Life magazine’s portrait of the Abstract Expressionist artists known as ‘The Irascibles,’ 1951. Front row: Theodore Stamos, Jimmy Ernst, Barnett Newman, James Brooks, and Mark Rothko; middle row: Richard Pousette-Dart, William Baziotes, Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still, Robert Motherwell, and Bradley Walker Tomlin; back row: Willem de Kooning, Adolph Gottlieb, Ad Reinhardt, and Hedda Sterne. (Photo: Nina LeenTime Life Pictures/Getty Images)

After writing my post earlier this week, Life’s Afternoon: Making Art in Old Age, about artists who produce great work later in life, stories and examples have been bubbling to the surface. Several emails came to me with suggestions. My friend Carl reminded me about Hans Hoffman:

I was planning to put in a vote for Hans Hofmann, one of our great post-WW II painters, one who gets better with each passing decade since his death in 1966. He had his first solo show here in 1944 when he was 64 years old. He blossomed in the 1950s, which was after his 70th birthday.

Another friend, George Wingate, sent me the link to an article that appeared in a recent issue of the New York Review of Books, about the extraordinary Hedda Sterne. The Last Irascible by Sarah Boxer is a thoughtful—and inspiring—view into another artist whose output deepened over a lifetime. In Sterne’s case, her visibility never achieved anything close to the infamy of many of her male colleagues. So now, in addition to exploring and uncovering those artists who continue to produce great work, there is yet another vector to consider—gender.

It is Hedda you see at the top in the legendary Life magazine photo above. A Romanian exile who was married to the cartoonist/illustrator Saul Steinberg for many years, Sterne is the only one in the photo who is still alive. While she had a long and committed career as an artist, showing with the Surrealists as well as later artists, she does not seem to have been seduced by the ego and self promotion kool-aid that ended up being toxic for many of the Irascibles photographed above.

Regarding that infamous photograph, it is ironic that Sterne never really was an Abstract Expressionist. She walked in late as the photo was being staged, so the photographer put her at the back and had her stand on a table, towering over them all. Sterne told Boxer that the photo was “probably the worst thing that happened to me.” And the fellas weren’t too happy about it either. “They all were very furious that I was in it because they all were sufficiently macho to think that the presence of a woman took away from the seriousness of it all…I am known more for that darn photo than for eighty years of work,” says Sterne. “If I had an ego, it would bother me.” Plus, she adds, “it is a lie.” Why? “I was not an Abstract Expressionist. Nor was I an Irascible.”

From Boxer’s article:

What really distinguishes her is her refusal to develop what she tartly termed a “logo” style. And that refusal, Sterne said once, “very much destroyed my ‘career.’” Although Peggy Guggenheim and Betty Parsons championed her, although major museums acquired her work, although Clement Greenberg praised her “nice flatness” and “delicacy” and Hilton Kramer mentioned her “first-class graphic gift,” and although she has had one of the longest exhibition histories of any living artist (seventy years), she is hardly well known. That doesn’t bother her. “I don’t know why, I never was burdened with a tremendous competition and ambition of any kind…. There is this wonderful passage in Conrad’s Secret Agent,” she noted. “There is a retarded young boy who sweeps with a concentration as if he were playing. That was how I always worked. The activity absorbed me sufficiently…” What came through was an artist who, in contrast to almost everyone else in the “Irascibles” photograph, had effectively erased herself. Not only was she not an Abstract Expressionist; she was the anti–Abstract Expressionist, someone who had no use for the cult of personality and personal gesture… And at a time when just about every painter who mattered was a heroic abstract artist, or trying to be, she was not.

Sterne’s heroics were of a different order. When her marriage to Steinberg came to an end, a man with whom she was passionately in love, her response is a stoic one. She simply stated that their marriage was “sixteen years of infidelity…a kind of partly pleasant, partly difficult interlude” to a long friendship…there was no divorce. No anger. We went together to friends’ houses to tell them.”

Sterne’s response could be viewed as detached, but I read it as evidence that she was wired most primally to her own inner deep core. And regardless of this change in her living circumstances, she simply moves to a more reclusive life and continues to work.

According to Boxer:

By the mid-1990s, thanks to cataracts and macular degeneration, Sterne was almost blind. She stopped painting and began drawing—not with stronger contrasts, as one might imagine, but with white crayons on white paper, aided by a magnifying glass. She was drawing, she told me, “without any external stimulus, only internal stimulus.” But she was still a figurative artist, representing her own paling vision…”Drawing is continuity. Everything else is interruption, even the night and sleep. I walk in the house like a lion everyday 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…”

I want to be able to say that too, right up until the last day of my life.


Saul Steinberg and Hedda Sterne in front of one of Steinberg’s drawings, circa 1945. (Photograph by George Platt Lynes from the estate of George Platt Lynes

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