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Hedda Sterne, Number 3—1957

Hedda Sterne's 1957 painting, Number 3, uses commercial spray paint to create a complex, abstract cityscape. Sterne's innovative use of materials and her exploration of light and structure reflect her diverse artistic influences, from Dada and Constructivism to Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism. Despite early recognition, Sterne's work is only now being reevaluated and displayed in major museums. Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(gentle piano music) - [Steven] 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. - [Sarah] 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. - [Steven] Using aerosol to apply paint is an industrial process and it 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, but 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. - [Sarah] 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. - [Steven] 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. - [Sarah] 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. - [Steven] 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 to 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. - [Sarah] 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. This her arm, her hand that is moving as an extension of the spray can to give you that industrial environment. - [Steven] 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. - [Sarah] 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 Constructivism Movement in Bucharest. She had participated in the Surrealist Movement in the 1930s before she came to New York. And then, she was very much a part of the group of artists of the Abstract Expressionists era. - [Steven] 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. - [Sarah] And also when she felt that she had explored a style or a process to the full extent she could, then she was on another question. - [Steven] And Hedda Sterne was recognized for her art early in her career. The heiress and gallerist Peggy Guggenheim showed her work quite early. - [Sarah] Hedda had a collage included in exhibition in the late 1930s. And in fact that was the connection that Hedda had when she came to the US. Hedda was Jewish. She had to escape Bucharest, Romania in 1941. And one of the first people she looked up when she arrived in New York was Peggy Guggenheim. And there she was very much a part of both the Emigres circle of artists that had come from Europe, as well as the younger generation of New York American artists. And then she became a regular central artist at Betty Parson's Gallery. She was showing at the same time as Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman. Just very much a part of that circle of artists. - [Steven] And thanks to your work, Hedda Sterne is being reevaluated. Her work is emerging from the store rooms of museums around the country and being put back onto the walls. - [Sarah] 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 their collection. The Art Institute of Chicago has her work in their collection. All of 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. 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. So it absolutely makes sense to put her work in galleries with the artists that she was working alongside in the 1940s and the 1950s. - [Steven] I wanna learn a history of art that is large enough to include Hedda Sterne. (lively piano music)