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The Eulogizer: Artist Hedda Sterne, NASA’s Stanley Freden

JERUSALEM (JTA) — The Eulogizer is a new column (soon-to-be blog) that highlights the life accomplishments of famous and not-so-famous Jews who have passed away recently. Learn about their achievements, honor their memories and celebrate Jewish lives well lived with The Eulogizer. Write to the Eulogizer at eulogizer@jta.org. Read previous columns here

Hedda Sterne, 100, artist

Hedda Sterne, whose artwork spanned seven decades and even more styles, died April 9 in her New York home at 100.

Sterne, who eschewed the label Abstract Expressionist and yet was one of the last remaining artists of that school, was active as an artist into her 90s, despite cataracts. She had stopped painting but drew with white crayons on white paper, using a magnifying glass. Sterne was drawing, she said, “without any external stimulus, only internal stimulus.”

In 2003, Sterne said that “Drawing is continuity. Everything else is interruption, even the night and sleep. I walk in the house like a lion every day to keep healthy. I work out. I defend myself. I’m invalidated. … I can die at any moment. But I still learn. Every drawing teaches me something."

The New York Review of Books in 2010 called her “still a figurative artist, representing her own paling vision.”

Sterne was artistically affiliated with and personally close with virtually all of the major figures of the mid-20th century Abstract Expressionists of New York and the galleries and museums that promoted their art. She was married for 19 years to Saul Steinberg, an artist and New Yorker cartoonist, and counted Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock among her friends.

She gained national notoriety in a now famous 1951 photograph in Life magazine of a group of those New York artists that was labeled “The Irascibles” by a newspaper reporter. The group had sent a scathing letter to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City protesting its unwillingness to exhibit modern art. Yet Sterne, despite her inclusion in the picture, said “I am known more for that darn photo than for eighty years of work. If I had an ego, it would bother me. … I was not an Abstract Expressionist. Nor was I an Irascible.”

Sterne’s artwork changed over the decades to include paintings, collages and drawings. Her subjects included herself and friends, but also kitchens, bathrooms, vegetables, homes, farm machinery and the hard structural surfaces of New York. “New York VIII,” one of her works from the 1950s — a period when she depicted engine parts, highways and girders in hazy, dense images — is in the exhibition “Abstract Expressionist New York” now at the Museum of Modern Art.

She told interviewers that she was “enthralled with the look and feel of America.” At various times she hung her paintings from the ceiling or spread them across a gallery’s floor.

Sterne, born Hedwig Lindenberg in Bucharest, began her work as an artist while she was a young woman in Romania. She studied art in Paris and Geneva. The first art she exhibited were Surrealist collages, shown in 1938, at the 11th exhibition of the Salon des Surindépendants in Paris, which brought her into contact with American art patron Peggy Guggenheim. 

Sterne fled Bucharest for Paris in 1939. “It was frightening,” she said in a 1980 interview. “I barely escaped with — escaped alive. They came to get me one night. Fortunately I had a friend, a non-Jewish friend, who was a very strong young man who literally fought them off.”

She went back to Bucharest to be with her family, narrowly escaping again in 1941 during “a roundup and massacre of Jews at her apartment building,” and then went to New York, where her prior association with Guggenheim helped get her settled and connected to the city’s burgeoning modern art scene. A year later, her work appeared in “First Papers of Surrealism,” one of the first exhibitions of that style in the United States.

Over the decades, as the Abstract Expressionists developed their style and their cults of personality, Sterne faded from view, although she continued working. Her artworks are in major museums, including the Met, the Art Institute of Chicago and the National Gallery of Art. The most recent retrospectives of her work were at the Krannert Art Museum at the University of Illinois in 2006 and the University of Virginia Art Museum in 2007. 

Stanley Freden, 83, NASA scientist

Stanley Freden, who worked on NASA’s Landsat satellite program, which provides data used for oil exploration, flood-plain mapping, mapmaking and environmental changes, died March 17 at 83.

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