Born in 1938 in New Jersey, Pat Steir is an American artist who started off as a graphic designer and illustrator before turning to painting. Her work was originally associated with minimalism and conceptual art, but nowadays she is mostly known for her Waterfall paintings—a series of abstract paintings made with a dripping technique which she started in 1988.
The artist studied arts and philosophy at Boston University College of Fine Arts between 1958 and 1960 and graduated from her BFA at New York’s Pratt Institute in 1962. Her work was well received early on. As soon as 1963, Steir was part of the artists invited to exhibit at the High Museum of Atlanta. One year later, she was once more part of group exhibitions at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and at the MoMA in New York, thus quickly becoming part of the first wave of acclaimed female artists in the New York art world and later setting her up for many long term relationships with well-known international galleries. But during the middle of the sixties, Pat Steir still had a few other livelihoods: she worked as a freelance illustrator before securing a job as Art Director at the Harper & Row Publishing Company in New York.
In the early 1970’s, the artist started to teach at several institutions such as Parsons School of Design, Princeton, and later at the California Institute of Arts where she had Ross Bleckner and Amy Sillman—amongst others—as students. Around that time, Steir became acquainted with well-known conceptual artists, such as Sol LeWitt and Lawrence Weiner. She also became friends with artists Mary Heilmann and Joan Jonas, taking part in an improvisational film by Jonas and exhibiting alongside Heilmann and Joan Snyder at the Paley & Lowe gallery. It was also during the early 1970s that Steir first travelled to New Mexico, where she visited the artist Agnes Martin—a trip she would continue to make regularly over the years, until Martin passed in 2004. Steir later stated that meeting Agnes Martin had a profound impact on her, encouraging her to espouse a form of abstraction that was not cut off from reality, but rather informed by it. Little time after, in the mid-1970s, Pat Steir started to showcase the first works she would become renowned for: paintings (on canvas and paper) full of symbols, and in particular of roses crossed out with an “X”. This famous series was inspired by Shakespeare’s aphorism, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet” and Gertrude Stein’s retort, “A rose is a rose is a rose.” But there was also another component to these works: the act of erasure. On the matter, Pat Steir declared: “I wanted to destroy images as symbols. To make the image a symbol for a symbol. I had to act it out, make the image, and cross it out. No imagery, but at the same time endless imagery. Every nuance of paint texture worked as an image.” This series of works is thus emblematic of the artist’s early conceptual experiments on questions of representation and semantics. As practical as it was theoretical, her quest at the time was already bound up with conceptual art and French philosophy. The result was images that went beyond the traditional divide between abstraction and figuration: using identifiable symbols and imagery, Steir steered them away from their initial concrete meaning to repurpose them towards the abstract value of their form.
During these years, Pat Steir also started to produce artworks of a much larger scale, as well as site-specific wall-drawings and installations. Steir’s aim was both to make a three-dimensional experience out of her practice, and to enable the spectator to step into the phenomenological world of painting itself.
In her own words: “Installation allows the artist to paint out of the painting and into space and the viewer to move from space into a painting—the space where the act of painting takes place is in the imagination of the viewer.” By the end of the seventies, Pat Steir was traveling across the United States and Europe, where several galeries were regularly showcasing her work. She became friends with the music composer John Cage, whose propensity to embrace randomness, chaos and accidents within the creative act would resonate with her and soon inform her own practice. In the early eighties, Pat Steir went to Japan for the first time, and thereafter quickly became captivated by Japanese woodcuts and the Chinese Chan Shui (“Mountain-Water”) style of painting, which was more concerned with evoking nature than depicting it a concrete, realistic fashion. Inspired by these considerations, the artist progressively freed herself from conscious considerations of image construction and iconography, as she started to make her process itself the subject of her images.
Coming back to New York in the late 1980’s, Steir started to experiment with drips and splashes of diluted oil paint on canvas. Although this method might superficially bring Jackson Pollock to mind, both Steir’s application of paint and her general intent are quite different. Climbing up a ladder, the artist uses gravity to work vertically on unstretched canvases, rather than laying her works on the ground. But more importantly, the use of chance in a controlled and determined way is made crucial to the practice, in similar fashion to what can be seen in Japanese and Chinese calligraphic arts. Interviewed in The Brooklyn Rail in 2011, Steir explained: “I began looking at Chinese Literati paintings and at Southern Song Dynasty pottery and painting, and I realized that I didn’t have to use the brush, that I could simply pour the paint, that I could use nature to paint a picture of itself by pouring the paint. That gravity would paint my painting with me. I was influenced and inspired by John Cage, his idea of non-intention. Essentially, my whole voyage, from that first painting of a young woman, fighting her way through the paint to now, is a search and an experiment. All of my work is a search and an experiment. I don’t consider anything finished; I think of it as all only a step along the way.”
Profoundly inspired by Taoism and Buddhism, the methods used by Pat Steir thus aim to bridge the gap between performance and result, as well as the traditional dichotomy between figuration and abstraction. With this in mind, one can easily understand why the artist has said to be inspired by both Turner’s seascapes and Hokusai’s landscapes. Far from trying to literally depict the beauty of waterfalls or seascapes, Steir aims at making her canvases spaces charged psychic and transcendent content. By intentionally straying away from the flattened brushwork gestures of the abstract expressionists who had initially inspired her, Pat Steir’s work explores all possibilities of perception in a contemplative manner. Often entitled “Waterfalls”, these paintings are usually considered to be the best works of hers. The following decades, the artist continued to refine her practice through this defining series.
Last but not least, after years of collaboration of the artist with the gallery Lévy Gorvy, big news came in 2022. In September 2022, Hauser & Wirth announced they would henceforth be representing Pat Steir and hosting their first solo show of the artist in November 2022. This excellent news is a testament to the quality of the artist’s work. Entitled “Two Pieces in the Shape of a Pear”, her most recent exhibition at Hauser & Wirth took place between August and September 2023. It was curated by Steir herself as she sought to bring together the new generation of abstract artists who are raising the same questions which are prevalent in her own work. Images by Rashid Johnson, Rita Ackermann, and Avery Singer, amongst others, were on display alongside her own works, in an interesting visual dialogue across various generations. As for Steir’s own works on display, they consisted of some of her acclaimed Waterfalls: the brightly colored yet very elegant paintings once more testified to her ability to subtly renew her visual language whilst keeping what became a trademark of hers.