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Sterne and Steinberg: Critics Within Opens at The Menil Collection in Houston
Saul Steinberg, The Spiral, 1966. Ink on paper 19 x 25 1⁄4 inches. The Menil Collection, Houston © The Saul Steinberg Foundation/ARS, NY.

HOUSTON.- Paired in a single museum exhibition, Saul Steinberg (1914-1999) and Hedda Sterne (b. 1910) may at first look like an odd couple. The two Romanian-born artists met in New York City in 1943 after the Nazi occupation forced them to flee Europe. They became U.S. citizens and married in 1944. Despite occupying the same domestic space, as well as exhibiting at the same gallery, the artists had little aesthetic ground in common: most art historians and critics would be hard pressed to trace stylistic influences between the two. Yet Sterne and Steinberg did share an important artistic perspective: each questioned the ability of an artist’s personal aesthetic style to communicate a stable identity.

In the New York art world of the 1940s and 1950s, divorcing style from artistic identity constituted a radical divergence from the philosophy of artists such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Barnet Newman. While Sterne and Steinberg maintained close friendships with many of the so-called Abstract Expressionists, their work’s play with subjectivity registers important differences with that movement. By placing a small number of works by Sterne and Steinberg in dialogue with one another, this exhibition amplifies the artists’ joint (and unique) position as critics within their artistic milieu.

Appropriately, the artists’ portraits of one another reveal, on a more intimate scale, their experimentation with a myriad of styles, a fluidity that emphasizes the illusive and dynamic presence of the other.

Steinberg was born in Râmnicu Sărat, Romania. He studied philosophy for a year at the University of Bucharest, then later enrolled at the Politecnico di Milano, studying architecture and graduating in 1940. During his years in Milan he was actively involved in the satirical magazine Bertoldo.

Steinberg left Italy after the introduction of anti-Semitic laws in Fascist Italy. He spent a year in the Dominican Republic awaiting a U.S. visa; in the meantime, he submitted his cartoons to foreign publications. In 1942, The New Yorker magazine sponsored his entry into the United States. During World War II, he worked for military intelligence, stationed in China, North Africa, and Italy. After the war's end, he returned to work for American publications, merging an encyclopedic knowledge of European art with the popular American art form of the cartoon, to pioneer a uniquely urbane style of illustration.

Steinberg did 85 covers and 1,200 drawings for The New Yorker. His most famous work is its March 29, 1976, cover, an illustration titled View of the World from 9th Avenue,[3] sometimes referred to as A Parochial New Yorker's View of the World or A New Yorker's View of the World, which depicts a map of the world as seen by self-absorbed New Yorkers.

The illustration is split in two, with the bottom half of the image showing Manhattan's 9th Avenue, 10th Avenue, and the Hudson River (appropriately labeled), and the top half depicting the rest of the world. The rest of the United States is the size of the three New York City blocks and is drawn as a square, with a thin brown strip along the Hudson representing New Jersey, the names of five cities (Los Angeles, Washington D.C., Las Vegas, Kansas City, and Chicago) and three states (Texas, Utah, and Nebraska) scattered among a few rocks for the U.S. beyond New Jersey. The Pacific Ocean, perhaps half again as wide as the Hudson, separates the U.S. from three flattened land masses labeled China, Japan, and Russia.

Hedda Sterne (born in Bucharest, Romania, 1910) is best remembered and often only mentioned as the only woman in a group of Abstract Expressionists known as "The Irascibles" which consisted of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, and more. Sterne was, in fact, the only woman photographed with the group in Time magazine. In her artistic career, she is known for maintaining a stubborn independence from styles and trends, including Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism, with which she is often associated.

Sterne has been almost completely overlooked in art historical narratives of the post-war American art scene. Possibly the last surviving artist of the first-generation New York School, Hedda Sterne views her widely varied works more as in flux than as definitive statements.

According to, her works are in the collections of museums including the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York, the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., and the National Museum of Women in the Arts, also in Washington D.C. Below is an external link to online images of her works in the MOMA collection.

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