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Woman on Top

Artist Hedda Sterne recounts her life in pictures.

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Artist Hedda Sterne recounts her life in pictures.


Artist Hedda Sterne offers two small glasses of Manzana with roasted almonds and confite ginger in the kitchen salon of her brick town house in New York’s Upper East Side. “People always ask me to describe my work,” she says, in her enchanting accent, lifting her glass. “To do so would be like describing all that exists in a botanical garden.”

 

Swirling the amber-toned liquor and before taking a sip, she offers an elegant, “A votre santé.”

At age 97, Sterne has spent nearly as much time personally involved in the 20th-century art scenes in France and the U.S. She’s a veritable storehouse of recollections, bursting with anecdotes about her marriage to Saul Steinberg and close friendship with Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and other luminaries.

Yet, despite the bevy of intellectual heavyweights with whom she socialized, Sterne’s own work remains surprisingly little known. A show of her drawings, “Drawing Friends: Hedda Sterne’s Portraititis” (the last word is one she coined to describe her ultimately consuming desire to sketch someone’s portrait) will be open at the Montclair Art Museum, in Montclair, N.J., from February through May. It will then travel to three more locations across the U.S.

“I was never a joiner,” says Sterne. “That I was not.”

And how. When asked about the events leading up to the celebrated black-and-white photograph taken in 1951 for Life magazine, where she stands statuesque with arms crossed above 15 of her contemporaries, some of whom had just staged a mock revolution outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art, including Willem de Kooning, Adolph Gottlieb, Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, Ad Reinhardt and Mark Rothko, Sterne just shrugs.

“Ad Reinhardt, Buddy Newman and Adolph Gottlieb wrote a letter of protest to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to state that they believed the Met showed insufficient interest in modern art, and I just happened to be among those who signed the letter,” explains Sterne, the only woman and sole survivor of the group posing for the photo. “The journalist at the time mockingly called this group ‘The Irascibles,’ but that was the only connection any member of the group had. Many of us were at the Betty Parson’s Gallery at the time.” However, she maintains that was their sole tangible link.

On the second floor of Sterne’s town house, two sparsely furnished rooms contain a selection of her works. It’s what Sterne refers to as a “current” of evolving phases of her career, which span a life’s work of figurative and nonfigurative painting, sketches and drawings.
Earlier in her career, her works included a mélange of linear pencil sketches of Steinberg and other friends, and nonfigurative oil paintings with multiple horizons. Her most recent pieces are black-and-white abstract paintings, which she created in the Nineties after she could no longer see in color, and abstract drawings that she worked on until a stroke in 2004 brought Sterne’s artistic career to an end.

“Mark [Rothko] always tried to influence me to have just one image, the way he did,” recalls Sterne of her friend and neighbor, who lived near the town house in which she now sits. “But I was myself, and he was himself. The most important part of art is to be authentic, not to let yourself be influenced by people simply because they are successful.”


Using industrial spray paint in the early Fifties—years before it became a popular method—in abstract works that were inspired by New York, such as highway scenes and cars in movement, as well as being featured in solo shows long before her female contemporaries, Sterne set herself apart from the rest.

“I have very often in my life had the feeling that works come about by themselves, that I am only an instrument,” explains Sterne, who gently rocks her wheelchair backward and forward as she mentally travels back in time. “That is why I call myself a conduit or conductor.”

Spending a day painting, approaching the canvas, taking a step back, mixing the paints, was like “running for eight hours,” she says. Or more. For the work 1976 Diary, for example, Sterne placed a large canvas on her floor and inscribed more than a year’s worth of observations and excerpts taken from life and reading. Looking at it from afar, the work has an abstract feel but lures viewers in, to read her thoughts.

Suddenly, she shifts gears. After answering questions about her life, she starts asking her own. Her eyesight may be failing, but Sterne’s mind is razor sharp.

Seeing German warplanes at the outset of World War I is her earliest memory as a child in Bucharest. In the shelters, Sterne started sketching her first renderings of shoes. “By the time I was six years old, I knew I was an artist,” she says.

After studying in Bucharest and Vienna, Sterne moved to Paris’ Montparnasse neighborhood in 1930. While Sterne flirted with the fledging Surrealist movement in the city, she refused to be formally associated with them.

“We used to meet in Café de Flore and Les Deux Magots,” says Sterne of the storied hangouts. She recounts vivid tales of strolling down the Parisian streets and being enchanted by the Place Vendôme’s luxury boutiques. She remembers her first celebrity sightings—including Gary Cooper (“such a handsome man”) and Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor.

“There was a wonderful antique store, which sold Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s bed from a bordello. It also sold a collection of automatons that smoked cigars like this,” says Sterne, acting out the jerky, mechanical movements.

At the Hotel du Pont Royal’s bar, Sterne would on occasion meet with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. “Their relationship was so twisted, it made the Liaisons Dangereuses look innocent,” she says with a smile.  

“I met Coco Chanel in a literary salon organized by Marie-Louise Bousquet from Harper’s Bazaar,” continues Sterne. “I kept staring at her; I thought she looked like a pirate. I think it amused her, so she came and sat next to me.”

Sterne used to design her own clothing, first dresses and, later, men’s suits, which became her signature look. “I designed everything I owned. It was very bourgeois to wear pieces designed by others.”

Sterne admits, however, to having made certain exceptions for pieces by Madame Grès or Cristóbal Balenciaga. Pausing for a moment, she advises, “An elegant woman should always take care of her body. I used to swim and dance,” she says, then sings, “I could have danced all night,” a line from a My Fair Lady song.

“Later, I was so envious when young people danced the jitterbug, but I danced very well,” she continues. “I was much too good for the men, and I felt trapped by their lack of rhythm….Do you have any rhythm, dear?”

Sterne recalls having her photo taken by a Women’s Wear Daily photographer at a Chase bank event organized by David Rockefeller in New York. “I think they were surprised to see such a petite woman dressed in a man’s suit for an opening,” she says with a smile.

Unlike most of her artist contemporaries, Sterne rarely made an appearance at art openings. “I hardly made it to my own,” she jokes. Instead, she preferred to stay home and paint or read. Sterne’s friendships among the literati have spanned the globe. “I introduced my friend Richard Wright to the French Surrealist poet Aimé Césaire,” she says. “I had to translate for them, but quickly the conversation became very heated, so I omitted the insults,” Sterne laughs.

Having narrowly escaped the Nazi roundup of Jewish civilians in Bucharest, Sterne emigrated to New York in 1941.

“When I first came to New York, I was so amazed by the city. I used to ride on the open-air bus all the way uptown and back downtown and backward and forward for only one dime,” recalls Sterne. “A dime in Bucharest would get you dinner at the best restaurant and a night on the town.”

It was in New York that Sterne met the French author de Saint-Exupéry, and the two became close friends. “Saint-Ex,” as she calls him, would read passages to her from Le Petit Prince as he wrote them. “I convinced him to use his own sketches to illustrate the book, and he did,” she says. “We had a very deep relationship that I will never forget.”

While Sterne developed passionate friendships among intellectuals of that time, it was the artist Steinberg with whom she developed an amorous relationship. The two were married in 1944.

“He was an artist, and when you marry an artist you marry all that comes with it, the good and the bad,” says Sterne, who separated from Steinberg 16 years later, but continued a very strong friendship with him until his death in 1999. “I liked everything he did without any reservation. I thought he was a genius.”

While Sterne’s salon kitchen is filled with art and books, a red antique Chambers gas stove dominates the space. Above the stove and sink, affixed to the wall, are what appear to be diplomas in her name. “He made a fake diploma for my cooking, given to me as a joke,” she explains. The other diploma was for dish washing. “He didn’t make you laugh; he made you chuckle. His was a very poetic, deeply philosophical humor. My husband used to say, ‘If ever I was to go to hell, after 100 years I’d say even the devil has his good side.’”

After hours of talking about her life and art, Sterne says she is tired and must rest before her reader arrives for a session on Samuel Beckett. But despite signs of fatigue, Sterne shows her mettle.

“I don’t want to be a crybaby; I was brought up to keep a stiff upper lip,” she says. “I have always been very optimistic about life. I am not the type to walk close to the walls. I tend to walk in the middle of the street.”