Hedda Sterne: Avant garde artist reluctantly ranked among the Abstract Expressionists

The Romanian-born Hedda Sterne, who has died aged 100, was the last surviving member of the New York Abstract Expressionists of the 1940s to the 1960s dubbed "the irascibles".

She was often described as the only woman in the group, which included Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and Willem de Kooning, but that was something of a false assumption resulting from a famous photograph in which she was pictured towering over Pollock and 13 other men in Life magazine in 1951.

The Abstract Expressionists took the focus of world modern art away from the Surrealists of Paris and eventually gave way themselves to the Pop art of Andy Warhol and his contemporaries. But Sterne herself was never happy with what she called the "logo of abstract expressionists or irascibles" – labels she once said "very much destroyed my career".

Sterne had started out as a Surrealist in Paris, having fled Nazi persecution in her native Romania, but always considered herself an artist "in flux", saying her works were part of "a diary". "It's malentendu to consider me an abstract expressionist," she once said. "The impressionists were so named because Monet showed a little painting called Impression, Sunrise. And ever after, people tried to fit the paintings into the word, into the definition."

Sterne's role among what were considered the world's most avant-garde male painters of the epoch meant, with hindsight, she was ploughing a feminist furrow but feminism was another label she shunned. While she never stopped painting, she was happy to be a housewife for 17 years to a fellow Romanian-American, Saul Steinberg, a renowned cartoonist and illustrator for the The New Yorker who would become best-known for his iconic 1976 cover "View of the World from 9th Avenue".

Nor did Sterne ever consider herself a heroic or revolutionary painter the way her male, and a handful of other female abstract expressionists did. She never achieved the fame of Pollock, Rothko and her male counterparts, or indeed of other women who became involved with the movement, including Pollock's wife Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Helen Frankenthaler, Joan Mitchell and Grace Hartigan. Sterne shunned the cult of personality, stuck to a spare and muted palette and effectively erased herself as a name in the art world. Despite being the only living member of the original irascibles, her 1954 painting New York, VIII was given little prominence at a retrospective exhibition, Abstract Expressionist New York, currently at the city's Museum of Modern Art.

As a wartime immigrant from Romania, she became infatuated with American machines and gadgets and they became the subjects of many of her works, such as Tractor Seat (1961), part of a series painted during a tour of John Deere tractor factories. She saw machines as having human characteristics, "self-portraits of their creators" and she called them "anthropographs". She used spray-painted lines to depict the angles of the streets, bridges and skyscrapers of her adopted city.

Hedwig Lindenberg was born in Bucharest in 1910, the second child of Jewish parents Simon Lindenberg, a language teacher who died when she was nine, and Eugenie Wexler. Her only sibling, Edouard, would become a prominent conductor of classical music in Paris. Schooled at home until she was 11, she first encountered Surrealism from a painter friend of her father, Victor Brauner.

She entered the University of Bucharest in 1928 to study philosophy and the history of art but dropped out to study painting in Paris, where her teachers included André Lhote and Fernand Léger. In 1932, she married a Romanian childhood friend, Frederick Stern, and, during the late 1930s, saw her Surrealist paintings exhibited at the Salon des Surindépendants in Paris and Peggy Guggenheim's new London gallery, the Guggenheim Jeune.

When Romania allied itself with the Nazis in 1940, the couple fled separately to New York, narrowly escaping a round-up of Jews in their apartment building. After she divorced Stern in 1944, she added an "e" to her surname and, the same year, married Steinberg and became a US citizen.

Peggy Guggenheim – at the time married to the German painter Max Ernst – championed her work and introduced Sterne to New York's art circles, including the Abstract Expressionists and the art dealer Betty Parsons.

In May 1950, Sterne was among around 20 artists who signed a letter to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, attacking its exhibition jury for being too conservative and antagonistic towards advanced or modern art. That led the New York art critic Emily Genauer to dub them "the irascibles" which, in turn, led to the famous photograph of the same name, taken by Nina Leen for Life magazine, and which came to define the Abstract Expressionists, or AbExers.

In the picture, Sterne looks imperious, the most commanding figure, her shadow somehow almost masculine. In fact, she had arrived late and the photographer asked her to stand on a table.

"I was like a feather on top. Now I am known more for that darn photo than for 80 years of work," she said a few years ago.

"That photo was probably the worst thing that happened to me," she said. "The boys weren't too happy about it either. They were all sufficiently macho to think that the presence of a woman took away from the seriouness of it all."

Sterne and Steinberg separated in 1961 but never divorced and remained friends until his death in 1999.

For the past 50 years, Sterne lived as a recluse in her apartment on Manhattan's East 71st street. She continued to paint until failing vision forced her to confine herself to drawing, latterly using white crayon on white paper "without external stimulus, only internal stimulus".

Hedwig Lindenberg (Hedda Sterne), artist: born Bucharest, Romania 4 August 1910; married 1932 Frederick Stern (divorced 1944), 1944 Saul Steinberg; died New York 8 April 2011.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Life and Style
love + sex
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Sport
Ashley Young celebrates the winner for Manchester United against Newcastle
footballNewcastle 0 Man United 1: Last minute strike seals precious victory
Life and Style
Tikka Masala has been overtaken by Jalfrezi as the nation's most popular curry
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Seth Rogan is one of America’s most famous pot smokers
filmAmy Pascal resigned after her personal emails were leaked following a cyber-attack sparked by the actor's film The Interview
News
Benjamin Netanyahu and his cartoon bomb – the Israeli PM shows his ‘evidence’
people
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
News
i100
Life and Style
A statue of the Flemish geographer Gerard Kremer, Geradus Mercator (1512 - 1594) which was unveiled at the Geographical Congree at Anvers. He was the first person to use the word atlas to describe a book of maps.
techThe 16th century cartographer created the atlas
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: UI / UX Designer

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This firm are focussed on assis...

Recruitment Genius: General Processor

£7 per hour: Recruitment Genius: A vacancy has arisen for a General Processor ...

Recruitment Genius: Outbound Sales Executive - B2B

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A great opportunity has arisen ...

Recruitment Genius: Online Sales and Customer Services Associate

£14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Full time and Part time positio...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot