Hedda Sterne: The Last First Wave Abstract Expressionist Dies at 100

Hedda Sterne

Hedda Sterne,The last living artist, of the original New York Abstract Expressionist group who were immortalized in the Life magazine portrait known as, ‘The Irascibles’, has died age 100.

In 1951 she  featured alongside Theodore Stamos, Jimmy Ernst, Barnett Newman, James Brooks, and Mark Rothko, Richard Pousette-Dart, William Baziotes, Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still, Robert Motherwell, and Bradley Walker Tomlin, Willem de Kooning, Adolph Gottlieb and Ad Reinhardt, .

Sterne was married to Saul Steinberg the cartoonist famous for his New Yorker magazine covers.They were together until his death in 1999. Her work is held in prominent collections such as ,The Museum of Modern Art NY, The Whitney museum of American Art and Tate Modern in London.

What really distinguished her as an artist was her refusal to develop what she tartly termed a “logo” style. And that refusal, Sterne said once, “very much destroyed my ‘career.’” Although dealers Peggy Guggenheim and Betty Parsons championed her.  She had limited success in her lifetime. Major museums did acquired her work, and Clement Greenberg praised her “nice flatness” and “delicacy” while critic Hilton Kramer mentioned her “first-class graphic gift.” Sterne had one of the longest exhibition histories of any living artist with over seventy years under her belt but never reached the wide public awareness of her contemporaries. It never bothered her. “I don’t know why, I never was burdened with a tremendous competition and ambition of any kind…. There is this wonderful passage in Conrad’s Secret Agent,” she noted. “There is a retarded young boy who sweeps with a concentration as if he were playing. That was how I always worked. The activity absorbed me sufficiently…” What came through was an artist who, in contrast to almost everyone else in the “Irascibles” photograph, had effectively erased herself. Not only was she not an Abstract Expressionist; she was the anti–Abstract Expressionist, someone who had no use for the cult of personality and personal gesture… And at a time when just about every painter who mattered was a heroic abstract artist, or trying to be, she was not.

She recently said in an interview,”I can die at any moment. But I still learn. Every drawing teaches me something. I want to be able to say that too, right up until the last day of my life”.

Photo: Image: Installation view, Victoria Miro Mayfair, 29 January–21 March 2020 All works © The Hedda Sterne Foundation Inc, ARS, NY and DACS, London 2019 Courtesy Van Doren Waxter and Victoria Miro


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