Hedda Sterne Protests the “Monster National Exhibition.”
The artists were described as “The Irascibles.” You would expect them to be hot-tempered, waspish, irritable. They don’t look particularly heated in their photograph in Life magazine published on November 24, 1950, though one of them literally stands out—the only woman in the bunch, Hedda Sterne, towers over her fellow artists, including Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Robert Motherwell.
But the group achieved sudden notoriety on May 20, 1950, when their letter to the president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art was published on the front page of the New York Times. In the letter, the group rejected “the monster national exhibition” American Painting Today—1950, decried the judges of the exhibit’s competition as hostile to modern “advanced art,” and declared that they would boycott it.
Thus the Irascibles began the public life of the artistic style that became known as Abstract Expressionism. Others in the movement became famous for their work that emphasized the immediacy of paint and strong emotional content, but Hedda Sterne chose her own path, encompassing styles and experimentation that denied classification as any one particular technique.
“Hedda was always searching, never satisfied,” Betty Parsons, her longtime dealer, once said. “She had many ways; most artists just have one way to go." And Sterne herself said in a 2007 interview in Art in America magazine, “I never thought in terms of a career, but I worked with tremendous urgency. I have a feeling that in art the need to understand and the need to communicate are one.”
Born Hedwig Lindenberg on August 4, 1910 in Bucharest, Romania, she took art classes at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. In 1932 she married Fritz Stern, from whom she soon separated, retaining his last name but adding an “e.” She first experimented with Surrealism and exhibited with the father of that style, Hans Arp, in Paris in 1938. Escaping from a roundup and massacre of Jews in her apartment building, she fled to New York City, where she quickly fell in with avant-garde artists, including Saul Steinberg, whom she married in 1944.
Fascinated by structure, she found inspiration in farm machinery in Vermont and the bridges and skyscrapers of New York. She painted horizontal bands of color on vertical canvases, made ink drawings of splayed heads of lettuce, put diary entries on checkerboard-like grids, and made scores of portraits exhibited as Hedda Sterne Shows Everyone at the Betty Parsons Gallery.
In a 2004 exhibition catalogue, Sterne wrote, “Sometimes I react to immediate visible reality and sometimes I am prompted by ideas, but at all times I have been moved, to paraphrase [Irish poet] Seamus Heaney, by 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.”
As to the famous Life photo, Sterne recalled in 1981, “They all were very furious that I was in it because they all were sufficiently macho to think that the presence of a woman took away from the seriousness of it all.”
Sources: “Hedda Sterne and the Irascibles,” Jewish Currents; “Hedda Sterne, an Artist of Many Styles, Dies at 100,” New York Times, April 11, 2011; “An Abstract Painter with a Wider Focus,” New York Times, June 13, 2009; “Hedda Sterne,” Art in America, February 1, 2007; and Bruce Fine.