Portrait of Hedda Sterne by Théodore Brauner, c. 1964

Portrait of Hedda Sterne by Théodore Brauner, c. 1964

About the Artist

Hedda Sterne was a prolific artist whose long career intersected with some of the most important movements and figures of 20th century art.  Sterne described her extensive body of work, exhibited early on with the Surrealists and later with the Abstract Expressionists, as a process of exploration and discovery. Her work, she felt, could be seen as a visual diary of her experiences and philosophies as they evolved over time.  She would say:

"I see myself as a well-working lens, a perceiver of something that exists independently of me: don’t look at me, look at what I’ve found."

In this way, Hedda Sterne’s legacy is a rich and multilayered contribution to the history of 20th century art, at once the record of a personal journey, and the reflection of a progressive approach to art-making that places Sterne ahead of her time.  


Life & Work

Hedda Sterne was born in Bucharest, Romania in 1910.  As early as 1924, Sterne was drawn to the Dada, Constructivist, and Surrealist communities of Bucharest and later Paris. Victor Brauner was a close friend, and Marcel Janco one of her first art instructors. Early in her artistic practice, Sterne experimented with sculpture before turning to painting and collage in the late 1930s. Her first international recognition came when her collages were included in a group exhibition in Paris in 1938 and singled out by Jean Arp, through whom Sterne was recommended to Peggy Guggenheim. Sterne’s work was included in the pioneering exhibition First Papers of Surrealism in 1942, organized by André Breton and Marcel Duchamp in New York, where Sterne had been forced to flee from Europe in 1941.

Settling in the United States, a place Sterne considered “more wildly Surrealist than what the wildest Surrealists imagined,” Sterne became involved with the circle of New York School artists with whom she is most often connected. She exhibited at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery, and had her first solo exhibition in the U.S. organized by Betty Parsons at the Wakefield Gallery in 1943. Three years later, Parsons opened her own gallery with Sterne as one of the first sixteen artists represented. Sterne would remain with Betty Parsons Gallery until Parsons' death in 1982, showing in more than 40 exhibitions. 

Throughout her career, Sterne's various series of artwork were a reflection of the changing world around her.  In the 1940s, Sterne began to draw inspiration from the motion, architecture and scale of her new home, New York.  Following a visit to Vermont with her husband and fellow artist Saul Steinberg, she 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, her large gestural canvases of the mid-1950s were inspired by city bridges and her travels on highways around the United States.

In the 1960s, Sterne began to explore new themes in her work, expanding beyond the inspiration of her immediate surrounding to include her interests in science and philosophy.  Often qualities of light and space were a central focus of investigation in her work.  In 1963, while on a Fulbright Fellowship in Venice, Sterne experimented with mosaic and refined a series she called Vertical-Horizontals, paintings that invoke an expansive landscape, while simultaneously confining the horizontal reach of each painting 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 that she called her Lettuces and Baldanders.  

In addition to exploring both physical and conceptual subjects in her work, Sterne often toggled between geometric and organic abstractions.  Among her largest series of works on canvas are her Patterns of Thought paintings from the 1980s, when Sterne was in her 70s, exploring the universality of signs and symbols through prismatic geometric structures.  At the same time, Sterne developed various drawings and loose studies of nature, with elaborate organic structures and ghostly apparitions emerging from the page.  

At the age of 94, in preparation for her third retrospective exhibition in 2006, Sterne would reflect on her practice and inspirations:

“Sometimes I react to immediate visible reality and sometimes I am prompted by ideas, but at all times I have been moved […] 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.”

Hedda Sterne’s prolific body of work stands out from many of her contemporaries in its evident avoidance of a "signature style."  Her long-time friend and gallerist, Betty Parsons, once reflected:

"Hedda was always searching, never satisfied. She had many ways; most artists just have one way to go."

However, Sterne’s central belief in art as an ongoing journey of exploration and discovery was a value shared by many of her peers.  Perhaps what sets Sterne apart, and indeed ahead of her time, is the fact that her work remained so wholly committed to this philosophy of "flux" over a career spanning nine decades of discovery.  

Sterne’s works are represented in the collections of The Art Institute of Chicago, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Modern Art, New York and The Tate Modern, London. Retrospective exhibitions have been mounted at the Montclair Art Museum, New Jersey in 1977, Queens Museum, New York, in 1985, and Uninterrupted Flux: Hedda Sterne, A Retrospective at the Krannert Art Museum, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2006.