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

Phil Davison
Saturday 16 April 2011 00:00 BST

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.

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