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May 20: Hedda Sterne and the Irascibles

May 21, 2013

TheIrascibles495px-Hedda_Sterne_Self_portraitPainter Hedda Sterne was the lone woman among 18 abstract expressionist painters who wrote a letter to Roland L. Redmond, president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, on this date in 1950, protesting the museum’s conservative selection of jurors for its exhibition, “American Painting Today — 1950.” “The undersigned painters,” said the letter, “reject the monster national exhibition . . . and will not submit work to its jury.” Best-known among the signatories today are Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, and Robert Motherwell. Ten sculptors also signed in support, including two women. The letter appeared on the front page of the New York Times two days later, and the group, who became known as “The Irascibles,” was photographed for Life magazine. The publicity popularized the term, “Abstract Expressionism,” established these painters as the core group of the movement, and helped bring high sale prices to many of them for their artwork. Stern, born Hedwig Lindenberg, was a Romanian-born refugee from Nazism who exhibited in many New York exhibitions. She married the artist Saul Steinberg in 1944, maintained a diverse and independent style of painting, and lived to be 100.

“They all were very furious that I was in [the photograph] because they all were sufficiently macho to think that the presence of a woman took away from the seriousness of it all.” —Hedda Sterne