San Diego, CA
When Harry Sternberg (1904-2001) settled in Escondido in 1966, he left a stellar East Coast career behind him. The prominent critic Carl Zigrosser considered him “the very embodiment of a passionate idea,” whose work “unites two forces seldom contained in one artist: … intellect and strong feeling.” Combining realism with aspects of abstraction and surrealism, Sternberg created dark, dramatic works, often with a distinctly dreamlike impact. As a Guggenheim fellow in 1936, he also documented the terrible working conditions of workers in the Pennsylvania coal mines in paintings, drawings and prints partially inspired by the great Mexican painter José Clemente Orozco, who had become an acquaintance while the latter was living in New York.
During the 1950s, Sternberg began to venture west, taking time to visit his wife’s family in Southern California and teaching courses at Idyllwild, and at Brigham Young University, where, in 1957, he painted the magisterial landscape Mountains and Birches of Utah, now in the Museum’s permanent collection. But, living in New York City for 62 years, and working with toxic paints for over 40, had ruined his lungs. His physician told him he had most likely only six months to live. Being a contrarian by nature the artist rebelled against this categorical verdict. He quit his long-standing job as instructor in etching, lithography and composition at New York’s famous Art Students League, and set up a studio on East Valley Parkway in Escondido, then still an outlying rural California town, far removed, both geographically and culturally, from the East Coast art world.
Fortunately, this new environment proved kind to his lungs, and he proceeded to create his signature psychological character studies, industrial landscapes, socially focused satires, self-portraits and prints for another 35 years—though now, to the consternation of his East Coast friends, adapted to color schemes inspired by the bright California sun.
Credit: Exhibition overview from museum website