ART REVIEWS : The Tale of a Life Committed to Art : A show at the Athenaeum features Harry Sternberg’s latest production, a series of autobiographical woodcuts published in book and portfolio form by Brighton Press.

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The art world rarely has a shortage of grand gestures masquerading as grand ideas. But modest gestures that embody rich ideas and profound meaning always seem in short supply. Harry Sternberg’s latest body of work fits comfortably into the latter category. It is a simple visual journal, but it is also the epic tale of a life committed to art, family, spiritual growth and social change.

“Sternberg: A Life in Woodcuts” consists of 40 prints, a chronology of the artist’s life and a foreword by choreographer Bella Lewitzky, published together in two forms by San Diego’s Brighton Press, as a limited-edition book and as a portfolio. All but one of the prints can now be seen, framed and hanging on the wall at the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library in La Jolla.

Sternberg’s images feel like living memories, never petrified slices of the remote past. They pulsate on the page, rarely confined to a stultifying rectangle but instead filling a different organic shape in every case, with forms spilling out of space, curling inward or planted solidly within it.


These are salient impressions from a long and interesting life. Such rites of passage as the artist’s bar mitzvah, his marriage and the birth of a child appear here, but so do vivid recollections of less conspicuous moments in the artist’s life. One scene depicts the setting and mood of a Toscanini concert, the rows of audience seating flaring out in a spiral from the stage like a meteor tail.

In another, the dense, syncopated rhythms of New York’s Lower East Side come alive. Old World faces crowd the street, while a jumble of signs punch their messages into the air and every apartment window frames a different spliced narrative. Sternberg’s style, with its slightly gritty feel, reflects the earthiness of his subjects as well as the directness and immediacy of his impressions.

Sternberg’s work remains convincing and immediate even when the subjects reach beyond the artist’s own memory. Images of his mother and father venturing into the unknown from their respective Eastern European villages, each carrying a single suitcase, are among the most powerful in the series. Even the pages bearing only words--sweatbaths/horses/pulling carts/fire engines/buggies/Dr. Brown’s celery tonic/Luna Park/stick ball/challah--conjure up a tangible time and mood from Sternberg’s past.

Born in New York in 1904, Sternberg had to balance his Orthodox Jewish upbringing with his love for image-making at an early age. The traditionally clashing strands actually come together, in a sense, in Sternberg’s visual response to anti-Semitism. In one print here, a lone boy stands near the gates of a country club, shut out by the sign, “Dogs and Jews Keep Out.”

Such themes of social consciousness and injustice were prominent in the New York art scene of the 1920s and ‘30s, when Sternberg was maturing. Like his peer Ben Shahn and others, Sternberg underscored the efforts of demonstrators, civil rights victims and ordinary laborers in his prints. In one image of miners, for instance, Sternberg shows each worker toiling in a separate capsule of light within the dense darkness below ground.

Sternberg became a teacher at the Art Students League in New York, where he had previously been a student, and at the Idyllwild School of Music and the Arts, along with Lewitzky and many other notables in the arts. In 1967, he and his wife, Mary, moved to Escondido temporarily for health reasons, and stayed.


His work has been shown internationally, but has not received a wealth of attention locally. Two of his prints of workers can be seen in the San Diego Museum of Art’s current exhibition, “The Art of the Print” (through Jan. 5), but the Athenaeum is now the best place to get a feel for Sternberg’s own personal journey as well as the poignant visual style he developed along the way.

“Sternberg: A Life in Woodcuts” continues at the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library, 1008 Wall St., La Jolla, through Feb. 1. Hours are 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday .