SAN DIEGO — The political diction of the 1930s has made a comeback. Long-gone buzzwords like “socialism,” “fascism,” “the rich,” “worker rights,” “economic crisis” and “Wall Street bankers” have been bandied about these past few years, amplified by news cycles and social media memes. The intensifying national anxiety around these realities provide a fitting contemporary context to East Coast, West Coast and In Between: Harry Sternberg and America at the San Diego Museum of Art, a retrospective spanning seven decades of this artist’s unusual career.
When Harry Sternberg started out as an artist, in the late 1920s and through the 1930s, he was drawn to proletarian subjects. He made countless etchings that both glamorize and problematize American industriousness, depicting builders in cavernous subway construction sites, longshoremen on bustling docks, or miners operating deep within combustible underground shafts.
Back then, American labor was an acceptable subject for serious artists. We can see this motif in artists as diverse as Thomas Hart Benton, George Bellows and Ben Shahn. Even emergent avant-garde figures like Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Franz Kline worked in a socially conscious vein, making realistic pictures of migrant homesteaders, subway stations, and coal mining communities.
Over the decades, as American industries receded, taking with them the naïve optimism about their transformative potential, Sternberg nevertheless stayed true to this vision — we might call it his attachment to an idea of tenacious Americana — which sustained his long and uneven output. He worked consistently until his death in 2001 at the age of 97.
This small retrospective offers highlights rather than a summation of Sternberg’s eclectic career, an arc that took him from his birthplace at Avenue B and East 6th Street in New York City to the sun-drenched southern California desert much later in the century.
He was the youngest of eight siblings, born to parents whom he described as having “led a life of grinding poverty in the ghettoes of Russia and America.” His family’s Orthodox Judaism forbade the making of human images but his father nevertheless encouraged his art. Sternberg pursued it mainly through night classes in drawing at the Brooklyn Museum of Art and, later, at the Arts Student League, where he studied with George Bridgman.
Outraged by hazardous working conditions and government violence against the labor movement, some of which he witnessed firsthand in New York’s Union Square Park, he became an avowed activist and antifascist, heavily involved in the American Artists Congress and a dedicated muralist for the Works Progress Administration, best known for “Carrying the Mail” (1937), installed in Sellersville, Pennsylvania, and “The Family, Industry and Agriculture” (1939) in Ambler, Pennsylvania.
For thirty-four years, Sternberg remained an influential teacher at the Arts Student League and an author of manuals on printmaking, etching and woodcut techniques.
In 1966, he resettled in Escondido, California, a move he made initially for health reasons. The exhibition reveals how the geographic change had a momentous effect on his art, especially his paintings.
The contradictions in Sternberg’s art animate almost every work in the show.
On the one hand, he is a straightforward realist, creating scenes filled with foreboding that often spill over to melodrama. On the other hand, the angular, blocky, and tapered figures, in part the result of his mastery of printmaking and woodblock techniques, show him to be a remarkable stylist. At its most imaginative, the allegorical quality of his pictures trouble their fundamental realism, conjuring up, here and there, the carnality and mayhem seen in works by Francisco Goya and Bruno Schulz.
Much of Sternberg’s earliest work, however, is message art and therefore, literal in meaning. Typical of this is his Music Series (1933), here represented by “Oboe” (1933), in which an Olympian figure, posed like a discus thrower, hurtles a sun-like globe, presumably evoking the sound of the woodwind instrument.
“Steel Town” (1937) is the most bracing of the early prints. It is a nightmarish landscape in which flimsy wood-frame homes adjoin a local bar. Exhausted workers march wearily away. A cemetery of crooked crosses lies nearby, and behind the houses rises an insidious, large church. The church itself is dwarfed by the steel mill’s pipework and infernal, belching smokestacks. It’s a convincing Marxist parable told through the limited vernacular of the Ashcan School.
Similarly political, “Fascism” (1943) features a three-headed ogre – each face representing one of the three Axis powers — stomping through a hellscape strewn with rotting corpses, rats, assorted religious tomes, and scientific paraphernalia. If nothing else, this propagandistic image reminds viewers that the murderous violence unleashed by fascism is first subsidized by religious and ethnic absolutism and then advanced by counterfeit promises of progress.
In Sternberg’s early period, death-haunted grittiness is often offset by occasional detours into erotic themes. His female figures tend to be derivative, borrowing heavily from such precedents as Edouard Manet’s “Olympia” (1863) and Salvador Dali’s surreal appropriations of the classical nude. “Women and War” (1943) features a serene, idealized nude with large, captivating eyes. She rises above a horde of masculine bodies, the latter reduced to bellowing mouths and upraised, clenched fists. Here Sternberg’s idiomatic language disrupts an easy interpretation: is this objectified woman a muse of warfare, or a figure of feminine tranquility as a contrast to the unfolding conflagrations around her?
“Insecurity #1 Love” (1943-46) is even more elusive as an erotic allegory. In it, borrowings from Dali are overt. A bald, thin, androgynous nude leans against a headless female torso, adorning her with a string of pearls. Both figures loom above an abstract, depopulated landscape riddled with random doorways and windowed walls that lead nowhere.
A distinct impression from this varied exhibition is how Sternberg’s late work gained in depth and dimensionality after he relocated, possibly because he was renewed by the sun-drenched valleys and desert landscapes of the American Southwest.
“Creators and Critics” (1985-86), a large black-and-white power tool woodcut revives a favorite Sternberg motif in which he represents the artist in the guise of a carnival performer. Walking on overlapping high wires set beneath a night sky ignited by bright constellations, four semi-abstract acrobats are stalked by gruesome bats fluttering over their heads. One acrobat tumbles off the wire. Below lies a heap of broken picture frames, neglected books, and discarded musical instruments, representing the lives of artists who, like Sternberg, struggled with the cultural high-wire act.
The show’s decisive highlights are samples of his highly original oil paintings made during his Californian years. Sternberg first began visiting the West in the late 1950s, and the subsequent introduction of brighter colors and dream-like images deepened his art. These paintings integrate his strengths, breaking free of the facile and pedantic elements that mar some of his earlier works.
“Mountains and Birches of Utah” (ca. 1957) situates mountains of cobalt blue, greenish brown, and yellow-and-green under a fiery orange sky. The mountains’ craggy bases are fenced in by a long parade of leafless birch trees mingled with small blue spruces. Spaciousness and heft combine with electrifying coloration to turn the landscape simultaneously majestic and forbidding.
In addition to natural vistas, Judaic themes inform some of these late works perhaps inspired by the desert’s archetypal link to Biblical stories. “Tallis and Teffilin” (1985-88) from the Tallit Series features a tall rabbinical figure dressed in the eponymous prayer shawl, half turned around, his two fingers pressed against a richly painted column. Half-silhouetted against a bold, red backdrop, the rabbi’s highly expressive presence conjures centuries of Jewish history even as it evokes the vibrancy of present-day Judaism.
The phantasmal Moonsongs series are his greatest achievements and it’s a shame more of them could not be included in this retrospective. The oil painting “Moonsongs #14” (c. 1973) is the star of the current show. Here he transmutes a street scene featuring office workers and playground children into an otherworldly phantasm in which humans and animals – and half-human / half-animal figures – dwell together in a sort of aquatic forest.
Or is it an ordinary California suburb reborn as a mythic, jewel-colored marshland? Some figures are perched on abstractly colored trees or gigantic flowers while others recede into the iridescent distance.
The show’s capstones are small-scale prints made over the course of the artist’s career, which comprise the portfolio, Sternberg: A Life in Woodcuts (1991), whose directness and handcrafted autobiographical details are fitting testimonies to his ethic of giving patient witness to the world. Each records a distinctive chapter in Sternberg’s life, much of it informed by the Jewish-American experience: the young man confronts racist signage that warns “Jews and dogs keep out”; enjoys the conviviality of a holiday dinner table; and delves into the wing-like stacks of the Brooklyn Public Library.
Across more than seven decades, Sternberg’s art is informed by the sacred precariousness of workaday existence. These existences are occasionally embellished by fantasy but they exude a robust physicality. Distinctively American, Sternberg’s figures radiate energy even as they are dramatically constrained by larger forces — amoral capitalism or perhaps just the godless universe — within which human beings create, and surrender, their fates.
East Coast, West Coast and In Between: Harry Sternberg and America continues at the San Diego Museum of Art (1450 El Prado, Balboa Park, San Diego, California) through May 31.