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Pat Steir: Cheim & Reid.

Pat Steir


Since 1989, Pat Steir has been working in more or less the same manner--splashing her paint and turpentine on the top of her canvases and letting it find its own way back home to earth. "I ... use nature to paint a picture of itself by pouring the paint," she has said, the echo of Jackson Pollock's "I am nature" in the vicinity of the act of pouring undoubtedly no accident. I never much cared for the results, though. Either the colors seemed too blatant, or the space too shallow, or whatever--until now, twenty-five years later, when suddenly artistic process and the phenomenology of looking seem perfectly synced. Persistence counts. Steir's new paintings are magnificent.

Six of the seven paintings that were shown here are square, eleven by eleven feet, and divided into two equal vertical bands. The square's tendency toward equilibrium is thus counterpointed by a distinct sense of vertical force. Meanwhile, the downward drizzle of the paint's track down the canvas--I can't help but think of Lucretius's account of the perpetual downward motion of atoms, deflected only by the aleatory swerves that now and again overtake them--is accompanied by the sense of upward movement lent by the eye's attempt to take the measure of a looming presence of more than human scale. At the same time, the eye's back-and-forth between the two halves, now favoring one, now concentrating on the other, never able to find a stable point of balance, makes sure the whole painting is always coming into presence, never settling back into itself. The show offered just one exception to this schema: Yellow (all works 2013) is tall and extremely narrow (132 by 50 inches), as if it had been extracted from one side of what could have been one of the large square works. It feels as taut as can be, as though it had taken the up/down dialectic of the other paintings' motion to an extreme (this extremism is underlined by its color, which is relatively more forceful than those of most of the other paintings here).

The color in these paintings is generally much more subdued than it's been in many of Steir's previous paintings. Some might say it's become too tasteful; I'd say it's become more complex, more nuanced. And the paintings are strongest where the division between the two halves is most understated (for example, Green, Orange and Mica or Naples Yellow and Mica), weakest where the division is most marked, as in Colors Without Names--even aside from the too-overt invocation of Barnett Newman's zip-where the division of the canvas becomes a definite and, as it were, imposed element rather than a zone of transition, a place where mixtures are recalibrated. Such cavils aside, at their best, these grand, grave, yet agile paintings turn color into a physical experience. Or is it that they turn physical experience into color? In any case, looking at them is like stepping into a waterfall of light. Sometimes the water flows warm, sometimes cool, sometimes both at once--but it always flows strong.

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Author:Schwabsky, Barry
Publication:Artforum International
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:May 1, 2014
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