There is a moving new intensity to the seven huge paintings, produced over the past three years, in Pat Steir’s recent exhibition. Through years of working with what is essentially a simple idea—that of pouring layers of paint (either from a container or off the edge of a brush) directly onto the canvas—Steir has acquired not only a certain sagacity but also a palpable poetic conviction. Having early on internalized John Cage’s chance operations and Sol LeWitt’s procedural rigor, Steir has progressed steadily with her own vision and innovations.
For years, Steir gave us many expansive “Waterfall” paintings evoking mist and rain, moody and always beautiful. Now the proof is in the pudding, so to speak: she seems to have made a breakthrough in her recipe. Though she still follows the notion of a laissez-faire procedure in composing her paintings, she constantly tweaks the proportion of pigment to medium. Her skeins of oil paint are now possessed of a relaxed simplicity, while coloristically they have grown more complicated. Just as an expert chef will “add some salt,” Steir’s exact recipe cannot be pinned down—but it does matter. She might use a layer of thin green paint, but the exact green and degree of thinness (which she has learned to intuit) makes all the difference between a masterful move and just dumping some thin stuff on. Steir exemplifies the old rule that the best painters are always engaged in a learning process, at which they almost always get better.
Each of the paintings in this exhibition, save one, is composed on a single canvas panel around 11 feet square, and generally presents a central vertical division that gives the impression of a diptych. Dark Green, Red and Silver compiles a very dark green (perhaps viridian) on the left side and a rising metallic curtain of silver over a lighter green (perhaps sap) on the right. The red of the title is felt more than seen and lies beneath some of the green layers and perhaps a thin layer of silver. Mysteries in the layering are sometimes decoded at the central division, where the colors come together to form the compositional bifurcation, or at the edges in shadows and slivers. Dark and light play off each other again in Red, Green, Blue and Gold, which appears to be almost black on the left and a rich and varied gold on the right. The titular red and blue are intoned rather than explicit. The exception among the paintings was Valentine, a slightly smaller (approx. 10-by-9-foot), solid and complex red inflected with a darker red at the left edge and orange at the right. The complementary and contrasting colors in all the works produce in them a strong physical and seemingly magical power. This is painting in a grand tradition.
Photo: Pat Steir: Dark Green, Red and Silver, 2009-11, oil on canvas, 131 5⁄8 by 132 inches; at Cheim & Read.
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.]