Pat Steir’s Fluid Reality
There is a notable heaviness present in the galleries of Cheim & Read’s Pat Steir show currently on view in New York. The weightiness is evoked not by any darkness, but by the unique paint application the artist employs in her large-scale canvases, in which she lets gravity dictate the way paint falls, spills, and spatters across the expansive surfaces. Sidestepping any didactic elements in her particular style of feminist practice, Steir instead employs an approach to painting that makes metaphoric references to the leaks, seepages and flows of the female body, seeking to draw out allusions to something that is more random, intuitive, and created by chance circumstances. Rejecting the traditional use of a brush to apply paint, Steir also stands against the myth of the male-artist-as-genius in her choice to abstain from the decisive action of placing paint on surface. Instead, the artist has devised a non-traditional approach, choosing to pour thinned paint from the top of her canvases while they’re vertically mounted on the wall.
Given her affinity for chance and chaos in her process, it is no surprise that Steir was a close friend of artist John Cage, whom she befriended in the 1970s. Cage was known for the use of chance operations in his art, employing a system that was derived in part from an ancient Chinese method for generating random number sequences. He would then use the sequences to make decisions within his works, whether they were his musical scores or the arrangement of elements in his prints.
While preferring a degree of chaos in her large works—some nearly eleven feet on each side—there is also a careful process that the artist has developed over the years, a process that she began honing in the 1980s. Steir begins by priming her canvases, to reduce the brilliant whiteness of the bare surface, and then thins oil paint with linseed oil and turpentine, until they reach a consistency that she deems appropriate for pouring. Within this process, the artist notes that each pigment hue requires different quantities and combinations of additives to reach the desired consistency, since lighter colors tend to be more viscous, and blues tend to be thinner.
The weight and chemical qualities of each pigment also dictate how they appear on the canvas, which the artist builds up in a series of layers. Some colors blend well with previous coats, while others will create an opaque screen, concealing the colors poured before it. In addition, the process of building these layers is an extremely time-consuming and meditative part of Steir’s practice, even while the initial act of dumping paint from buckets may seem like a quick way to cover a canvas. The artist’s compositions often take up to a year to produce, as she allows each layer to dry completely between pours, a process that can take several weeks. In this way, the edges of her canvases are especially revealing, as they show traces of each layer, thus functioning as an index of time, much like the rings from cross sections of a tree.
Indeed, the reference to trees in the case of Steir’s paintings is quite apt. Built up from layers and layers of paint, the surfaces of each work initially seem flat and consistent, as the thinned paint tends to dry with a variegated texture that is so faint, it requires a careful, close looking. Once sought, this texture reveals itself as one not unlike the bark of a tree, the surface of skin, or the undulating patterns of sand in a dry riverbed. These references to the corporeal and to landscape are appropriate, playing on the artist’s intentional evocations of the female body, as well as to traditional Chinese landscape painting, a connection that goes along with her Cage-ian regard for chance operations. What’s more, they create a sensory experience for viewers walking among the immense canvases, as we ourselves become figures within the expansive landscapes—adding a final layer to the paintings the artist has produced.
Born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1940, Steir studied graphic arts at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where she received her BFA in 1962. During the 1960s, Steir also worked as a freelance book cover designer and as an art director at the New York publishing house Harper & Row, and has also been involved with feminist magazines such as Heresies and Semio-Text. In 1964, Steir had her first solo exhibition at the Terry Dintenfass Gallery, New York, and has shown nationally and internationally since then, including in shows at the Whitney Museum, New York; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; The National Gallery, Washington D.C.; and the Tate Gallery, London. The artist currently lives and works in New York.
Pat Steir is on view at Cheim & Read in New York through March 29th.
Nadiah Fellah is a doctoral student of Art History at the Graduate Center, CUNY in New York.