On ViewSue Scott Gallery
November 10, 2010 – January 9, 2011
It’s one thing to understand the empiricist philosophers’ notion that the observed and the observer cannot really be separated, quite another to vivify it through visual art. But in The Nearly Endless Line, a new installation at Sue Scott Gallery, Pat Steir does just that, with both subtlety and force. A mildly agitated, wide white line snakes around the walls of the darkened gallery at eye level. The walls themselves, painted with layers of flat, burnished blue-black paint, seem to recede like a dark sea into the night, while the line, lit with blue light (a technique she has used before), appears to hover untethered in the space. But at no point can viewers see the whole line, so they must follow it through the gallery, into the back room, and ultimately back to the beginning. At once a path forward and a record of the past, the line is painted with an elegantly brushy stroke that intermittently loops back on itself to form knotty snarls and kinks. Walking through the darkened space, observers find themselves inside Steir’s painting, where they become part of the illusion she has created with paint and light. The “nearly endless line” scans convincingly as life itself.
Steir is a distinguished veteran of the art world, and counts Joan Snyder, Mary Heilmann, Robert Mangold, Sylvia Plimack Mangold, Elizabeth Murray, and Brice Marden as her peers. She worked her way up through the ranks during a time when women’s work received little critical attention. That’s not to say she suffered prolonged obscurity: two years after receiving her B.F.A. from Pratt in 1962, she had her first solo show at Terry Dintenfass Gallery, albeit when it was in a garden apartment on East 67th Street. And yet, even though her paintings, after decades of steady artistic output, are represented in the permanent collections of all the major museums—the National Gallery of Art, the Whitney, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim, and more—they are rarely on display. This is a shame, for her body of work manifests both thematic consistency and aesthetic growth—two qualities that are not easy for an artist to achieve and maintain over the course of 50 years.
Steir has done so by combining conceptual discipline with a kind of calculated operational indulgence. “In my paintings, I always start with a set of limitations and then I let chaos take over,” Steir told me at Sue Scott as the installation was being completed. “Chaos is the system for my work.” Of course, chaos is relative. As we looked at images of other installation projects and paintings she had completed over the years, I learned that, by that term, Steir simply means unexpected painterly incidents like drips, blots, bleeds, and splashes. She has developed a simple but distinctive visual vocabulary with which she has explored the nature of image-making, paint handling, abstraction, narrative, and their thorny contradictions. For instance, her early mimetically painted images of flowers and birds, framed by penciled grids, paint swatches, and tonal scales, struck me as an incisively beautiful study of the contradiction between image making and the physical reality of paint.
Steir spent several years as a book designer, and the paintings from the ?60s are reminiscent of mechanical paste-ups and printer’s proofs in which color bars and registration marks surround the images before the sheets are folded and trimmed to size. She sees the early works as maps in which the surrounding grids, marks, and painted swatches are legends that reveal the artifice of the painter’s tricks and process. In subsequent pieces, while she continued to take her cue from the same set of postulations, she took a more intuitive direction, letting the process of painting itself shape her images rather than depicting those ideas with analytic discipline.
Steir’s best-known motif is the thick, horizontal, dripping brushstroke, which she stumbled upon in 1987 while she was working on a series of paintings with wave imagery. Steir recognized that her discovery of the overloaded dripping line elegantly addressed all of her ongoing concerns: nature, temporality, materiality, illusion, and the process of painting. This revelation prompted the extensive “Waterfall” series of large-scale paintings, which she made by hurling washes of black and white paint onto the top portion of the canvas and letting them drip to the bottom to create the illusion of waterfalls. The “Waterfall” paintings continued into 2000, but Steir worked concurrently on installation projects (some were recreations of earlier projects) that incorporated more diverse elements, including figurative fragments, primary color, sculptural objects, and graphic symbols from Celtic lore.
What shines through all of Steir’s work is an acknowledgement of restrictive standards and of art’s ability to transcend them. Although she will be mounting a solo show in February of new paintings at Cheim & Read, Steir wants to continue making installation projects, which for her constitute satisfying struggles against presumed architectural limitations. Toward the end of our conversation, I asked her what had been the best period of her career. “I can’t say. I would really have to think about that,” she said. “It’s too mixed up with my life, it would be depressing. Life isn’t easy.” If it were, the work might not be so compelling.