The Hedda Sterne project #4 – New York

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I’m just home from an amazing two weeks in the USA. This seems like the perfect time to share some thoughts about my trip while I’m still drinking Trader Joe’s coffee and finding random dollars in my pockets. In the course of researching Hedda Sterne it became clear that to see her work and writings I needed to visit New York and Shaina Larrivee, Director of the Hedda Sterne Foundation, had invited me to spend some time there. It took several months to organise, complicated by constantly shifting Covid rules, but somehow it all came together. So at the start of March I found myself rattling across a bridge in a yellow cab with an extremely chatty Peruvian taxi driver, just as Manhattan’s lights were switching on. I went to sleep that night to the sounds of the Upper West Side – a brass band ( Mardis Gras celebration?), wailing sirens, hooters, whistles etc. Oh my goodness!

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Opening the blinds in the morning revealed a crazy matrix of lines and grids. It was extraordinary! Horizontal slats of the blinds, vertical window bars, rows and rows of windows punctuated by diagonal fire exits and crisp shadows. It felt like being inside one of Hedda’s paintings from the ‘50s. This is exactly why I needed to come here, to experience New York first hand. It is the only way to really understand Hedda Sterne’s work. I stayed in an old building with one of those elevators you expect might not work ( happily it did) and stepped out each morning across classic 1930s floor tiles into this street. Loud, cold, bright, jostling, exciting, extraordinary…a long way from Bowness on Solway!

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I decided to start with coffee and a walk through Central Park. I had expected the noise and chaos but was blown away by how beautiful it is. The skyscrapers are elegant, bright, reflective and lend a precision and airiness I had not expected. There is something startling about their tall bright lines seen through branches. Trees and shadows appear magnified- the organic and natural more curvy and knobbly than usual, intensified by the grids and straight lines. Even the numbered blocks and street layout seem to act as a framework for intense interaction of people and growth. And all those rocky outcrops in Central Park…who knew? I had no idea Manhattan was like this! You can click through the photos to see the whole images.

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I always enjoy ‘in transit’ headspace, it as though thinking is freed up when you travel…perhaps it is even outside of time for a little while when you hop across time zones? Central Park provided the perfect headspace adjustment. I wandered through it and found myself on 5th Avenue, not far from East 71st Street where Hedda Sterne lived. It seemed only right to walk along to her house and say hello. The Upper East side is beautiful. Hedda Sterne seemed very close. When she moved to New York in 1941 it was as a refugee in World War II. As a young Jewish woman she only narrowly escaped. Romania had undergone some horrific anti- Semitic violence and the Bucharest Pogrom, which was centred around the streets where Hedda lived at the time was truly horrendous. How she survived and endured those months between January and October 1941 , when she finally secured a passage to the US, doesn’t bear thinking about. It is a time she very rarely mentioned. One thing she did talk about in interviews was the extraordinary experience of arriving in New York, which she likened to time travel, saying,

“Where I grew up was about 60 years behind the US. So when I travelled to the US, I didn’t only travel in space I also travelled in time’

There have been several great strokes of luck during this trip. One was meeting Veronique Lindenberg, Hedda’s niece and Chair of the Hedda Sterne Foundation who was visiting from Paris. Shaina very kindly arranged lunch- Veronique, me, Adam, (a young artist recently employed by the foundation), Shaina and myself.

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We talked over how it must have been for Hedda to arrive in the US-a society that was decades ahead of Romania in terms of allowing freedoms to women. Looking back now to New York in the ’40s and ’50s we see it as jaw droppingly misogynistic, but I can imagine how liberating it must have felt for Hedda to escape not only occupied Europe but also the draconian attitudes of nationalist Romania. We discussed the various routes Jewish families took in fleeing the Nazis and how they set about re establishing their lives. All of these thoughts set against the horrific backdrop of war in Ukraine. So sad to reflect on all that Hedda Sterne and her generation endured to see it all beginning again with the Russian invasion. How can this be occurring ? We realised that we were sat there in Brooklyn bringing our perspectives from France, Israel, Britain, America. A conversation not to forget. In fact one of many. These last two weeks have been full of memorable and important conversations. I am so grateful to Shaina and the Foundation for their generous and enthusiastic support with my research.

The Foundation is at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, which, brilliantly can be accessed by ferry. This gave me the perfect combination of subway to Wall Street, then a short walk to wonderful, slightly wobbly Pier 11. I love those ferries, you can sit on the roof! It is the best thing to go under the bridges, worth every cent of the $2.75. Some photos here.

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It strikes me that the unexpected aspects of my trip are in some ways where the deepest learning lies. The Hedda Sterne Foundation is in Building 77 at the Navy Yard, which is huge. It’s polished concrete corridors and pale grey doors identical on every floor. I was a little unsure what to expect when I pressed the buzzer and was not prepared for the radiantly bright space with 16 or so of Hedda’s paintings and drawings beautifully displayed. Drawings from the last years of her life hung beside paintings made 30 years earlier. Geometric, pared back works from the ’80s quietly articulate earlier works of memory. All are in conversation across Hedda’s decades and all take up a thread which weaves between and through each piece. It is like looking at the complex interplay of a persons thoughts. Some are dominant and reappear in different versions frequently, others are subtle suggestions. Wow! Breath-taking – so much to take in! Shaina made a large pot of tea and we talked and exchanged thoughts. Hedda’s easel is there, dark wood with a winding handle. Just right. Still with spray and splashes of oil paint. A lovely link to her studio processes. Many of the books from her shelves, several sketchbooks, notes, and of course the archive of drawings, paintings, prints. I have delighted in reading Hedda’s ‘studio notes’ and sketchbook/diaries and have returned with photos and notes of it all, which I will put to good use in the coming weeks. To read her writing is wonderful, a real privilege. Hedda Sterne had the most extraordinary mind.

Ad Reinhardt Number 107 1950
Frankenthaller Jacob's Ladder 1957
HS New York VIII, 1954 Moma
HS New York NY 1955 (whitney)
Jackson Pollock One Number 31, 1950
David Smith History Of Leroy Borton 1956, Franz Kline Painting No 2 1954

My time was divided between the Foundation and visiting galleries- MOMA, the MET, the Whitney, Sotheby’s all of which had Hedda Sterne paintings on view. Not to mention the Guggenheim, Frick Collection, and various smaller galleries. It was great to see Hedda’s paintings exhibited alongside her peers and fascinating to look at the different approaches to curation and get a glimpse into the wider art world. I will dive into all the art I came across as these blogposts unfold ( too much to include here). Most of the museums are displaying works from their own collections, and taking the opportunity to reconsider their approach. It was refreshing to see work by women, African American, Asian and Latino artists on display whose work has traditionally not made it onto the walls. There is clearly a push towards addressing inequalities and a sense that they are beginning to redress the balance. The fact remains plain, that there is a long way to go.

I had not anticipated just how massive this experience would be! These last few days have been spent starting some paintings in the studio, reading my many notes, sorting out the (millions) of photos and thinking over all that I have learnt. The MET took me by surprise at every turn, as did the Frick collection. I saw paintings I had not known I would come across. I have become aware of how British my education is, some large gaps have appeared in my American art knowledge which need addressing! The very best aspect has been meeting some wonderful people. All of them extremely generous with their time and knowledge. I was lucky enough to share the very best lunch with Mary Ann Caws, Emeritus Professor of Comparative Literature at University of New York and one of Hedda’s close friends. It was also brilliant to spend time with painter and poet Patti Trimble (she was Hedda’s studio assistant for ten years). Both were able to answer lots of questions and give me a real sense of Hedda. Liz Sadeghi was kind enough to show me the paintings they have at Van Doren Waxter and give some great thoughts on Hedda’s work. Some really insightful conversation with Shaina and of course Veronique and Adam already mentioned. There are many things I learnt while I was away, not least a sense of seeing the bigger picture. It is rare to have two weeks to look at art and think and learn. War, violence, slavery, oppression are there in every museum. Freedom, beauty, hope, light, and inspiration are also there. I have seen some of the finest art in the world and it has left me with a sense that throughout time and across cultures people have always used art as a means of reflecting on humanity, to inspire learning and hope.
As Hedda Sterne said ‘ Art is essentially revelatory’
So it is with urgency and fresh enthusiasm that I am heading back to the studio. With a fresh eye and an open mind.

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