Who is Hedda Sterne?


At the summit of “The Irascibles,” Life magazine’s 1951 portrait of the Abstract Expressionist painters, stands an imperious-looking woman, the Romanian-born artist Hedda Sterne. She is the only female in the photograph and, in some sense, the most prominent figure—the “feather on top,” as she once put it. Now, at age one hundred, she is the sole survivor. “I am known more for that darn photo than for eighty years of work,” Sterne told me a few years ago. “If I had an ego, it would bother me.” Plus, she said, “it is a lie.” Why? “I was not an Abstract Expressionist. Nor was I an Irascible.” Who is Hedda Sterne? In 2003, when she was ninety-two and still drawing every day, I interviewed her and tape-recorded the conversation. We met in her apartment on East 71st Street near Third Avenue, where she’d lived for almost sixty years—first with her then husband, Saul Steinberg, the New Yorker artist, and later, beginning in the 1960s, alone. The kitchen and living room were one space. On a table were Sterne’s recent white-on-white drawings. Just about all the other art was Steinberg’s. On a wall hung a trompe l’oeil work spoofing Mondrian; a small table was piled with Steinberg’s wooden “books.” Over the stove hung a faux diploma for cooking, which Steinberg had presented to Sterne in the 1950s, and over the sink was another diploma, for dishwashing. 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.

more from Sarah Boxer at the NYRB here.