Architectures of the Mind: Hedda Sterne and Eve Aschheim
_Regression in memory makes one a metaphysician, delight in its origins, a saint _ E.M. Cioran from “Drawn and Quartered”
Will we ever know Hedda Sterne as a painter of paintings and not primarily as the only woman and last surviving member of the “Irascibles”? As portrayed in Nina Leen’s famous Life magazine photograph—an identity that has trailed her for her entire life—Sterne’s position at the pinnacle of the group brings in its wake the inevitable questions about the disappearance of her work from the public eye. Is it possible to look at her paintings now on their own terms and not how they relate or don’t relate to Abstract Expressionism? Apparently Josef Helfenstein did just that when, as director of the Krannert Museum in Illinois, he found one of her series of New York spray paintings in storage and was inspired to create the retrospective now on view at the University of Virginia.
As an addendum to this traveling retrospective, which originated at the Krannert Museum in Illinois last year, a small exhibition uptown at CDS gallery affords a look at selections from Sterne’s oeuvre. The show encompasses works ranging from a small gouache on paper and paintings on canvas from the early 50’s to oil pastels over acrylic on canvas from 1994.
One of the few titled paintings in the exhibition, “Further I,” hangs just to the right of the entrance; as you make your way into the intimate space of the gallery it sits just at the edge of your peripheral vision. A crystalline geometry of interlocking triangles radiates both upwards and outwards, slowly moving from a horizontal into a vertically oriented point of view. In the center, where two triangles intersect, a luminous white reaches its utmost intensity, evoking pure white light. The lower third of the painting is considerably darker, and serves as a grounding for the sections above. It has a translucency characteristic of the whole, which suggests an infinity of space through a glass ceiling; the melding of the parallel and near-parallel lines echo the edges of her triangles.
The walls of the gallery are painted a light but warm gray, which sets off the yellow ochres, blacks and whites in Sterne’s paintings, making them feel lighter than they might be if seen against white. The surfaces of her paintings are fairly activated through the application of paint and oil pastel, letting us know that the artist’s concern is not only with the representation of light in her subject, but also with the reflection of light off the surface of her paintings.
A large, untitled oil pastel and acrylic on canvas from 1984 works with other triangular forms, constructing a layered world that is spatial without anticipating inhabitation. Peering through this complex of overlapping geometries promises to lead us somewhere if we persist in our journey. We are positioned at the outer edge of the painting; lush ochre planes both recede and advance, conveying a sense of a space just beyond the grasp of our navigating skills. It vanishes again as the painting’s surface catches light and then reopens to reveal that the deepest part of the painting is its center.
In two multi-panel, cruciform works the faceted planes build a space of transcendence so clearly they almost advertise: leave the body behind. Moving from one untitled piece to the other, what at first glance seems so similar differentiates itself in stages until the uniqueness of each is discerned. These paintings demand a certain amount of one’s time to unfold, yet even as they do, they never leave the realm of silence. They envision a place that cannot be fixed but into which we can enter and from which we can emerge. Reflecting on states of mind, as well as conditions of being and change, provides the subtext for works of art whose subject stems from the landscapes of an inner world. Although one senses that this was never an articulated goal for Hedda Sterne, it is rather the means, and finally the place, that her radical decision-making led her.
In this exhibition there are hints of the number of stylistic transitions Sterne made since her first exhibition in Paris in 1938, shifts that befuddled critics and frustrated marketers and eventually consigned her to obscurity. While one is tempted to turn to Emerson for elucidation in the face of Sterne’s repeated evocations of transcendence, especially in the later paintings, another tack might shed light on the breadth of her oeuvre. Sterne herself speaks of the need to move on and never to repeat herself; her vision comes close in spirit to that of her countryman Emile Cioran, born in Romania less than a year after her, in 1911. Insofar as one’s point of origin is an incommensurable determinant of the soul, Cioran’s philosophy, taken as a whole or in part, can offer a new perspective on Hedda’s peregrinations. As a revolutionary artist, it was her task to define new territory and thereby open up possibilities for those who came after her. Her position in Leen’s photograph at the top of the group speaks to the nature of her vision: her work establishes a clearing from which others could see farther, a consciousness hard-won yet free of conflicts.
In the back of the gallery there are figurative works—sketches of places and meditations on trees—that give hints on the evolution of Hedda’s geometries. In “NY, NY #2” from 1950, a series of sepia lines delineate the structural limits of a space whose upwardly focused direction encourages us to leave the ground we know. “NY 2” from 1953 takes in more of the heavier elements of the city; the surface is scratched through to reveal the light underneath. Its speed and gesture are more personal than the triangular structures in the front room. Soft and light, the outlines of trees touched with lime green and gray speak of the delicacies of singular moments in nature, of growth and of the freedom attained when finally letting all the baggage go.
A small painting of floating planes, which evokes the levels the soul has to ascend to reach the higher realms of consciousness, differentiates itself from the space of thought represented in the pieces in the front room. By showing us these vistas, Hedda opens a door; but that, in and of itself, doesn’t afford us any means of entering. She takes a risk in revealing what she has managed to discover through her artistic journey—the places she has been, like her cityscapes from the 50’s, but with the recognition that if you go there it will be different.
Eve Aschheim’s intimate black-and-white gesso and ink-on-Mylar drawings at Lori Bookstein Fine Art form an extremely concise body of work done over the past two years. Aschheim’s work has a milky translucence that is at the same time strident, an unlikely combination that creates a tension in which the space unfolds before your eyes. Ever mindful of the free will of the other, Aschheim’s works never insist, never crowd; rather they offer exacting pleasures through subtle distinctions. It’s a long way from abstract expressionism.
“Special” delineates volumes through the placement of short and long, vertical and diagonal lines that construct a cacophony resonating excitement within a void of its own making. There’s a great joy in these works that vibrates just below the surface, suggesting that it is relationships that are life giving, that it is the distance between things that animates them. Each line is spatially located in relation to all the other lines, their relative nature causes shifts, stretches and expansion as your eye slowly absorbs the configurations of this non-linear linear world.
Composed of mainly horizontal lines with only two verticals, “Rungs without ladders” jumps out from the group right away. Being the only drawing without any diagonal lines, the strokes sit so consciously on the surface of the page that it’s the body of the duralene Mylar itself, slightly bowed, that implies the void beyond.
Like Sterne, Aschheim consistently raises the bar. In some works, the merest few gestures render a world that in others is clearly hard-won. This ebb and flow of inspiration is manifested in the pairing of works throughout the exhibition, and renders the artist’s journey in palpable terms enabling us to move with her to a higher level. Tough but generous, intimate yet vast, highly personal experiences set in universal terms, Aschheim’s drawings embrace a dialectical vision.
“North 90 degrees,” composed entirely of diagonals, feels like the winter blizzards I remember from my childhood, when the snow obscures one’s line of sight. Forms coalesce in the spaces between the lines and orient us with their bearings; center and periphery are established conditionally in relationship to the frame. By not considering centrality as hard and fixed, but rather making the distinction that “center” is a perception from a specific point of view, Aschheim’s struggle to clarify her vision is delineated in formal terms.
This dialogue with seeing is what distinguishes Aschheim most clearly from Hedda Sterne—the lingering sense that you can locate and grasp the elusive, and so become fully conscious that it is the limits of time that frame the concrete. “The Summer Caesura (for Bernd)” speaks of those blissful moments that know no end for the few seconds they endure. There isn’t a question of representation here, but rather of a language developed through a cogent set of marks articulating the subtleties of life’s memorable experiences. Aschheim forges a bond between painting and drawing that renders complexity in the simplest of terms: our apprehension of this particular work relies entirely on the construction of two triangles, one above the other, that open out onto an infinite plane.
“Tragedy once a year” is singular in its portrayal of a narrative structure. The lyricism of the lines, as they move from dense to sparse, constructs a cadence familiar yet not so. In a mood characterized by detachment and intensity, “If time, 16” envisions a series of goals or obstacles to move through, making the fleeting pleasures rendered in many of Aschheim’s other works seem distant. With “No Accidents” a few red strokes emphasize gesture and its relationship to space. Emotion is expressed through its restraint; always leaving room for the other to enter on separate terms, it is as seductive as it is liberating.
The openness in Aschheim’s work is reminiscent of Hedda Sterne’s drive to remain in flux. Aschheim, as much as the women of her generation, benefited from the groundbreaking Hedda engaged through her life and work. Coming in Sterne’s wake, Aschheim can offer us a great generosity of spirit, and she does.
Editors’ Note: In the interest of full disclosure, it should be mentioned that Eve Aschheim is the spouse of Rail Art Editor John Yau.
JOAN WALTEMATH is an artist who lives and works in New York City. She writes on art and has served as an editor-at-large of the Brooklyn Rail since 2001. She has shown extensively and her work is in the collections of the Harvard University Art Museums, the National Gallery of Art, the Hammer Museum and the Museum of Modern Art. She is currently the Director of the LeRoy E. Hoffberger School of Painting at MICA.