Pat Steir is best known today for her “Waterfalls,” a series of physically com­manding paintings that can reach 37 feet in length. Composed of sweeping brush­strokes and impossibly long pours, the images seem to arise effortlessly from what look like cascading sprays. Less known is Steir’s dedication to parsing and indexing line and gesture. “Pat Steir: Drawing Out of Line,” a 40-year survey, offers a wonderful overview of Steir’s engagement with the fundamental com­ponents of picture-making.

At RISD, “Drawing Out of Line” contained over 60 drawings, prints and paintings, loosely grouped by decade and handsomely installed in the museum’s new wing. The outlier to the chronological survey was Self-Portrait: An Installation, a site-specific wall drawing first produced for the New Museum in 1987 and re-created here. Covering all sides of the foyer, the work is a room-size meditation on the variet­ies of mark-making and their attendant meanings. Three layers—an atmospheric ground built up of small circular strokes, a large red pencil grid and, last, row upon row of enormous eyes, ears and mouths (after physiognomic illustrations in old drawing manuals)—add up to a witty diagram of the self.

Works from the early ’70s reveal an artist fully absorbed in the relationship between written language and draw­ing. Steir took a discursive approach, mapping her own subjectivity through a seemingly “neutral” assemblage of let­ters, numbers, symbols and pictures. Like her contemporaries Hanne Darboven and Jennifer Bartlett, Steir used the grid as a kind of two-way scrim through which either text or image converts to sign. Mixing scribbles, hatch marks and text with delicate renderings of male and female genitalia, flowers and dogs, Steir both emphasized and obfuscated the phe­nomenology of describing and naming.
As she moved into the ’80s, Steir stripped her drawings and prints of picto­graphic touchstones, and focused instead on the expressive qualities of handwrit­ing and diagrammatic marks. Unlike the plain typography favored by her friend Sol LeWitt and other male Conceptual artists, Steir’s text drawings consist of the fancy flourishes of a girl trained in the Palmer Method of penmanship. By the mid-’80s, the interrogative, literary sensibility that had previously characterized her work disappeared. A feeling of urgency arose as she shifted toward the kinetic and emotional potential of drawing. Mural-size works from 1985-86 can barely contain great slashing strokes, manic scribblings and exploded script.

The artist returned to some of her earliest concerns in the ’90s but with a breathtaking material richness, simplic­ity and ease. In the “February Series” and other drawings, the hatchwork and daubs of ink that once seemed to register anxieties and obsessions are transformed into forceful, capacious strokes and pours that appear to mark time. Steir’s extended investigation comes full circle in an elegant suite of untitled works from 2008. On each long, narrow scroll, Steir makes a single, wide stroke that surges down the length of white paper. In the wake of inky blackness, each gesture catches its own unique glittery constel­lation of gold flecks and graphite dust. It’s the raw energy of drawing.

[“Drawing Out of Line” is at the Neuberger Musem of Art, Purchase, N.Y., through Dec. 19.]