Hedda Sterne

The Artwork of Hedda Sterne

Born Hedwig Lindenberg in Bucharest, Romania, in 1910, Hedda Sterne received a rich primary education that included the study of multiple languages, German philosophy, and art history. With the encouragement of Modernist painter and professor Max Hermann Maxy, Sterne began her formal art education in 1918. Her first teacher was the Realist sculptor Frederic Stock, a professor at the Bucharest National University of the Arts. 

As early as 1924, Hedda Sterne gravitated to the Constructivist, Dada, and Surrealist artist communities of Bucharest and Paris. She took classes in ceramics atVienna’s Museum of Fine Arts and, in 1929, enrolled at the University of Bucharest, where she studied under literary and art critic Tudor Vianu, and philosophers Nae Ionescu, and Mircea Florian. In addition to her early work with Frederic Stock, Sterne worked in the studio of Surrealist painter Marcel Janco, who was a co-founder of the Dada movement, and became a close friend with Surrealist painters Victor Brauner and his brother Théodore Brauner, realist painter Jules Perahim, classical painter Medi Wexler, and surrealist poet Gheorghe Dinu.

In the late 1930s, Sterne began her work in the mediums of painting and collage. Drawn to the Surrealist practice of automatism, a process which allows the subconscious mind control over the formation of a work, Sterne  developed her own unique style of collage. Sterne’s collage work was first recognized in 1939 at the Fiftieth annual Salon des Indépendants in Paris, where her work was singled out by painter Jean Arp, who recommended her work to art patron and collector Peggy Guggenheim. After the outbreak of World War II and the Bucharest pogrom, Sterne was able to acquire the necessary visas for travel, which enabled her to embark from Lisbon and sail to New York in October of 1941. 

Settling in Manhattan, Hedda Sterne established an apartment and studio on East 50th Street and soon developed a close friendship with Peggy Guggenheim, a close neighbor on Beekman Place. Sterne re-united with many Surrealistic artists she had known in Paris, including Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, and André Breton. She also began a close friendship with author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, whom she encouraged to illustrate his own book “The Little Prince”. Involved with the circle of New York School of artists, Sterne’s work was included in surrealism’s seminal exhibition in the United States, “The First Papers of Surrealism”,  held in October of 1942 at Manhattan’s Whitelaw Reid Mansion.

By 1943 Sterne’s work was regularly show in exhibitions at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery, including the 1943 “Exhibition by 31 Women”. In November of 1943, Sterne had her first solo show in the United States at the Manhattan’s Wakefield Gallery, organized by art dealer and collector Betty Parsons. This began a nearly forty-year collaboration between Sterne and Parsons, who represented her after the opening of her own gallery, the Betty Parsons Gallery, in 1947.

Throughout her career, Hedda Sterne’s diverse series of artwork were a reflection of the changing world around her.  In the 1940s, she began to draw inspiration from the motion, architecture and scale of her new New York surroundings.  Following a visit to Vermont with her husband and fellow artist Saul Steinberg, Sterne began studying farm machinery, as well as the construction sites and harbors of New York and post-war Paris. By the 1950s, these Machine paintings and drawings had evolved into a series about motion itself.   Often utilizing commercial spray paint to invoke a feeling of speed, Sterne’s large gestural canvases of the mid-1950s were inspired by city bridges and her travels on highways around the United States.

Hedda Sterne began, in the 1960s, to explore new themes in her work, expanding beyond the inspiration of her immediate surrounding to include her interests in science and philosophy.  The qualities of light and space were often a central focus of investigation in Stern’s work.  While on a Fulbright Fellowship in Venice in 1963, she experimented with mosaic and refined a series entitled “Vertical-Horizontals”, paintings that invoked an expansive, horizontal landscape, whose reach, however, was confined within a vertical format. Later in the decade, as drawing took on a more central role in her practice, Sterne developed dense and intricate organic abstractions in series entitled “Lettuces and Baldanders”.

In addition to exploring both physical and conceptual subjects in her work, Sterne also produced both geometric and organic abstractions.  Among her largest series of works on canvas are her 1980s “Patterns of Thought” paintings, in which she, now in her seventies, explored the universality of signs and symbols through prismatic geometric structures.  While doing this series, Sterne also developed various drawings and loose studies of nature, with elaborate organic structures and ghostly apparitions emerging from the page.

Hedda Sterne was a prolific artist who maintained  a daily practice of making art throughout a career that spanned nine decades. Her work intersected with some of the most important movements and figures of twentieth-century art. Even though affected by macular degeneration, she continued to create new work in her eighties and nineties; unable to paint by 1998, she still drew. Her vision and movement affected by two strokes between 2004 and 2008, Sterne passed away in April of 2011 at the age of one hundred.

In 1977 Hedda Sterne was honored with her first retrospective exhibition of her work at the Montclair Art Museum in New Jersey. Her second retrospective entitled “Hedda Sterne: Forty Years” was held at New York’s Queens Museum in 1985. Her third retrospective was held in 2006, entitled “Uninterrupted Flux: Hedda Sterne; A Retrospective:, at the Krannert Art Museum at the University of Illinois.

Top Insert Image: Henri Cartier-Bresson, “Hedda Sterne”, 1961, Silver Gelaton Print.   Second Image: Edith Glogau, “Hedda Sterne, October 1932 Issue of Die Bühne Magazine, Vienna;   Third Image: Lilian Bristol, “Hedda Sterne in Her Studio with Her Portrait of Joan Mitchell”, 1955;   Bottom Image: Nina Leen, Hedda Sterne and New York School of Painters, January 1951 Life Magazine Photo

More information on Hedda Sterne’s life and a complete body of her work cna be found at the Hedda Sterne Foundation located at: https://heddasternefoundation.org

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