Summary of Pat Steir
Torrents of thick, white paint cascade over the rich black surfaces of Pat Steir's best-known, monumentally scaled canvases, evoking the sublime forces of the natural world. Although references to the Abstract Expressionist painters, particularly Jackson Pollock, are perhaps unavoidable, the New York-based artist's inspirations are not what one might expect when viewing her technique of drips, washes, and thrown splashes of paint. Instead, it was the impact of her personal relationships with Conceptual artist Sol LeWitt, Minimalist Agnes Martin, and avant-garde composer John Cage that would prove most influential. Through these connections, Steir was introduced to ideas of process art, Zen Buddhism, and the techniques of yipin, or Chinese "ink splashing." Her mature painting technique is an amalgamation of these diverse influences, a synthesis of action and non-action, through which she embraces the dichotomy of choice and chance as the basis of her work.
- There is an ongoing tension between figuration and abstraction in Steir's early work . This culminated in the early 1970s, the decade painting was famously declared "dead," and Minimalism competed with Conceptual art as the prevailing art world trends. Nevertheless, Steir forged her identity as an experimental painter with her series of rose paintings, employing conflicting methods of figuration and gestural abstraction while seeking, in the artist's words, "to destroy images as symbols."
- The Waterfall paintings represent a harmonic synthesis of control and chance, as Steir's layers of dripping painting simultaneously represent the concept and physical structure of its subject. In this series, Steir inherently challenges dominant theories of Abstract Expressionism, as the interaction preserved on the canvas is not solely the action between the artist and her materials, but instead focuses on natural processes, using "nature to paint a picture of itself."
- The artistic principles of Chinese aesthetics play an important role in Steir's approach to painting. Of particular influence is the author Françoise Cheng, who writes, "nature is no longer a passive entity. If we regard it, it regards us as well." For Steir, who has increasingly questioned image making and thus sought to remove herself from the process of painting throughout her career, succumbing to these natural forces is what she describes as "the spiritual aspect of the work."
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
Biography of Pat Steir
Pat Steir was born Iris Patricia Sukoneck in 1940 in Newark, New Jersey, the eldest daughter of a Russian-Jewish immigrant family. Her father, would had also aspired to be an artist, instead worked in several art-related businesses, including silk-screening, window displays, and neon sign design. Steir recalls knowing she wanted to be an artist or a poet from the age of five, later giving up a scholarship to study English as Smith College to pursue a degree in art instead. When she was growing up, she often visited the Philadelphia Museum of Art. She says "I would sit on the floor with my coat and my books and an apple, and then I'd get chased out. The guard would always say, 'You've got to go,' but then I'd go back." She concludes that after a while, they stopped chasing her away, "They'd just say, 'there's that kid again.'"
Education and Early Training
Torn between her interest in art and the security of a college scholarship to Smith College to study English, Steir turned to the principal of her high school, who happened to play chamber music at Pratt Institute, for advice. Shortly thereafter, an interview was arranged with the chairman of the department of graphic arts and illustration at the university, whereupon she was accepted, with a scholarship, into the program. Steir attended the Pratt Institute in New York from 1956-1958, where she developed a strong interest in graphic design, illustration, printmaking, and typography.
Following her marriage to a high school friend Merle Steir in 1958, she moved to Boston where she briefly attended School of the Museum of Fine Arts, before transferring to Boston University College of Fine Arts where she studied painting and comparative literature from 1958-1960. She returned to Pratt and earned a BFA degree in 1962. At Pratt, she was most influenced by her teachers Adolph Gottlieb, Richard Lindner, and Philip Guston. She says of Lindner, "He was able to encourage students to use their lives and dreams as subject matter."
After graduating, Steir immediately began to show her art publicly, appearing in her first group show at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia in 1962. Her first solo exhibition was at the Terry Dintenfass Gallery, New York, just two years later. Around the same time (1962-1966), she also worked in New York as an illustrator and a book designer. Then from 1966-1969, she worked as an art director at Harper & Row publishing company in New York. She left that position when Diane Arbus quit her job at the Parsons School for Design at Princeton University, and asked Steir if she would like to apply for the job.
Steir met Marcia Tucker, who had recently been named Curator of Painting and Sculpture at the Whitney Museum of American Art, in 1969. Tucker introduced her to the women's movement and many fellow artists working in New York. Steir says "I was amazed, shocked, and thrilled to find hundreds of women who felt trapped as I did by the very real limitations of society and government on women." She continues, "I was struggling with my conflicts and I had no idea that other women were having the same struggles. It was simply thought that women were not qualified to be artists and thinkers. It seemed to me I had to choose between being a normal ordinary woman or an artist."
In the early 1970s, after a dinner with Marcia Tucker and artist Bruce Nauman, she traveled to California to view the latter's retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). An introduction to John Baldessari led to a lecture at the California Institute of the Arts, who put up flyers reading "Somewhat famous artist is here." Steir was invited to teach, and continued at CalArts until 1975; her students included Ross Bleckner, David Salle, and Amy Sillman.
During her stay at Nauman's house in Pasadena, she first met Conceptual artist Sol LeWitt, who would become an important influence for the artist. She recalls, "He taught me not to judge a work while you're making it. That whole abstract expressionist struggle - fighting with the paint, having a hard time, thinking, 'This painting is killing me!' He didn't believe in all that." Around this time, she also met art writer Douglas Crimp, who invited her to join him on a trip to New Mexico to visit Minimalist painter Agnes Martin, whom she had previously met in New York with Bob Fledman, owner of Parasol Press. Steir continued to visit Martin every August for over 30 years until Martin's death in 2004. From Martin, she learned the importance of investing the artist's spirit into the art object. Steir says "I wanted to be a great artist, again not in slang in someone who is great. But in the fantastic, reaching the soul of other people."
Mature Period and Current Work
The early 1970s marks a turning point in Steir's career, beginning with her 1973 solo exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington DC. The series of rose paintings she began in California, such as Nothing (1974), earned much critical success leading to continued exhibition opportunities at commercial galleries and university spaces across the United States and abroad. In 1975, she visited Crown Point Press in Oakland with LeWitt before traveling with him to France and Germany, subsequently returning to New York in 1975. Over the next few years, Steir's former experience in publishing proved invaluable, as she collaborated with LeWitt and art critic Lucy Lippard as a founding Board Member of the publication Printed Matter (1976), which was establish to publish and promote artists' books, which unlike a typical catalogue or art publication, are considered as works of art themselves. During this period, she was also a founding board member of the feminist journal Heresies, and Semiotext(e), which describes its mission as "publishing works of theory, fiction, madness, economics, satire, sexuality, science fiction, activism and confession." She returned to Crown Point Press in 1977 for the first of numerous collaborations with Kathan Brown, ultimately publishing over 100 prints there including a rare collaboration with the "playful, funny, serious and hardworking" avant-garde artist and composer John Cage.
The introduction to Cage through Kathan Brown in 1980 proved revolutionary to Steir's artistic development. It was Cage's reliance upon chance as an artistic device (a choice which Martin actually strenuously disagreed with) that opened a new direction for Steir. Brown recounts Steirs description in a 2012 interview, "For my work now, I have set up a little system that involves chance. Chance is like a partner, an amusing partner: we'll make something and see what happens." Stephen Addiss, pupil and colleague of Cage, introduced Steir to Chinese yipin "ink-splashing," a technique developed in the 8th and 9th centuries. However, much of the initial concept was lost when the ideas first related as "thrown-ink painting began in the third century." She recalls, "I looked everywhere for it, I didn't understand what it was because I couldn't find it. That was because thrown ink meant broken line, not traditional painting. The artists didn't actually throw the ink. I was influenced by the idea of throwing the ink but it was just a misunderstanding. I think a lot of art comes about through misunderstanding." Most famously for Steir, this confusion led to her experiments with dripping, splashing, and pouring paint onto canvas, as evidenced in her Waterfall series. In these works, she focuses on relinquishing control of the final product and leaving it up to the whims of gravity and viscosity.
Steir has won numerous awards for her work. In 1991, Steir received an honorary doctorate from her alma mater, Pratt Institute, with Alumni honors from both Pratt and Boston Univerisity in 2002. Anne Waldman, who interviewed Steir at her Chelsea loft for Bomb Magazine in 2003 says, "Steir is incredibly down-to-earth, however. Smart, savvy, witty, with a penchant for common sense and the torqued remark. There's no fussiness or pretension in her identity."
The Legacy of Pat Steir
Steir's current representative, Dominique Lévy of Lévy Gorvy gallery in New York describes how "[s]he is, in a way, a painter, but she's also an incredible conceptual artist. It's like she allows the paint to do the work." Indeed, Steir is a strongly process-driven painter. She says "I think of painting as a research. I'm not a product-maker. I'm a researcher." Her signature drip-style painting emerged from a desire to demonstrate that painting, too, can be conceptual. This drip-painting technique can be seen in the work of later artists, such as French street artist Zevs, who creates "liquidated logos" on billboard and storefronts, by overapplying paint and allowing it to drip down from corporate logos such as Chanel and McDonalds.
Lévy also says of Steir "I think she's a source of inspiration for a lot of young artists, and for many woman painters. It's that commitment to the visceral process and the paint. She stayed faithful to paint, which is incredibly rare. Very few artists have committed to paint." Steir also recognizes that she was able to find success at a time when few other women artists were. She says that "when [Art Historian] Thomas McEvilley looked at the Bruegel painting: he said I was like one woman with paintbrushes beating on the door of history, saying, 'Let me in, let me in!' But it's true. I'm not the only one; a few in my generation made it through. And now, it's actually a woman's world, painting. It's filled with women. But how many of us as females will be able to sustain ourselves, have an audience and sustain the audience?"
Influences and Connections
- David Salle
- Ross Bleckner
- Amy Sillman