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Pat Steir

American Painter

Pat Steir Photo

Born: April 10, 1940 - Newark, New Jersey, United States

"I'm making something that wasn't there before. I've always liked being an oil painter, attached to the mythology and the magic of making something that relates to history, that has a history, an image of space that is simultaneously flat and deep."

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.

Key Ideas

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."
Pat Steir Photo

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.'"

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