Hedda Sterne was born in Bucharest, Romania. Introduced to Surrealism by a close family friend, Romanian artist Victor Brauner, Sterne’s work was at first most closely aligned with the Surrealist movement. Her collages were included in a group show in Paris in 1938 organized by Hans Arp, through whom Sterne was recommended to Peggy Guggenheim. Sterne’s work was included in the pioneering exhibition First Papers of Surrealism in 1942 organized by André Breton and Marcel Duchamp in New York, where Sterne had been forced to flee from Europe in 1941. Settling in the United States, a place Sterne considered “more wildly Surrealist than what the wildest Surrealists imagined,” Sterne became involved with the circle of artists with whom she is most often connected. She exhibited at Guggenheim’s gallery, Art of This Century, and in a solo show at the Wakefield Gallery in 1943 organized by Betty Parsons. Three years later, Parsons opened her own gallery and became Sterne’s long-time dealer and an early advocate of the great Abstract Expressionists.
Sterne drew inspiration from the motion, architecture and scale of her new home, New York. She began incorporating farm machinery into her work in the 1940’s following a visit to Vermont with her husband and fellow artist Saul Steinberg. Sterne and Steinberg married in 1944 and separated in 1960 but never divorced. The construction sites and harbors of the city, however, continued to offer material for her Machine series in which Sterne anthropomorphized mechanical elements. By the 1950’s, these works had evolved into a series about motion itself in which she sometimes employed the use of a commercial spray gun in order to better invoke a feeling of speed inspired by her travels on highways around the United States. In the 1960’s, Sterne began a much quieter, meditative series, Vertical Horizontals, which invokes an expansive landscape, while simultaneously confining the horizontal reach of each painting within a vertical format. Sterne consistently pushed away from familiar forms, taking her work into new directions, always influenced by her surroundings and perpetually in flux. While she has been grouped with the Abstract Expressionists, Sterne moved freely between figurative work and abstraction throughout her career. It was this independence and absence of a “signature style” that made her difficult to pin down in historical context and in relation to her peers.
Sterne’s works are represented in the collections of The Art Institute of Chicago, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Modern Art, New York and The Tate Modern, London. Retrospective exhibitions have been mounted at the Montclair Art Museum, New Jersey in 1977 and Uninterrupted Flux: Hedda Sterne, A Retrospective at the Krannert Art Museum, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2006. Sterne’s work was prominently featured in the museum exhibitions America is Hard to See at The Whitney Museum of American Art in 2015; Making Space: Women Artists and Postwar Abstraction at The Museum of Modern Art in 2017; Epic Abstraction at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2019; Hedda Sterne: Imagination and Machine at the Des Moines Art Center in 2020 and the current permanent collection installation at The Whitney Museum of American Art.