ESCONDIDO — "Don't be polite with me," Harry Sternberg admonishes shortly into the interview, and he means it. The 90-year-old artist's bluntness--and that of his work--is legendary.
Responding to Sternberg's first solo show of prints and drawings in 1932, a New York Times critic warned viewers not to look to the artist's work for charm or delicacy, but rather for "strength and truculence." And in the catalogue accompanying "The Prints of Harry Sternberg," now at the San Diego Museum of Art, director Steven Brezzo offers this advice: "Don't try passing off gimmickry or artistic bluster to Harry--his response is not pretty."
A large man wearing a boyish ensemble of shorts, T-shirt and suspenders, Sternberg sits in his tidy studio in Escondido, restlessly tapping his immense hands on the arms of his chair. Penetrating self-portraits vividly painted in Fauve-like greens and blues peek out from behind other neatly stacked works. Sternberg in person can be as disarmingly straightforward as his work, yet his no-nonsense manner is so genuine and full of warmth that, ironically, he comes across as charming.
"I don't like suppressing my own feelings or anybody else's," Sternberg declares. That directness, he says, came with the territory of growing up on New York's Lower East Side and Brooklyn among newly arrived Eastern Europeans, including his parents.
"A lot of my youth was spent among immigrants and Jewish ghettos," he says. "The home was jammed with noise. To read as a kid in that environment was rough. But the juiciness of the wonderful, emotional, unpretentious joy of living that the immigrants had was really something beautiful. In the ghetto, birth, life and death are so intense that they become central to your existence, more so than in other cultures. It affected me profoundly."
An image in his 1991 artist's book, "A Life in Woodcuts," shows his mother cooking, a small clutch of men at the table drinking and the young Sternberg sitting contentedly on the kitchen floor with a book, perhaps a sketchbook. It was there, within the swirl of mundane passions, that Sternberg began to draw. By 12, he was taking art classes at the Brooklyn Museum. Like most of their Old World peers, Sternberg remembers, his parents had an intense zeal for books and music. But the visual arts were something of a taboo in his Orthodox Jewish home.
"To draw the human figure was sinful," he says. "Man is made in the image of God; therefore you don't desecrate."
Sternberg's drive and his father's faith clashed decisively when he was about 15, in high school but already taking classes at the famed Art Students League in Manhattan.
"I remember coming home with some drawings one Friday night, which was a holy night for us, and he said, 'Let me see what you're doing there.' I tried to dodge him, but he said he wanted to see. So I showed him. It was a female nude. He took one look and (spit to one side). He rolled up the drawing, handed it back to me and he never looked at another thing I did. Ever. He accepted it but he didn't want it pushed in his face. I thought that was very beautiful, and I respected him enormously for it."
Sternberg studied at the Art Students League until 1927, the year he made his first etchings, and began teaching there in 1933. The current show includes more than 60 years of work, from the early etchings up through the recent book of woodcuts. "Celebrating Sternberg," a companion exhibition of prints and rarely seen drawings, is on view through Oct. 22 at San Diego's Brighton Press, which has printed his work since 1982.
Though neither show includes paintings, Sternberg has always balanced his efforts between the two media, switching to painting when he hungers for color, shifting back when he craves black and white. Printmaking, however, has always been the artist's "natural habitat," says Malcolm Warner, the San Diego Museum of Art's curator of European art and prints and drawings.
Sternberg's own poignant sense of observation fused naturally with the strong current of social concern in American art--especially graphic art--of the 1920s and '30s. He explored the tough and tenuous relationship between humans and their machines in images of railroad yards and construction sites. He talked his way underground and documented the harsh working conditions of Pennsylvania coal miners and steelworkers.
I nspired by Goya's practice of braiding together the real and the fantastic, the humble and the grotesque, Sternberg created a powerful and disturbing series of prints titled "Principles," which delved into what he calls the "foibles, joys and sufferings of people."
"The variety in his work is extraordinary, from fantastical compositions that have something in common with William Blake to gritty documentary studies of coal miners," Warner says. "One thing that will emerge in the show is that he has a wider range than people think. Most people associate him with 1930s WPA industrial realism."