literature, provides a framework through which the diversity of her work can be understood. When discussing her work she often returns to the ideas of flux and interconnectedness — two themes that account for her remarkable openness to exploring new styles. However, Sterne’s disinterest in developing a marketable style—or as she describes it, her refusal to paint logos—has made it difficult for any one artistic movement to claim her and perhaps may have contributed to her omission from the art historical canon. Uninterrupted Flux aims to make her prolific body of work visible again and invites further exploration of her life and art.