Harry Sternberg, a prominent artist and teacher who began his life in a New York tenement and shaped his vision during the Great Depression, has died. He was 97.
A resident of Escondido for 35 years, he had been ill for some time and died Tuesday of pneumonia at Palomar Hospital in San Diego.
Sternberg was known as an artist with a tough, Works Progress Administration-era sensibility, but he produced a considerable range of emotionally expressive work during his long career.
He chronicled his life and times in earthy paintings and prints that not only criticize social ills, but also depict the warmth and joy of family life and Jewish traditions. During his California years, he also painted idyllic tropical landscapes and haunting images of the Borrego Valley desert, east of San Diego.
"The variety of his work is extraordinary, from fantastical compositions that have something in common with William Blake to gritty documentary studies of coal miners," said Malcolm Warner, a former curator at the San Diego Museum of Art, who organized an exhibition of Sternberg's prints at the museum in 1994.
By then, Sternberg--who got acquainted with Southern California while teaching summer sessions at the Idyllwild School of Music and Arts and made Escondido his home in 1966--was well-known in local art circles as a prickly but admirable character who followed his own muse and spoke his mind.
"Don't be polite with me," he warned a Times interviewer in 1994. "I don't like suppressing my own feelings or anybody else's."
He accounted for his attitude by reflecting upon his youth. Growing up in a house "jammed with noise" had its drawbacks, he said. "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."
Don Bacigalupi, executive director of the museum, said Sternberg's death "leaves a gaping hole in the art scene of the San Diego region and in American art history. Harry was an integral part of one of the most vital generations of American artists, intent on expressing strong humanist values and exposing social injustices. He was a marvelous painter and printmaker, a most inspiring individual."
Sternberg was born July 19, 1904, in his family's apartment on the Lower East Side of New York. His father, Simon, was a fur piece dealer who had emigrated from Russia. Harry's mother, Rose, was a Hungarian immigrant. In 1910, the family moved to Brooklyn, where young Sternberg began his art education in Saturday classes at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.
He progressed quickly and began studying at the Art Students League of New York in 1922, while still in high school. By the late 1920s, he had his own studio and was exhibiting his work in prestigious museums and galleries. He concluded his studies at the league in 1927, but joined its faculty in 1934 and continued teaching there until 1966.
Always attuned to his milieu, Sternberg championed printmaking as a way of making art affordable to the masses and created murals for post offices in Chicago and in Sellersville and Ambler, Pa. He was also a founding member of the American Artists' Congress, an organization that from 1935 to 1942 defended artists' rights and encouraged them to uphold their social responsibilities.
Sternberg's work is represented in the permanent collections of dozens of major American museums, including the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. A retrospective exhibition of his work was presented at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles in 1996.
He is survived by his wife, poet and writer Mary Sternberg; and his daughter, Leslie Sternberg of Hawaii.