Hedda Sterne: Krannert Art Museum

Article excerpt

Throughout her long, distinguished career (now ninety-six, she only recently stopped making new work), painter Hedda Sterne has steadfastly refused to adopt a consistent style. That idiosyncratic approach might partially explain why Sterne has largely been excluded from the canon of postwar American art, despite her prominence in the 1940s and '50s and her appearance as the only woman in a famous 1951 Life magazine group photograph of New York Abstract Expressionists tagged "The Irascibles." A recent retrospective of her work, the first since the Queens Museum of Art's in 1985, aimed to make the overlooked artist newly visible.

Organized by Krannert Art Museum at the University of Illinois, "Uninterrupted Flux: Hedda Sterne, A Retrospective" presented more than one hundred drawings and paintings. Arranged (for the most part) chronologically, the exhibition opened with a selection of unsettling surrealistic collages and drawings dating from around 1941, when Sterne emigrated from Bucharest to the United States, and ended with some of the sinewy yet delicate graphite drawings that she began making in 1997 after macular degeneration stopped her from painting. The latter in particular reflect the complex workings of an extraordinary mind.

The impetus for "Flux" came in 2000, when Josef Helfenstein, the director of Krannert, discovered Sterne's Machine No. 5, 1950, in storage. After becoming director of the Menil Collection in 2004, he turned the show over to Sarah Eckhardt, who expertly organized Sterne's varied oeuvre into eleven sections, including a revealing set of pencil, ink, and oil portraits executed between 1938 and 1967. These include a self-portrait sketched in 1940; drawings of the artist's husband, the cartoonist/artist Saul Steinberg, done in a manner reminiscent of his own loose style; and two separate paintings of Barnett Newman and his wife, Annalee. In his, Barnett Newman occupies only the bottom half of the canvas, while in hers his wife, her fists clenched and her arms held rigidly to her sides, fills the entire space. …