Pat Steir - Biography and Legacy
Newark, New Jersey, United States
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?"