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."
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.
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.