Hedda Sterne, Number 3—1957

Hedda Sterne, Number 3–1957, 1957, oil, spray paint on canvas, 86-1/8 x 50-1/4 inches (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond) © The Hedda Sterne Foundation, Inc.


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Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:05] We’re in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, looking at a large, vertically-oriented canvas by Hedda Sterne. This is “Number 3,” and it was painted in 1957, but it’s spray paint.

Dr. Sarah Eckhardt: [0:18] Hedda was using commercial spray paint on these paintings in 1957. She’s also very experimental with her materials. Rather than using a brush, although there’s some brushwork, she’s using a can of spray paint to sort of have the medium match the subject that she is portraying very abstractly.

Dr. Zucker: [0:36] Using aerosol to apply paint is an industrial process and seems perfectly fitted to the city in which she found herself. My eye moves so easily across the surface of this canvas, and I’m very much aware of its two-dimensionality. At the same time, she’s able to achieve these deep, recessive spaces that open this canvas up and make it a much more complex space.

Dr. Eckhardt: [0:58] We can read this as a completely abstract painting, or we can think about her process, which is that she would often make drawings underneath highways or bridge structures, but that wasn’t necessarily all that the painting was about. It was her beginning point.

Dr. Zucker: [1:13] We’re looking at this kaleidoscope of amorphous forms, almost like we’re looking through girders that are soft panes of a stained-glass window.

Dr. Eckhardt: [1:23] It’s almost like a diaphanous light. There’s always this back-and-forth in her paintings between structure and light, and she’s often talked about how if she could paint with light, she would paint with light.

Dr. Zucker: [1:34] The surface is really complicated. You have this atomized paint that has areas where it’s more diaphanous and where it’s denser, and you have this wonderful arc that moves from the upper right down to the lower center of the canvas, scraped along that, that create this velocity that unifies the canvas and draws our eye through, and so there is this sense of her body moving across the surface of this canvas.

Dr. Eckhardt: [1:58] That sense of speed and motion and movement is really present. She’s communicating this bodily sense of the way one might experience speed in a pulsating city. It is her arm, her hand that is moving as an extension of the spray can to give you that industrial environment.

Dr. Zucker: [2:15] There’s a long history of artists celebrating American industry. I think, for instance, of the kaleidoscopic images that were produced by Joseph Stella earlier in the century, but those were much more defined images. This is a much more abstract painting.

Dr. Eckhardt: [2:31] There is probably a shared sense of wonder at the city between Joseph Stella and Hedda Sterne, but Hedda came to this style by way of a few different movements beforehand. She in fact grew up in the midst of the Dada and Constructivist movement in Bucharest. She had participated in the Surrealist movement in the 1930s before she came to New York.

[2:52] Then she was very much a part of the group of artists of the Abstract Expressionist era.

Dr. Zucker: [2:57] And that language of Abstract Expressionism, of Pollock dripping, or the notion that Harold Rosenberg developed of action painting, became synonymous with the work of these artists and may explain to some extent the neglect of her work over the last 50 years.

Dr. Eckhardt: [3:12] Also, when she felt that she had explored a style or a process to the full extent she could, then she was on to another question.

Dr. Zucker: [3:21] Hedda Sterne was recognized for her art early in her career. The heiress and gallerist Peggy Guggenheim showed her work quite early.

Dr. Eckhardt: [3:29] Hedda had a collage included in an exhibition in the late 1930s. In fact, that was the connection that Hedda had when she came to the US. Hedda was Jewish. She had escaped Bucharest, Romania in 1941. One of the first people she looked up when she arrived in New York was Peggy Guggenheim.

[3:46] There, she was very much a part of both the émigré circle of artists that had come from Europe as well as the younger generation of New York American artists.

[3:56] Then she became a regular central artist at Betty Parsons Gallery. She was showing at the same time as Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, just very much a part of that circle of artists.

Dr. Zucker: [4:09] Thanks to your work, Hedda Sterne is being re-evaluated. Her work is emerging from the storerooms of museums around the country and being put back onto the walls.

Dr. Eckhardt: [4:19] I am so delighted to see her work on view at the Whitney Museum, at the Museum of Modern Art. The Metropolitan has her work [in] collection, the Art Institute of Chicago has her work in their collection. All these institutions purchased her work in the 1950s, but I think for a long time, curators didn’t have a sense of context for where to put her work, or how to put it in dialogue.

[4:41] Some of that was overall neglect of women artists, and I think that we’re in a very different moment, where curators and art historians are thinking differently. It absolutely makes sense to put her work in galleries with the artists that she was working alongside in the 1940s or the 1950s.

Dr. Zucker: [4:58] I want to learn a history of art that is large enough to include Hedda Sterne.

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Cite this page as: Dr. Sarah Eckhardt and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Hedda Sterne, Number 3—1957," in Smarthistory, June 30, 2022, accessed July 18, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/hedda-sterne-number-3-1957/.