PAT STEIR: Kairos
LÉVY GORVY | SEPTEMBER 7 – OCTOBER 21, 2017
Kairos, the title of Pat Steir’s most recent exhibition at Lévy Gorvy, is taken from an Ancient Greek word that refers to the right or opportune moment for action. This title highlights the combination of chance and careful planning that has shaped Steir’s work since around 1990. Before beginning a painting, Steir decides which colors to use, and in what order they will be applied. She then drips or pours layers of paint from the top edge of the canvas, allowing it to run down to the floor. The dense skeins of color that result are governed as much by chance and gravity as by Steir’s understanding of how specific pigments will behave. Each batch of paint is diluted with linseed oil and turpentine derivative, allowing it to flow freely across the canvas, but every layer must dry completely before the next is applied. For this reason a single painting can take over a year to complete. Steir does not deviate from her systematic plan during the often protracted execution of the work.
The composition of the works included in Kairos emphasize an underlying order: the vertical center axis of the canvas is always highlighted. In some cases this means dividing the canvas into two contrasting halves. Interior Forest (2016), for example, maintains a sense of precarious equilibrium in the confrontation of opposed silver and black fields. More often, Steir uses dramatic linear passages to bisect her paintings. This technique is best illustrated by Angel (2016-17), whose expansive, and relatively consistent, pale field is interrupted by a central stripe in vivid orange.
The vertical stripes that appear so frequently in Kairos recall the work of Barnett Newman and the ‘zips’ of his signature style. In general, the legacy of Abstract Expressionism is felt powerfully in Steir’s work. Although her decision to begin pouring and dripping paint in the late 1980s was partially inspired by Chinese ink painting, it was also meant as a rejoinder to Jackson Pollock’s masculine gestural theatrics. Skeptical of the fetishized subjectivity associated with Abstract Expressionism, in her Waterfall series Steir forced Pollock’s calligraphic drip—the best-known of gestural abstraction’s visual devices—into the service of representation. And by emphasizing the role of chance over her own intentionality or intervention, Steir short-circuited the traditional description of the drip as a direct expression of the “heroic” artist’s emotional state.
Thirty years later, Steir continues to deal with these same questions—the artist’s privileged status as a purveyor of “authentic” experiences, the relationship of imagery and abstraction—but her positions have grown more complex. Steir’s newer works are much less susceptible to an unambiguous representational reading than her Waterfalls, and they engage the viewer more urgently. Compare the many homages to Barnett Newman found throughout Kairos with Philip Taaffe’s similar recapitulations from the mid-1980s. Taaffe’s quotation of Newman was seen as inherently cynical: a hollowed-out simulation that denies the very possibility of authentic communication. Steir, by contrast, remains interested in conveying something immediate and meaningful to the viewer.
In a text that accompanies Kairos, Steir describes the intensity, as well as the complexity, of sensory experience. How, she asks, can the visual impact of light’s play through the air, and across water and other surfaces, be communicated? The only solution, she claims, is not to paint the things you see, but to paint the light itself. The intricate veils of layered color shown at Lévy Gorvy convey the totality, or the texture, of light as a sensory experience, unencumbered by the specificities of observation or the egotism of a reified subjective response. Although the visual impact of these works is dramatic, the artist has no intention of revealing herself on the canvas—as she quipped in a recent interview, “If you want to express yourself you should see a therapist.”1
- Marta Gnyp, “Freedom of Movement: Interview with Pat Steir.” Zoo Magazine 55 (Summer 2017).
Benjamin Clifford is a PhD candidate at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts.