Silvery drips course down over a coal-black background. The intricacies of their passage are achingly beautiful. This is “Wolf Waterfall,” one of four silkscreens from Pat Steir’s extensive “Waterfall” series. Included in “Pat Steir: A View,” a mesmerizing exhibit at Easton’s Academy Art Museum through October 14, it’s a work that hovers between representation and abstraction, and owes its incredibly delicate details to the force of gravity.
A major figure in American art since the 1970s, Steir has worked from many different angles tackling a problem that all painters face—how can mere painting say anything meaningful about something as dynamic, complex and changeable as life itself? One way or another, she’s found that the answer is like a Zen koan: You can’t but yet you can.
Anyone who has ever fallen in love with a painting knows that there’s more to it than just color cleverly applied to a canvas. A work of art feels almost alive. You can talk about the painter’s skill and creativity, but it’s still a mystery how some marks in oil or acrylic can have that spark.
More than 20 years ago, Steir became known for pouring and flinging paint onto canvas, “collaborating” with gravity to create exquisite splashes and drizzles of diaphanous color resembling waterfalls. She had already found notoriety in the late 1970s when she painted a single rose, an image weighted with symbolic content, dead center on a monochromatic canvas, then X-ed it out. It was a way of simultaneously calling out the symbol and negating it. In the years between, having developed an interest in traditional Asian landscape painting, she took to borrowing the subjects of one important artist from Western art history and painting them in the style of another important artist. The title of a painting from 1986 will give you an idea: “The Wave after Courbet as Though Painted by Turner with the Chinese in Mind.”
This restless searching was not as haphazard as it sounds. From her early days as a student at the prestigious Pratt Institute, Steir was in love with art. She found its history, its materials, and its process irresistible. Born in 1940, she is part of the unsettled generation of postmodernist artists constantly calling the conventions of art history into question. Except for six curiously compelling drawings from the early 1970s, this show covers only the past two decades of Steir’s work, but you can get a good idea of her quest from the nearly 30 works on view.
Making art has become something of a spiritual practice for Steir. Like a Japanese master calligrapher, she starts with a breathing meditation and builds her concentration and energy up to the moment when she releases the paint. Through years of practice, she has learned how different pigments and thicknesses of paint will trickle down the canvas. The layers of color are preplanned, but the final image is a matter of the paint’s own physical properties of viscosity and transparency, and their relationship to other layers of paint. Although she owes much to the gestural tradition of Abstract Expressionism (Mark Rothko is a favorite of hers), Steir is a conceptual artist. In keeping with her friend John Cage’s Zen-influenced embrace of chance, she never alters her plan for a painting. Whether or not it works, she learns from it.
Steir’s work can be breathtaking. The vertical fall of ink or tempera in each panel of “Winter Group,” 1991, is spectacularly sensuous as the painter’s gesture flows into rivulets of pigment as naturally as water etches its patterns into sand. The vast canvas, “Valentine” from 2009–11, reaching from the gallery’s baseboard to a sliver short of the ceiling, beams red so forcefully that you get lost in its nuances of crimson, scarlet and candy apple red, even as maroon and shades of orange splash in from either side. Lost that is, until one tiny broken stroke of lichen green right in the middle reminds you it’s just a flat panel of oil paint.
Seduction is not Steir’s aim but considering its implications is part of her agenda. Standing before one of these paintings, feeling its lightness even as you consider how gravity drew the pigment downward, you can easily fall deep into a meditative reverie of inner space, but Steir gleefully reminds you that it’s an illusion.
With the misty spaciousness of a Chinese landscape, gossamer veils of pastel pink and blue laced with gold seep down the surface of “Diptych W,” 2008. But the fairy-tale softness is abruptly counteracted by bold pinstripes in blue, red and black hovering along the edges of its two panels. Even more jarring, showers of gold and silver glitter splash across the canvas. The image flattens, illusion melts, and the painting is revealed as marks on canvas.
“Diptych W” may not be one of Steir’s most comfortable works to spend time with, but it gives an excellent sense of the contradictions inherent in art. In one sense, the artist is creating nothing but a colorful mirage; in another, she’s revealing an experience that might otherwise be unknowable. For Steir, it’s an open-ended process of exploring the enigmatic confluence of matter and spirit.
Curator-led tours of the Pat Steir exhibition will be held on Wednesday, September 19 at 11 a.m. and Friday, October 12 at 1 p.m. For further information, call 410-822-ARTS (2787) or visit: www.academyartmuseum.org.