Commentary Magazine


Remembrance of Things Past

It’s a cliché that a picture is worth a thousand words. But some clichés are true. A picture can illuminate a moment in time, capture a personality, or symbolize an entire war.

A picture can also show how much the world has changed in less than a lifetime. On Friday the artist Hedda Sterne died at the age of 100 and the New York Times carried her obituary this morning. Accompanying the article is a well-known photograph taken sixty years ago and published in Life magazine. It shows Sterne among a group of the biggest names in the exploding New York art scene of that time and of the abstract expressionist school, names that are still familiar today: Wilhelm de Kooning, Jackson Pollack, Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko, and others.

What strikes me most about the photograph is that the men are all prim and proper, dressed up in coats and ties for a group portrait. Hedda Sterne, the only woman in the picture, is in a dress and holding a pocket book. Can you imagine a similar group of major-league avant garde artists today all wearing coats and ties?