Important Art by Pat Steir
This Self Portrait is one of the first paintings that Steir completed while attending Boston University. The central character, a female nude, recalls the style of Cézanne, an early influence of the artist. She is a study in opposites, with arms tied back and legs twisted in a profile position, giving the impression of both conflict and motion. The stance also evokes ancient Egyptian figuration, and a nod to the artist's maternal ancestral roots. On her lower abdomen, is a small mysterious flame. The black background, interrupted with a roughly hewn blue stripe edged in white, contrasts with the smooth, uniform rendering of the figure. The paint itself becomes the antagonist. These aggressive brushstrokes threaten to engulf the figure, wrapping around her arms and legs, as if the paint itself is attempting to constrict or bury her.
At its core, this painting is about struggle. It becomes a metaphor for the social pressures she faced as a young female artist, and the formal conflict between abstraction and representation. In a 2011 interview with The Brooklyn Rail, Steir recalls the work as a "picture of a female fighting her way through the atmosphere of paint, smooth paint, rough paint. It's me struggling with the profound desire to be an artist, and the desire to make my mark." Steir continues, "When I was growing up here in America in the '40s and '50s, we were fed the idea that there was a choice to be made between work and family, that a woman could not do/be both. You see in the painting the little fire in her belly, conflict of desires - the desire to step out in the world alone to be what I am, and the desire to be an ordinary, acceptable woman in my family's eyes."
Oil on canvas
This rectangular painting is vertically divided down the center into two squares. On the left, a black silhouette of a rose stands against a mottled beige background, contrasting sharply with the crudely painted horizontal grey rectangles, resembling bricks, covering the right panel. Each image is crossed out by a large "X," appearing almost as if squeezed directly from the tube of paint onto the surface of the canvas. This work represents the early conflict between mimetic and expressionist forms of representation.
Steir created the rose paintings during the early 1970s, during her brief tenure teaching at the experimental CalArts program. In these nearly monochromatic canvases the symbol of the rose was both painted and crossed out. The frequent symbol evokes both Shakespeare's famous line, "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet" and Gertrude Stein's infamous quote, "A rose is a rose is a rose." The titles for this series directly reference lines from T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets, which offer poetic meditations on themes also prevalent in Steir's work, namely the relationship between man, the universe, and time.
For the artist, this act of effacement was an effort to move beyond a reliance on figurative imagery. This series of work also grounded Steir in a semiotic dialogue, deconstructing the relationship between the signifier and signified, the symbols and that which it represents. This exploration was both theoretical and personal, examining the artist's potential role as both a maker and destroyer of images, symbols, and meaning. In the context of her career, the crossed out symbols can be understood as a metaphor for her decision to turn away from figurative representation toward conceptual abstraction.
Oil on canvas
Bruegel Series (A Vanitas of Style)
To make this monumental 20-by-16-foot painting, Steir divided the image into a grid of 64 rectangles. The subject, a vase with a bouquet of flowers, is a direct reference to the Baroque tradition of vanitas paintings, which often served as metaphors for the temporality of life. The artist described, "Historically, each flower in a vanitas painting depicted a vanity, that is, an aspect of mortality." The style, however, is quite unusual as Steir painted each individual canvas in a different artistic style, depending on the contents of that section. For example, the edge of a table is transformed into an ethereal Rothko-style composition while the floral units might employ the visual strategies associated with Impressionism; each a product of intense study.
Steir began The Bruegel Series as an investigation of postmodernism, and in the artist's words, "to try to discover if we were in the postmodern time," later realizing that the very question and her method of critique was, itself, a postmodern action. She organized her inquiry by breaking the vanitas image into a grid, the rigid emblem of modernism in Western art history. The symbolism of this structure is rooted in the geometric abstraction of Cubism and the myriad styles that followed, each declaring themselves to be of the present, and a symbol of artistic progress. The end result of Steir's exploration is a postmodern pastiche of artistic styles. Using the grid to explore and organize a seemingly arbitrary sequence of artistic styles, becomes a postmodern critique of the linear notion of progress associated with the modern period. Through this action, Steir deconstructs, or levels, the implied hierarchies within this evolution. Ultimately, each style becomes a symbol of the past, and a metaphor of its own vanitas.
Oil on canvas
Dragon Tooth Waterfall
Pat Steir rose to fame with her iconic Waterfall paintings. Begun in 1989, the paintings are characterized by strong, horizontal bars placed near the top of the canvas created with thick, impasto applications of paint, from which the paint drips downward. This technique allowed Steir to address several key concerns, including: nature, temporality, materiality, and illusionism. It also represents an exploration of the painting process and time, inspired by Steir's friend and mentor, Conceptual artist Sol LeWitt. Just as LeWitt emphasized the process and concept over notions of artistic technical ability, Steir purposely removed any evidence of artistic gesture allowing for the element of chance instead.
Steir's Waterfall paintings were equally influenced by her interest in Chinese yipin, or "ink-splash" painting, introduced to her by a student of John Cage. Through an initial misinterpretation of the term's meaning, Steir began to throw, and subsequently pour paint onto the canvas. Although she determined the initial places of the paint on the canvas, she ultimately allowed the elemental forces, particularly time, gravity, and the materiality of the paint, to determine the final image. The act of letting go provided a deeply spiritual experience for the artist, one that washes over the viewer like the waterfalls abstractly referenced in these paintings.
The dripping paint of Steir's Waterfall series inevitably invites comparisons to the gestural abstractions of Jackson Pollock. Although visually similar, each artist developed their own distinct method of approaching the canvas. While Pollock would throw and fling paint while circling an unstretched canvas lying on the ground, Steir stands atop a cherry picker to reach the top of her towering compositions and drip paint onto a canvas tacked to a wall. Beyond technique, there is also a fundamental difference between the objectives of each artist. While Pollock's abstraction was rooted in ideas associated with expressionism and artistic gesture, Steir's work is grounded in the conceptual, balancing the notion of human interaction with the element of chance and other natural processes.
Oil on canvas
The Nearly Endless Line
For this site-specific installation at the Sue Scott Gallery in New York, Steir moved from the canvas to the walls of the gallery. Steir and a team of assistants painted the interior walls from top to bottom in a rich blue-black color, interrupted with a continuous white line snaking around the gallery rooms at eye level. The gestural quality of the erratic line ranged in quality from dripping wet to dry brushstrokes streaked across the dark, velvety background as it meandered through the gallery.
Upon entering the gallery, viewers found themselves inside of the work, immersed within the darkened gallery, lit only with a blue light. The line, glowing an electric blue, becomes a path to follow, leading the participants from room to room, and eventually back to where they began. The work seemingly hearkens to the artist's own beginnings, but now transforms the viewer into the figure of the artist's early self-portrait, whose movements were also confined to a similar blue stripe. Steir is particularly interested in transforming the traditional relationship between the viewer and work, stating "Installation allows the artist to paint out of the painting and into space and the viewer to move from space into a painting - the space where the act of painting takes place is in the imagination of the viewer." Steir embraces conceptualism by emphasizing the viewer's experience, rather than the painted object, as the true content of her work.
In this painting, a vivid orange line cleaves down the center of an icy blue panel. It appeared alongside eleven similar paintings in Steir's Kairos show at the Lévy Gorvy Gallery in 2017. All of the works in the show were organized around a central vertical line, making it impossible not to compare the Kairos paintings to the totemic works of Barnett Newman. However, while Newman painted fields on unmodulated color with crisply articulated vertical stripes (known as his "zips"), Steir's paintings are complex mottled surfaces in which the colors are exposed from beneath rather than layered upon.
Each of the works in the Kairos series explores strikingly different color combinations, yet share a palette dominated by earthy colors. Steir's interest in color is related to its physical properties and her desire to express the nuance of light and its affect on the human psyche. Rather than mixing colors herself, Steir layers the various colors directly on the canvas, with certain layers drying at different speeds, and therefore cracking to reveal the multiple layers of color underneath. This process of layering can take several days, even weeks, as she must allow each layer to dry before pouring the next one. Describing what she has called a "chaotic plan," she says, "each pigment has a weight and, of course, some pigments are heavier than others, so the weight of the pigment affects the tone of the final product. The color that you end up with is what the transparent layers of paint make, one on top of the other." She continues, "The way colors mix and the way they touch each other explains the world to me like mathematics explains the world to a physicist."
Oil on canvas