The entire body of Hedda Sterne’s work has been completely overlooked in the art historical narrative of the mid-20th century, especially considering her prominent placement as the only female member in the rebel group, “The Irascibles”.
The year 1941 was a landmark year for Sterne as her move to New York was overshadowed by her inclusion in the Art of This Century exhibition, funded by Peggy Guggenheim. It was here where notable dealer Betty Parsons discovered Sterne’s work and gave her a solo exhibition at the Betty Parsons Gallery in 1943 and it was for this exhibition that Sterne first presented her use of circular canvases to create the Tondo Series. These tondos are mounted on a central axis so the viewer can turn them at will to gain varying perspectives. A pioneer in her use of both medium and form, Sterne used the tondo throughout the balance of her career. Similar to Pollock, Sterne was also recognized for her divergence from using mediums and forms contemporaneous with the times.
The theme of Sterne’s works during the 1940’s and 1950’s was essentially machine-based, whether their nature was Surrealist or completely abstract. Some of her works, including New York Apt. #5, 1955, shown here, arepart of her New York series. Depicted in this series are “hurtling trains, derricks, and bridges as though they were looming monsters, in an attempt to portray the pace and power of the big city”. Both Pollock and his “drip” and Sterne and her spray paint had a unique relationship with their mediums; the precision of their objectives set the terms upon which their deliverance was so successful. Sterne’s use of acrylic spray paint allowed her to echo speed and motion while also discovering that illusion of depth could be achieved without the use of perspective.
It was also during this time period that she became associated with the New York School, and as a result began using more primary and muted colors. As a result Sterne is also well-known for her semi-abstract cityscapes, and non-objective paintings with horizontal bands and stripes of color, as shown here.
Sterne was primarily interested in the desire for invisibility and abandonment of self, in her work, in exchange for receptivity to her environment. While Sterne constantly changed her styles and techniques, regardless of the positive reviews she received, her resistance to imposing any kind of personal identity upon her work was an idea which contrasted sharply with her contemporaries and a desire which ultimately buried her successes as they came along.
Sterne’s work is represented in the permanent collections of numerous museums including the Whitney, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and the Art Institute of Chicago. Her work is seldom available.
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