To Sing Close – Eleanor Nairne

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Hedda Sterne’s Vertical-Horizontal paintings feel quietly alive. The bands of subdued colour – cream, grey, ochre, brown – emerge from and dissolve back into one another, with a glint here and there like the last light thrown up once the sun dips below the horizon. They bring to mind a statement that she made in 2004, when she was 93 and looking back on her remarkable artistic life: ‘At all times I have been moved, to paraphrase Seamus Heaney, by the music of the way things are’.[1] The Irish poet had died the year before, so perhaps was on her mind (and was certainly in the air). The poem she was half-remembering is ‘Song’, which is just eight lines long and features ‘A rowan like a lipsticked girl’, ‘the mud-flowers of dialect’ and ‘that moment when the bird sings very close / To the music of what happens’.[2] The European rowan tree turns a flaming red in autumn and in Celtic folklore is known as the traveller’s tree because it protects those on treacherous journeys from getting lost.

 

Heaney’s final line was itself a recollection – of the legend of Finn Mac Cool who challenged the warriors of the Fianna to name the finest music of the world. They wrongly guessed the lark over Dingle Bay, the laughter of a young woman and the bellowing of a stag, before they were told the true answer: ‘the music of what happens’. Sterne must have felt a deep sympathy with Heaney’s philosophy that the poet, or indeed the painter, needed to ensure that their song was intimate with what he elsewhere called the ‘energies of generation’.[3] In her 2004 statement she went on to describe how ‘the gestation of a work resembles the way a tree grows, from top toward bottom. The sun feeds the leaves that create chlorophyll, making sap flow down to nourish the roots. The nature of the developing image determines the quality of the lines (hesitating, gentle, or decisive, etc.) and the line reciprocates.’[4]

Over the course of her career, she refused to settle on any signature image – what she called a “logo style” – allowing herself to be immersed in each new period of work as it came to her.

The idea of energy flowing from leaf to root – which echoes and inverts Heaney’s ‘mud-flowers’ – suggests the gentle organic growth of Sterne’s work and the way in which she attuned herself to its natural rhythms. Over the course of her career, she refused to settle on any signature image – what she called a ‘logo style’ – allowing herself to be immersed in each new period of work as it came to her and then to move on when the impulse to do so arrived.[5] (Might we think of this as a pull vertically and then horizontally?) What binds the aesthetically varied output of her life in the studio is the abiding belief in the struggle to capture lyrically the shifting essence of her time. As she articulated in a statement for Arts Digest in 1954: the artist ‘knows very well that the essentially elusive cannot be grasped and transcribed, only [she] doesn’t believe it. Each painting is started in the hope of doing just that.’[6]

 

That year Sterne made works like New York, VIII, 1954, which has a more frenetic energy, with sooty marks sweeping across and up the portrait-format canvas and light seeming to emanate from beyond the tangle of movement. It belongs to a series called Roads, which was inspired by the rush of traffic on the New York highways, symbolising the pace of metropolitan life in post-war America. These works are particularly innovative in their use of aerosol spray paint – the speed of the paint application boosting the dynamism of the composition – and they were much admired internationally. In 1956, Katherine Kuh, Curator of Modern Art at the Art Institute of Chicago, selected Sterne as one of only two women (the other was Georgia O’Keefe, alongside 33 male artists including Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Edward Hopper and Stuart Davis) for a group exhibition at the 28th Venice Biennale called American Artists Paint the City. Her work New York, 1955, was one of only three colour illustrations in the catalogue and appeared on the frontispiece.[7]

By the time the critic Clement Greenberg wrote (somewhat patronisingly) of the “delicate sensibility” of Sterne’s new paintings, she was confidently working in an abstract vein.

Sterne’s fascination with New York must partly have stemmed from seeing it through the eyes of an outsider. Born Hedwig Lindenberg in Bucharest, Romania, she was exposed to the avant-garde at an early age. In 1924, the Surrealist artist Victor Brauner took her to an exhibition of Constructivist work and created an abstract portrait of her, which he used for an exhibition flyer.[8] By 16, she was taking classes in the studio of the Dadaist Marcel Janco and reading experimental magazines including Contimporanul, Documents and Minotaure. Because her father taught languages, she moved fluently between Romanian, French, German and English and after graduating from high school travelled extensively, spending time in Vienna, Paris and London and visiting Greece and Egypt. She later recalled, ‘I wanted to be an artist at age five or six … Artists were always referred to as great artists. I thought that’s what the profession was. One word: great-artist. There wasn’t one moment in my life when I thought I wanted to be anything else.’[9]

 

Sterne’s escape to America was traumatic. In 1941, she only narrowly survived a round-up and massacre of Jews in her Bucharest apartment building. The stamps decorating her passport give a picture of the arduous dotted line she plotted as she fled from East to West: from Arad to Vienna to Munich to Barcelona to Madrid to Sintra and finally to Lisbon, where she boarded the S.S. Excambion on 17 October to cross the Atlantic.[10] On arriving in New York, her first call was to the art dealer Peggy Guggenheim, who fast became a close friend. Guggenheim had seen her work in Paris and lived just around the corner on Beekman Place. The friendship gave Sterne an entrée into the small artistic community in Manhattan – many of whom were either refugees themselves or from émigré families. In 1942, she was included in the First Papers of Surrealism exhibition curated by André Breton and Marcel Duchamp and the following year her work was featured in a number of group shows at Guggenheim’s pioneering Art of This Century gallery, designed by Frederick Kiesler.

 

By the time the critic Clement Greenberg wrote (somewhat patronisingly) in The Nation of the ‘delicate sensibility’ of Sterne’s new paintings at the Betty Parsons Gallery in 1947, she was confidently working in an abstract vein.[11] The more explicit Surrealist motifs of her earlier work had given way to impossible architectures, inspired by the post-war building boom. In NY, NY No. X, 1948, the canvas is covered in intersecting structures – a cityscape of conflated pylons, road markings, rooftops, fire escapes and piers. The upward vectors and sky-blue background give the painting a sense of optimism – a feeling of Sterne’s delight in the shock of her new environment. ‘When I came here, I became totally enthralled with the United States,’ she explained. ‘I started painting my kitchen, the kitchen stove, the bathroom appliances … Then I went out and I painted Ford cars … And then I went to the country and I started painting industrial machines and then I painted the roads.’[12]

 

By containing her horizontals within a vertical format, Sterne suggests that these are landscape portraits – that a person might be made up of all the glinting horizons that they have seen.

The countryside Sterne refers to here is Jamaica, Vermont, which she first visited with her husband the artist Saul Steinberg in 1947. Intrigued by the farm machinery, she began creating a language of mechanical forms with humanoid features, which she called her ‘anthropographs’. She recalled how, ‘I had a feeling that machines are unconscious self-portraits of people’s psyches: the grasping, the wanting, the aggression that’s in a machine.’[13] Her words suggest the impact of the mechanolatry of the Russian Constructivists, whose machine aesthetic had seized the European avantgarde (a photograph taken at the Dada Fair, Berlin, 1920, shows the artists George Grosz and John Heartfield holding a placard saying ‘Art is dead. Long live the new machine art of Tatlin’.) But Sterne’s mechanical forms are graced with greater softness, suggesting that the technical prowess of America so endlessly touted in the 1950s might be mostly fantastical.

 

Sterne’s journey into abstraction took her towards purer forms in her Vertical-Horizontal series. The motion of industrial progress seems to have stilled, the striated paint evoking a slower passage of time, like the rings of a tree trunk or the strata of rock. Sterne spoke of how she enjoyed the ‘really, delicate but intense contrasts … knife-edge contrasts’ in these paintings, which can be felt in early works from the period, such as Utah Vertical-Horizontal no. 3, 1958, with its dark rippling greys and central shaft of scintillating light.[14] We typically refer to a canvas that is wider than it is tall as landscape and one with the inverse proportions as portrait, because the dimensions of each are best suited to that genre. By containing her horizontals within a vertical format, Sterne suggests that these are landscape portraits – that a person might be made up of all the glinting horizons that they have seen.

The meditative tone of the series and the imagery of light and water may have been inspired by Venice, where many of these works were painted.

The meditative tone of the series and the imagery of light and water may have been inspired by Venice, where many of these works were painted. Sterne was awarded a Fulbright fellowship in 1963, which allowed her to rent the house where the artist and poet Filippo De Pisis had lived on the Rio de San Sebastian canal in Dorsoduro, just near her old friend Peggy Guggenheim. ‘Never before or after, never did I see such ethereal, practically immaterial, transparent, spiritual, beautiful, sensitive looking people,’ she told her friend Mary Ann Caws.[15] Sterne arrived in the watery city wearing a black eyepatch because she was suffering from impaired sight and she had to be careful not to strain her vision further. In her letters to Steinberg, she railed against the ‘poverty of spirit, imagination, or even simple talent’ in the Venice Biennale. She also quietly confided in him that the luxury of a fellowship year was elucidating what she felt to be the strengths of her own work.[16]

 

Across the rest of her career, Sterne would continue to be concerned with what and how we see – and in the 1990s she made a series of whiteon-white drawings, explicitly aiming to depict the ‘floaters and flashers’ that moved across her field of vision now that she had developed macular degeneration. The sensuousness of the crayon forms suggests the ways in which the other senses, particularly touch, can become pronounced when sight fails. The delicate marks, which Sterne created with the aid of a magnifying glass, make the drawings seem light, otherworldly. They show Sterne at her best, connecting with what is literally in the forefront of her vision and with the unspoken forces at play beyond. ‘Through all this pervades my feeling’, she concludes in her 2004 statement, ‘that I am only one small speck (hardly an atom) in the uninterrupted flux of the world around me.’[17] And it is that very flux that her work so evocatively relays – singing close to the music of what happens.

 

This essay was first published on the occasion of the exhibition Hedda Sterne at Victoria Miro Mayfair, the artist's first solo exhibition in the UK, and appears in the accompanying book.

 

Eleanor Nairne is a curator based at the Barbican Art Gallery, London, where her exhibitions include Basquiat: Boom for Real (2017–18), Lee Krasner: Living Colour (2019–20) and the forthcoming Dubuffet: Brutal Beauty (2020–21). For 2020 she has chaired the Barbican’s centre-wide programme looking at the radical ways in which artists have articulated their sense of inner life, from Ludwig van Beethoven to Ivan van Hove. She was previously Curator of the Artangel Collection at Tate. A regular contributor to catalogues, she writes for the London Review of Books and frieze, is a former Jerwood Writer in Residence and has lectured and presented on modern and contemporary art internationally. 

 


 

[1] Sarah L. Eckhardt, Uninterrupted Flux: Hedda Sterne, exhibition catalogue, Krannert Art Museum, 2006, p. 13.

[2] Seamus Heaney, ‘Song’, New Selected Poems 1966–1987, Faber and Faber, London, 2009.

[3] Seamus Heaney quoted in Michael Parker, Seamus Heaney: The Making of the Poet, University of Iowa Press, Iowa, 1993, p. 98.

[4] Eckhardt, Uninterrupted Flux: Hedda Sterne, ibid., n.1, p. 13.

[5] Hedda Sterne quoted in Michael McNay, ‘Hedda Sterne obituary’, The Guardian, 14 April 2011, https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2011/apr/14/hedda-sterne-obituary, accessed 25 November 2019.

[6] Hedda Sterne, ‘Documents: From Studio to Gallery’, Arts Digest 29, 15 October 1954, p. 4.

[7] For more information, see Raffaele Bedarida, ‘Katherine Kuh, Norman Lewis and the Italian Reception of Abstract Expressionism’, in Adrianna Campbell, ed., In Focus: Cathedral, 1950, by Normal Lewis, Tate Research Publication, 2018, https://www.tate.org.uk/research/ publications/in-focus/cathedral/kuh-lewis-italian-reception, accessed 25 November 2019.

[8] Victor Brauner’s abstract portrait Hedei (To Hedda) was published in Brauner’s single-issue, Constructivist magazine 75HP and featured on his 1924 exhibition invitation. See Hedda Sterne – Chronology, https://heddasternefoundation.org/chronology, accessed 25 November 2019.

[9] Sarah Boxer, ‘The Last Irascible’, The New York Review of Books, 23 December 2010 issue. PDF supplied by the Hedda Sterne foundation.

[10] For a discussion of some of the questions raised by Sterne’s passport, which was only recently discovered in her archives, see https://brooklynrail.org/2016/04/verbatim/ hedda-sterne-passport-to-safety, accessed 25 November 2019.

[11] Clement Greenberg, ‘Art’, The Nation, 12 June 1947, clipping from the Hedda Sterne Foundation archives.

[12] As quoted on Hedda Sterne Foundation website: https://heddasternefoundation.org/ artwork/1943-1947, accessed 25 November 2019.

[13] Joan Simon, ‘Patterns of Thought: Hedda Sterne’, Art in America, 15 April 2011, https://www.artnews.com/art-in-america/features/hedda-sterne-62887, accessed 25 November 2019. 14 Simon, ‘Patterns of Thought: Hedda Sterne’, ibid.

[14] Simon, ‘Patterns of Thought: Hedda Sterne’, ibid.

[15] Mary Ann Caws, ‘Hedda Sterne, Recognizing the Last of the Irascibles’, Art Papers Magazine, September / October 2000, p. 25.

[16] Deirdre Bair, Saul Steinberg: A Biography, Nan A. Talese / Doubleday, New York, 2012.

[17] Eckhardt, Uninterrupted Flux: Hedda Sterne, ibid. n.1, p. 13.

 

Essay image credits

 

Hedda Sterne in her studio with work from Vertical-Horizontal series, c.1964

Artwork © The Hedda Sterne Foundation Inc, ARS, NY and DACS, London 2019

Photograph by Théodore Brauner © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019

 

NY, NY No.X, 1948

Oil on canvas, 83.5 x 118.5 cm

© The Hedda Sterne Foundation Inc, ARS, NY and DACS, London 2019

Collection Tate 

 

Horizon XVIII, 1963

Oil on canvas, 200.7 x 127 cm, 79 x 50 in

© The Hedda Sterne Foundation Inc, ARS, NY and DACS, London 2019

Courtesy Van Doren Waxter and Victoria Miro

 

Horizon VII, 1963

Oil on canvas, 215.9 x 127 cm, 85 x 50 in

© The Hedda Sterne Foundation Inc, ARS, NY and DACS, London 2019

Courtesy Van Doren Waxter and Victoria Miro

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