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Q&A with Sarah Boxer on Hedda Sterne

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Hedda Sterne, a Romanian artist who joined the European migration to New York after the Nazis rose to power in Germany, died Friday. She was 100. [Image: Sterne, New York, 1956, collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.]

For years — even decades — it was near-impossible to see a Sterne in an American museum. Then, about six months ago, that began to change. Ann Temkin, MoMA’s chief curator of paintings and sculpture, included Sterne in “Abstract Expressionist New York,” and Sterne’s inclusion drew some measure of attention. The Toledo Museum of Art also has Sterne on view in a collection installation. And in December, Sarah Boxer wrote a semi-profile/semi-essay about Sterne for the New York Review of Books. Don’t miss it. Yesterday I called Boxer and we talked about Sterne.

MAN: As you say in your New York Review of Books essay, in 2003 you found yourself in front of Hedda Sterne with a tape recorder. Why did you want to talk to her, how did that happen?

Sarah Boxer: I had done the obituary for her husband, Saul Steinberg, for the New York Times, and I heard that she really liked it. I did not get to meet her at his memorial service. Someone said to me that it would be great if you two could meet. So I tried to set it up, and as it turned out it took a couple years. At the time I think I was thinking of doing a book on Steinberg, so a lot of our conversation had to do with that.

She was a fabulous talker. It was an amazing place to be, in her home, surrounded by her stuff and her Diary was on the floor. [Boxer on Diary, from NYRB: "A large carpet of raw canvas lay on the floor, with handwritten lines organized into the squares of a grid. This, I realized, was Sterne’s Diary from 1976, and a perfect emblem of her: a dense fabric of words, drawn with intense concentration, left to be obliterated underfoot."] I also saw these white-on-white drawings she did. Her eyesight was beginning to go, but she was totally keen. Her mind and her memory were sharp, sharp, sharp. Luckily I had thought to bring a tape recorder. [Image: Sterne, New York No. 1, 1954. Collection of the Toledo Museum of Art.]

MAN: Did you walk on Diary?

Boxer: I have a hard time walking on even Carl Andres! I do it, but… so no, I didn’t really walk on Diary either. She did. She said, ‘That’s why it’s out, for that!’

Phyllis Tuchman did a great interview with Hedda Sterne 30 years ago. Sterne talks about about her past and she seems to disown almost everything that is in the past and is very much for the idea of drawing as exploration and discovery and seeing. She’s very big on vision, on being forward-looking.

In fact, she was so much focused on being forward-looking that I think there’s a way in which she didn’t sort of take care of or shape her image. She said the worst thing that ever happened to her was the photograph of ‘The Irascibles’ in Life magazine in 1951 [below right], but I think if it hadn’t been for that photograph, nobody would know who she is! I think Hedda felt that it hurt because the associations she thought were false. She didn’t consider herself an abstract artist. She thought basically she was discovering America and drawing America as she saw it. She didn’t think she was an expressionist, she thought she was an anti-emotive artist. She also felt like the men were peeved at her because they thought her presence, a woman’s presence took away from the seriousness of their mission.

When people talk about her now, they say, ‘Who does she paint like, like Rothko? Or Kline?’ I think that’s what she most minded about the photograph is that she didn’t think anyone should be shown together. She didn’t believe in group shows. That could be from her aversion to that photograph. Ironically, she’s received a lot of attention in the last year or so thanks to a group show, her inclusion in MoMA’s ‘Abstract Expressionist New York.’ That’s become the most common way to see her work, in group shows.

MAN: When I look at her work now, I see distilled infrastructure, networks. Am I looking through a particular, influenced-by-2011 lens,, thinking about now, when ’systems painting’ is commercially successful and curatorially blessed, or did those things interest Sterne 60 years ago and am I responding to that?

Boxer: Well I see them too, but I’ve probably got the same lens that you do.

One of the things I think that was special to her, that is kind of related to what you’re talking about, that lattice-like style is that she used a lazy susan to paint, she painted in the round. She used spray paints and some of the look has to do with her methods.

I don’t know whether she saw herself doing that. I think she was interested in the way structures looked to her. One of the things she was most interested in was machinery and highways and things that did have a kind of look. But I think there was always something anthropomorphic going on; I think her sort of abstraction actually remained more surreal more than anything else.

Though she said she gave up surrealism after leaving Romania, I think that was her abiding method and look. She’s got some similarities to early Rothko and Gorky – a lot to Gorky. I don’t think she would say that, but I think that’s running through the work. Even Diary is very surreal. If you read those passages, it’s just like surrealism. [Boxer quoted this passage in her NYRB piece:

an animal on matto grosso has big flat feet which produce a musical sound as it walks and a trunk with which it sucks butterflies on the wing. its mane is very thick and it always runs away from the color blue.]

MAN: I don’t think we usually think of light as moving through American painting of that period, but I think it sure does through her canvases. Kind of like it does through Matta.

Boxer: I never heard her talk about him, but she did talk about light. She did say at a certain point that she became obsessed with light. She went to the Murano glass factory and studied just glass and refraction, reflection, light and symmetry. She was very interested in light itself, but she never talked about Matta in particular or anyone like that. But definitely, that was one of her preoccupations. [Image above, left: Sterne, New York VIII, 1954. Collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York.]

MAN: It seems to me that we talk about Kline’s work or Gottlieb’s work, but that women of that period tend to as much be Jackson Pollock’s wife (Lee Krasner) or a key social presence (Helen Frankenthaler). There is much genderist discourse.

Boxer: When somebody asked me, ‘Who’s Hedda Sterne, I’d have to start with that photo, or ‘She was married to Saul Steinberg.’ She was very much an artist of associations. You say, ‘Who does she paint like? Rothko? Or Kline?’, and I think that’s what she most minded about the photograph.

I was just looking at MoMA’s book, “Modern Women,” and there’s only one tiny mention of her! Just in passing, as being in a show that was put together. She was just one in a list. She didn’t even make this huge volume of women artists! [Image: Sterne, Third Avenue El, 1952-53. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.]

MAN: Was she part of the scene, part of the group? The other day someone described Helen Frankenthaler to be as part of the social glue of New York abex. Was Sterne that too?

Boxer: She was very close to Rothko, especially in the last years of his life. The things she said about him, she would sort of say like he was just very sad, very unhappy, which I guess is generally known. She told these stories that were kind of cruel to him. She was close to people, but it was a one-on-one thing. I don’t know if it was glue for the whole group, but yes, she had relationships with each of them individually.

She said she doesn’t sort of buy the whole idea there there is much group feeling among artists anyway. It’s all temporary. As long as its for a purpose, there’s friendship. Other than that, they’re all kind of loners. These associations that they have are just kind of mutually beneficial – and then they end.

MAN: Compared to her peers, she’s in a very small number of institutional collections. The Met has a couple, MoMA, the Carnegie, the Hirshhorn, a few others. Any idea why so few?

Boxer: I think that places that don’t have big collections, they don’t say, ‘Hey we don’t have a Hedda Sterne!’ I think it sort of comes down to this: If you look at her work, you can see things running through it. She didn’t create a ‘logo style’ and I think that museums look for that. They look for continuity and brand recognition. Sometimes her painting is really more like drawing. That could be another reason she’s not in many museum collections. Maybe she comes too close to Gorky and Hesse? Some of her paintings, I think, like the one that is in MoMA, in  ‘Abex New York,’ really held its own. I thought it looked great. [Image: Sterne, Number 31, Vermillion Machine, 1952. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.]

MAN: Do you see any evidence of her impact in more recent painting? I mean, I think about the Krannert’s Machine 5 and I think about Sarah Sze or Judy Pfaff or even Julie Mehretu. Lee Bontecou must have looked at her work, all those machines! Her fifties paintings have a sense of geometry that we come to recognize in Richard Diebenkorn, but I don’t know that he was looking at a lot of New York painting much after the late 1940s. And I swear I see some of her in Christopher Wool black-and-grey abstractions, but I don’t think I’ve ever read Wool cop to that.

Boxer: She had a great sense of geometry and was interested in balance and symmetry. It’d be interesting to see what she would have done with sculpture.

Yeah I can see that definitely, the interest in machines and balance, yeah a kind of complicated, almost Rube Goldberg sensibility. Eva Hesse drawings sprang to mind too.

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  1. [...] Hedda Sterne obit. Cannot explain. But I can remind you that earlier this week MAN did a killer Q&A on Sterne with critic/journalist Sarah Boxer. « Five art-related websites you could be enjoying [...]

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