Newark, New Jersey, United States
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."
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.'"
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.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Pat Steir
- Pat SteirBy Raphael Rubinstein
- Pat SteirBy Thomas McEvilley
- Pat Steir WaterfallsBy Holland Cotter
- Pat Steir: Prints 1976-1988By Julie Willi
- Dazzling Water, Dazzling LightBy Pat Steir, John Yau, and Barbara Weidle
- PAT STEIR: The Rhythm of SilenceBy Doris Von Drathan
- Kiki Smith Wrote Pat Steir a Fan Letter 30 Years Ago. Today, the Artists Reflect on Their Enduring—and Inspiring—FriendshipBy Taylor Dafoe / ArtNet News / October 18, 2019
- After Decades of Slow and Steady, Pat Steir's Market Is Now Moving at a Breakneck PaceBy Eileen Kinsella / ArtNet News / September 28, 2017
- In conversation: Pat Steir and Phong BuiThe Brooklyn Rail / March 4, 2011
- Pat Steir Paints a PaintingBy Hilarie M. Sheets / ArtNews / November 7, 2012
- Pat SteirBy Anne Waldman / Bomb magazine / April 1, 2003
- Pat Steir and Agnes Martin: No PretensionsAn excerpt form a memoir in progress / By Kathan Brown / Crown Point Press Newsletter / April 2012