The love and art of Irene and Peter Stern

Irene and Peter with Peter’s sculpture in front of the GTE building, Santa Monica, California, 1973 (photo courtesy of the Estate of Irene and Peter Stern)

Artists Irene Monat Stern (1932–2010) and Jan Peter Stern (1926–2004) were a married couple whose works express their love, optimism and joie de vivre. In the common exhibition Irene Monat Stern and Jan Peter Stern: lyrical modernism, on view through May 21 at the 521 West 26th Street space of the Hollis Taggart Gallery in Manhattan, Irene’s abstract paintings are reflected in the surfaces of Peter’s polished steel sculptures. The shared creativity and mutual devotion of the Sterns reflects a time of light and joy that came after considerable darkness early in their lives, particularly that of Irene. She was a child survivor of the Holocaust.

Born in Lodz, Poland in 1932, Irene was almost seven years old when war broke out. Along with her sister, Annette, and her parents, Martin and Pauline, she had multiple close escapes and endured persecution and deprivation. When the war ended, she and Annette lived in an orphanage outside of Warsaw and were eventually reunited with their parents. They were among the very few survivors of a family that had ten siblings on his mother’s side and seven on his father’s side. After leaving Poland a few years later, the family moved to Paris, where they struggled to make ends meet while waiting for entry visas to the United States. They arrived in New Jersey in 1953; soon after, Irene’s parents managed to purchase two brownstone buildings on New York City’s then dilapidated Upper West Side.

Installation view of Irene Monat Stern and Jan Peter Stern: lyrical modernism at the Hollis Taggart Gallery (photo by Billy Stern)

Jan Peter Stern, born in 1926, grew up in Berlin. His father, Frederick Martin Stern, was a lawyer and patron of Herwarth Walden, art dealer and founder of the famous avant-garde art publication Der Sturm. As a result, Peter grew up in a home where the modern art his father collected mixed with the old Dutch paintings of his mother. Sensitive and artistic, Peter took an early interest in photography and woodworking. Alarmed by the rise of Hitler, his family left Germany in 1933, settling first in Holland, then in Switzerland, and finally in 1938 in the United States.

Jan Peter Stern, early 1960s (photo courtesy of Estate of Irene and Peter Stern)

While in high school in New York, Peter was conscripted: he served in the army’s counterintelligence corps, rounding up German war criminals. After his discharge from the military, he enrolled in an industrial design program at Syracuse University and earned his master’s degree in 1953. The following year, Peter’s mother heard from Irene’s sister, Annette, talking to ORT (an organization that helped Jewish refugees) and thought that Annette and her son should meet. They had a date, but it was Irene who quickly caught Peter’s eye and they were married in 1955.

The newlyweds both took art classes at the new progressive School of Social Research and studied with Manolo Pascual, a modernist/classical sculptor who had fled the Spanish Civil War. By the time their son Dan was born in 1957, Peter was already working for the industrial design firm Donald Deskey Associates. Peter wanted more time to carve, so he asked his boss for some time off. As he would later write in a personal memoir: “Luckily they didn’t give me a day off and I was fired.” Encouraged by Irène, he devoted himself to sculpture.

Peter won a solo exhibition at the Barone Gallery in 1960 by boldly entering and introducing himself to the owner. The architect and Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius also took an interest in his work. Peter soon had a studio near Jacques Lipchitz’s Hastings-on-Hudson studio and was commissioned to create a stylized 35-foot-tall flame for the gas pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. Another major commission was a 50-foot-tall, two-ton stainless steel spire (steeple) for St. Mary’s Church at Second Avenue and 15th Street. Peter also sculpted an abstract tree-shaped bronze entitled “Windward” which nestles in a building at 655 3rd Street, between 41st and 42nd streets. These two sculptures are still in place today in Manhattan.

Installation view of Irene Monat Stern and Jan Peter Stern: lyrical modernism at the Hollis Taggart Gallery (photo by Billy Stern)

In 1965, the Sterns moved to Southern California and purchased a secluded home in Santa Monica Canyon. Irene had taken art classes at the Whitney Museum and MoMA while living in New York, but she didn’t blossom as an artist until arriving in California. With her young sons now in school, she worked in watercolours, then began developing a series of large abstracts painted with Magna – an early form of acrylic paint – on unprimed canvas. “The older we got,” Dan recalls, “the more time she had to create art.” Because Magna was solvent-based and therefore produced strong fumes, Irene wore a paint respirator while working and kept her sons out of the studio. She achieved subtle and unexpected effects, generating images inspired by the natural surroundings of her new home. In Peter’s words: “Irene has devised her own vocabulary of visual expression and her own ways of physically achieving these results in a surprisingly spontaneous, yet controlled way.

Irene in her studio, 1970 (photo by Jan Peter Stern)

Peter was also very productive in California, performing many large outdoor pieces. He liked to create works for the outdoors and saw sculpture as something that had to be experienced sequentially: “You walk in it, feel the vibrations of the wind, observe the changes produced by the movement of the sun and the clouds. A monumental group of gracefully curving steel sheets was originally installed in Century City, Los Angeles, then donated to Cal State Northridge. Stored after the 1994 Northridge earthquake damaged surrounding buildings, it was relocated in 2019 near the Fine Arts Complex. Other notable works still on display in California include his curvilinear “Limits of Horizon” at San Francisco’s Embarcadero Center and his elegant 1974 “Untitled (Cubed Square)”, which rises on a slab above a fountain in the Los Angeles Mall.

During the 1970s and early 80s, Peter and Irene both participated in solo and group exhibitions, but they also showed as a couple in Honolulu (1974), Santa Monica (1979) and New York (1983) . After Peter was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in the early 1980s, Irene gradually moved away from creating art to care for him. She found caring for her husband fulfilling and saw it as a season of life. “They fully supported each other,” says their son Dan. Their son Billy adds: “They lived a dance of art and love.”

Peter and Irene sit above the anodized aluminum screen panels of Peter’s “Relief Sculpture V”, a nearly nine-foot sculpture commissioned by Alcoa for their Chicago office, 1968 (photo by Richard Gross)
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