Hedda Sterne was the only woman in an iconic photograph of an otherwise very masculine group of artists — dubbed “The Irascibles” by a New York art critic — who defined mid-20th-century Modernism. The last surviving person in that photograph, which was pubished in Life magazine in 1951, she was 100 years old when she died at home in New York City on April 8.
A late arrival to the shoot, she was told to stand on a table and appears to tower over her male colleagues, who include Jimmy Ernst, Barnett Newman, James Brooks, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning, Adolph Gottlieb, and Ad Reinhardt. The group had caused a stir by signing an open letter to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in protest of its policies on showing contemporary abstract artists.
She later told an interviewer from The New York Review of Books that her inclusion in the photo was a false gesture, because she was not an Abstract Expressionist, as the other artists came to be known, nor was she an “Irascible.”
Not present in the photograph was her husband at the time, Saul Steinberg, a fellow artist and Romanian whom she married in 1944 and lived with for 16 years. The couple separated in 1961, but never divorced. They lived in Manhattan and in Springs, and she had her own place on Hog Creek Road from 1966 to 2004.
An earlier marriage, in 1932, to Frederick Stern, had ended in divorce. She kept his name, however, later adding an “E.” Ms. Sterne’s work ranged from Surrealist-inspired images in the early days of her career, to constructed compositions inspired by farm equipment or highways, to language-based paintings.
Dore Ashton, an art critic and professor at Cooper Union, noted on Tuesday that she was also a gifted portraitist who captured friends and colleagues in drawings and paintings. A show of her portrait drawings was exhibited at the Pollock-Krasner House in Springs in 2009.
Her late drawings, which she executed while she had failing eyesight, attempted to catch the unseen essence of things. “There was very little vestige of something concrete,” her friend Edvard Lieber recalled on Tuesday. She called the lines she made with pencil and oil crayon as inlines rather than outlines. “I had never heard anyone describe something like that,” he said. “She was describing the immaterial.”
Hedda Linderberg was born on Aug. 4, 1910, in Bucharest to Simon and Eugenie Wexler Lindenberg. She took summer classes in Vienna and was a student of art history and philosophy at the University of Bucharest. She then studied painting in Paris in Fernand Leger’s atelier and at the Académie de la Grande Chaumiere. She ended up in New York in the 1940s after barely escaping a raid by the Nazis on her house in Bucharest.
The association she began in Romania with the Surrealists continued in New York, where she was exhibited in a show of Surrealism for which André Breton and Marcel Duchamp served as curators. She continued to show throughout her life, but was overshadowed by the more outsized personalities and successes of many of her colleagues. From 1963 to 1964, she worked in Venice as the recipient of a Fulbright fellowship.
Ms. Ashton said that Ms. Sterne took advantage of East Hampton’s unusual light in her work and was attuned to her environment. She was also a big reader, “an extraordinarily sensitive and cultured human being . . . one of the few and last grandes dames of New York.”
Mr. Lieber remembered their regular dinners in East Hampton, to which she would occasionally also invite Elaine de Kooning or Ibram and Ernestine Lassaw. “She organized dinner like a Diaghilev ballet. Everything would be prepared, and she would keep a small pad nearby with topics of conversation and humorous things to keep the conversation buoyant. She always had knowledge of the latest writers and artists. She was always looking to the future. There was this constant sense of evolution about her.”
He called her house and property an enchanting place where fog would roll in over a “panoramic meadow of wildflowers” as they sat watching on her Japanese-style porch.
In one of her notes to him, she described what it was like to follow her muse. “At times I have feelings of great despair and emptiness and doubts that taunt me. And yet, I would not exchange all of this for anything because my conscience tells me I am fulfilling my duty, obeying a decree of fate.”
But for a niece who lives in Paris, Ms. Sterne left no survivors. A memorial service will be announced at a future date.