Champaign, IL

Hedda Sterne

Krannert Art Museum

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.

The most distinctive works in “Flux,” though, were those from the “Machine” and “New York, New York and Spray Road” series (1947–52, and 1951–57, respectively), which together represent the artist’s best-known work; Faces from the 1969–70 “Everyone Series”; and Diary, 1976. Infused with whimsical humanity (Sterne called them “anthropographs”), the “Machine” paintings depict abstract and rather comical contraptions—Sterne had become interested in the idea that humans unconsciously design machines with an element of self-portraiture. The startlingly prescient “New York, New York and Spray Road” paintings feature innovative use of a spray-paint gun to add atmosphere, movement, and an unexpected softness to industrial scenes. The unnerving Faces, 1969, is an installation of acrylic paintings on unprimed canvases that were shown here stapled to four walls, establishing a cavelike space inside the museum. The visages are crudely stylized yet resonant with individual personality—even though they are of an anonymous crowd—and possess an uncanny presence that makes one feel observed.

Finally, Diary, with its grid design and unstretched canvas, recalls a checkerboard-style quilt and displays a strong sense of design. Over several months in 1976, Sterne each day filled in an empty square in the grid with the date and a short text about her own thoughts, or with quotes from or paraphrases of William Blake, Friedrich Nietzsche, and others. As a literal representation of “patterns of thought,” Diary is emblematic of the artist’s particular intelligence, which was once described by art historian Dore Ashton as “omnivorous.” Overall, “Uninterrupted Flux” succeeded in reestablishing Sterne as a key member of the iconoclastic “Irascibles,” while paying tribute to the fact that she rejected even that colorfully mythologizing label.

Melissa Merli