Vito Schnabel Gallery presents Pat Steir: Paintings, the gallery’s first exhibition with the acclaimed American artist Pat Steir. Extending the aesthetic investigations of her hallmark Waterfall paintings of the late 1980s and 1990s, the exhibition features ten new paintings from her recent Split series, which are distinguished by a central vertical ‘split.’ These works further her exploration of gravity, time, and fluidity, and speak to a profound refinement in the arc of the artist’s nearly six-decade career. The exhibition will also feature a painting made in 2013 from the same series.
Pat Steir came to prominence in the New York art world of the 1970s. Featured in a 1964 ‘Drawing’ exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art, she was known as one in a growing cadre of female artists gaining recognition on the scene. Coming of age on the heels of Abstract Expressionism and the New York School, she made work that navigated the artistic considerations of the history of painting and included iconic symbols and motifs alongside grids of color and journalistic notations that posed questions about representation and the artifice of painting itself. In other distinct bodies of work, she formally quoted art historical predecessors, including the Northern Renaissance master Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Leonardo da Vinci, the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai, and Gustave Courbet, before relinquishing literal and figurative forms to focus instead on the relationships between gesture, color, and line. In the decades that followed, Steir worked tirelessly, pushing against contemporary currents and the factions of her peers, to define a cerebral painterly dialect and cement a vision in the language of abstraction that is distinctively her own.
Steir’s practice thrives on the tension and interplay of rigor and chance, rooted in a conceptual approach that shares affinities with a younger generation of postmodern artists and those of her Minimal and Conceptual peers. Her close friendships with Agnes Martin, Sol LeWitt, and John Cage were immensely influential in her artistic pursuits of the 1970s and 1980s, and they energized her evolution toward a looser, more performative approach to painting. The procedural system that her mature work adopts reflects her adaptation of ideas and methodologies she discovered in the work of Sol LeWitt and vanguard composer John Cage. Steir developed a simple set of rules which she applied to her process of making: to not touch the canvas, to select her paint colors and dilutions, to pour or throw the paint from the top of vertically hung canvases, to apply each color separately, and to work in layers. Under the influence of Cage, who openly embraced chance, chaos, and accident in his performances and musical scores, Steir established parameters of action, surrendering herself to gravity, and liberating herself from decisions of image-making. By allowing the chance-directed path of her ‘paint pours’ to express its own materiality, she sought to disassociate paint from gesture and gesture from expression, allowing the image to manifest itself.
The Split paintings on view in St. Moritz also bridge a spiritual and poetic sensibility indebted to her relationship with Eastern philosophical thought. In her youth, Steir studied Chinese and Japanese art, and similarly shared with John Cage and Agnes Martin, a mindset that celebrated Zen practices and incorporated Buddhist and Taoist ideas. Ceding the control of her pours and allowing nature to dictate her compositions, lush washes and richly colored monochromatic veils become enveloping tableaus.
Works such as Orange (2018) and Orange One (2018) flex Steir’s virtuoso expertise and technical dexterity of color. While her painting process yields to spontaneous creation, her deep knowledge of pigments allows Steir to manipulate and play with their masses and weights, predicting which tones will surface and recede. Layering colors one on top of another, these canvases give way to the possibilities of tonal textures and depths, expressing the vibrancy or restraint in the range of a single hue.
In White and White (2018), a black fissure cascades down the center of the canvas, bisecting the white ground with energy radiating from its seam. The viewer becomes transfixed by the tonal oppositions created between the two halves: to the left, a cool and serene plane of winter white evokes the feeling of snow; to the right, silver drips reveal themselves as cracks in the layer of white pigment, glistening with radiance in a loose abstract field. The canvas is dually reminiscent of Chinese literati paintings in which visceral and contemplative landscapes emerge, shaped by meditation and experiences of nature retained in the mind.
While Steir has employed ‘drip’ and ‘pour’ techniques since the 1980s to varying degrees, paintings such as Red (2018) thrust her late practice to challenging and arousing new heights. Here, the ‘split’ in her canvas is minimal, no longer dividing, cleaving, or severing the composition into two equal expanses of color. Instead, paint is poured over a broader stretch of the canvas, with thick layers of rich crimson blanketing the surface in a singular expression of raw materiality. Removing herself further from the image, the marks that permeate Steir’s surfaces evince the sole viscosity and density of the paint rather than the artist’s own hand.
About Pat Steir
Pat Steir was born in 1940 in Newark, New Jersey. She studied art and philosophy at Boston University and received her BFA from the Pratt Institute in 1962. She is a founding board member of Printed Matter Inc., New York; the feminist journal, Heresies; and Semiotext(e).