Hedda Sterne Machine 5 1950 Oil on canvas 51 x 38 1/8 in.
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - She exhibited with the surrealists in Paris in the 1930s and with the abstract expressionists in New York in the 1940s and 1950s. Today, her work is in the collections of some of the most respectable art museums in the United States. Yet, if the name Hedda Sterne appears at all in textbooks documenting 20th-century art history, it's typically as a passing reference or a footnote.
A new exhibition organized by the Krannert Art Museum at the University of Illinois aims to correct that oversight and bring her work back into full view at last.
"Uninterrupted Flux: Hedda Sterne, A Retrospective," which runs from Jan. 21 through March 26 at the U. of I. museum, features nearly 100 drawings, paintings and other works by the artist created over a span of six decades.
"Through this exhibition, I hope to offer a tantalizing glimpse of Sterne's prolific body of art: to make her work visible again, and invite further explorations of her life and art," said curator Sarah Eckhardt.
Pieces included in the exhibition range from early collages and paintings representing an ever-changing style of execution and subject matter to pencil and pastel drawings created as recently as a year ago. Some are from private or corporate collections, including seven abstract interpretations of farm implements commissioned in the 1960s by Fortune magazine and later purchased by William Hewitt, a former Deere & Co. chief executive officer. Others are on loan from museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, and the Art Institute of Chicago.
The exhibition is accompanied by a full-color catalog, which includes text by Eckhardt and an essay by Lawrence Rinder, the dean of graduate studies at the California College of the Arts.
Hedda Sterne Antro II, 1949 31 1/2 x 51 in.
Krannert Art Museum Director Kathleen Harleman noted that many of the works in the retrospective are from Sterne's personal collection and have not been displayed publicly since their original showings at the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York City.
Through the years, the Romanian-born artist, who was married to New Yorker cartoonist Saul Steinberg, exhibited her work in 36 solo shows and in countless group shows. Harleman said the U. of I. retrospective is the largest, most comprehensive exhibition of her work to date.
"Although Sterne ceased producing new works of art in recent months, at 95 years of age she is still actively engaged in the contemporary world around her," Harleman added.
The artist, who counted celebrated New York School artists Jackson Pollock, Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko not only as contemporaries, but as close friends, still lives in New York.
Eckhardt met with the artist there on many occasions to collect and catalog her work and to gather information and insights on her life, career and artistic motivations.
Before their work was finished, the two women - separated in age by nearly 70 years - had become fast friends.
"We've gotten close," said Eckhardt, a 28-year-old U. of I. art history student who worked on the exhibition and catalog as her dissertation project while also juggling duties as a curatorial assistant at The Menil Collection in Houston. "I usually visited her for a week at a time. She'd make meals for us and we'd talk well into the night." Before the interviews were completed, "we could finish each other's sentences."
The impetus for organizing the show at the U. of I. came from former Krannert Art Museum director Josef Helfenstein, now the director of The Menil Collection. Helfenstein began exploring the idea after he came across one of her paintings - titled "Machine 5" - in Krannert's storage area.
"The painting seemed both familiar and enigmatic," Helfenstein wrote in the exhibition catalog.
"On the one hand, it related to the post-World War II vocabulary of abstract American painting, on the other hand, it was strikingly different in the cool, anti-heroic use of color and subject matter," Helfenstein wrote.
While aware of Sterne, in large part because she is recognizable to generations of art students as the only woman in a historic Life magazine photograph of several abstract expressionist artists - dubbed "the Irascibles" by the magazine's editors - Helfenstein acknowledged that he didn't know much else about her. Furthermore, he doubted that many of his curatorial colleagues did either.
But Helfenstein was intrigued by the museum's painting, which he discovered had won the purchase prize during one of the U. of I.'s Festival of Contemporary Arts in the 1950s. He wanted to learn more about Sterne's work. So he wrote to her and arranged to visit her in New York. When he left the U. of I. for The Menil, Helfenstein turned over full curatorial responsibilities for the project to Eckhardt.
Through her long conversations with Sterne, Eckhardt learned the artist had once traveled in the same circles with some of the best-known of the abstract expressionists and other members of New York's cultural elite. Sterne nonetheless insisted on distancing herself from the New York School pack artistically. She steadfastly refused to market her work or align herself with a particular style or movement.
In fact, just when the public would begin to pay attention to a particular style of work she was creating, and museums would acquire it, Sterne would quickly abandon the series and move on to something new. Thus, unlike Pollock, with his drip paintings, Sterne was never associated with a signature style. However, those familiar with Sterne's "Spray Roads" series, in which "she used commercial spray enamel on canvas almost a decade before the pop artists employed such direct industrial references," often connect her with that body of work, Eckhardt said.
She concedes that gender issues may have been another factor in Sterne's eventual fade from public view and the art-historical canon, but believes Sterne's own artistic philosophies may have played a bigger role.
"She strives for a certain invisibility and abandonment of self in exchange for receptivity to her environment," the curator noted.
Perhaps what distinguished Sterne most from her abstract expressionist friends, however, was a fundamental motivational difference in her approach to artmaking.
"Abstract expressionists were extremely interested in identity, so their paintings expressed something about themselves," Eckhardt said. Sterne, on the other hand, "is like a lens looking at the world. For her, art is not personal. She thought of herself more as an instrument."
Or, in Sterne's own words: "With time I have learned to lose my identity while drawing and to act simply like a conduit, permitting visions that want to take shape to do so."
Sometimes the visions begged to become representations of the natural world, sometimes the man-made. Occasionally, they turned into "anthropographs" - images of machines with human characteristics - or even portraits of people she knew.
"And through all this," Sterne told Eckhardt, "pervades my feeling that I am only one small speck - hardly an atom - in the uninterrupted flux of the world around me."
"Uninterrupted Flux" will travel to the University of Virginia Art Museum, Richmond, and will be on view there Jan. 12 through March 11, 2007. Other venues may be added later.