I wanted to write about this painting, but I’ve never seen it.
Hedda Sterne, Third Avenue El, 1952–53, Oil and spray enamel on canvas, 40’ 3/8” x 31’ 7/8”, Collection of the Metropolitan Museum, Not on view
Third Avenue El, by Hedda Sterne, was sold in October 1958 at Betty Parsons Gallery for $650 to Mr. and Mrs. Daniel H. Silberberg, who donated it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1958–64. The painting has been shown at the Queens Museum in 1985, the Krannert Art Museum, and the University of Virginia, but never at the Met.
Born Hedwig Lindenburg, Sterne immigrated to the United States in 1941 with the help of petitions by her estranged husband after narrowly escaping the Bucharest pogrom and the Nazis. Sterne painted her entire life. In Europe, she associated with the Surrealists, and in New York, with the first generation New York School painters. In the ‘60s, Sterne took up meditation, left the city, and shifted away from a career mindset (while continuing to work with great urgency). Her oeuvre has not received the attention it deserves. Is this the price she paid for staying true to her inner (and outer) path?
”If you look at my work from the beginning, it is an absolute diary.”
– Hedda Sterne, Bomb Magazine, 1992
Through the small digital reproduction of Third Avenue El, I can sense a vibrating light, the chaotic architecture of the city, energetic movement, and spray paint that expresses a thick urban atmosphere. The painting has moments of bright primary color, a structured composition, and speaks more to early American Modernism than European Surrealism.
I’ve seen this painting at the MoMA.
Hedda Sterne, New York, VIII, 1954, Acrylic on canvas, 6’ 1/8” x 42”, Collection of the Museum of Modern Art, On View
I love Sterne’s New York paintings the most. They offer a balance of personal lived experience and space for a viewer’s projections. At the MoMA, next to DeKooning, her piece has the strongest sense of place. Black and white and grey and colorful. Gritty and glowing. Highways described through movement. She saw New York as a “Surrealist” city. With its unfathomable density, extreme juxtapositions, and collective lack of sleep, the city hasn’t changed much.
Sterne used spray paint to define light and atmosphere. Her techniques make the work feel ahead of its time. I’ve seen this move recently in New York galleries and on the street. I imagine that Sterne painted these works to center herself after a long journey, process her surroundings, and make her presence known. Perhaps she was searching for light to counter the darkness she escaped.
Alison Kruvant, Key Food, 2016, Oil on canvas, 22 x 30 inches, Private Collection, Brooklyn, NY
Alison Kruvant is a painter born in Washington, D.C who has shown her work in Philadelphia, New York, and Italy. When Kruvant was sixteen, she wanted to be an art critic. www.alisonkruvant.com