New YorkHauser & Wirth
Pat Steir: Blue River And Rainbow Waterfalls
November 10 – December 23, 2022
With Blue River and Rainbow Waterfalls, Pat Steir has transformed Hauser & Wirth’s immense ground floor gallery in Chelsea into an arena for transcendence. We are lifted away by the gravitational pull of her monumental canvases, each awash with mesmerizing color and the movement of paint. Steir has been developing her mature work since the early 1990s, and her paintings today continue to command respect—and even awe—from their viewers. In her current exhibition, there are three bodies of work in which we are confronted with the sublime, each drawing us into its expansive space.
As we enter the gallery, the first work, 9 × 7, E (2022), immediately holds us. Thin drips of blue, black, and sea green trickle down uniformly across the whole surface of the monumental canvas, an effect obtained by spraying a turpentine mixture onto dripping oil paint. As we look up, the vertical lines disappear and vibrate into each other, transforming into atmosphere. The medium no longer feels like paint: it is translated into sound, or landscape, or a movement close to the vastness of the universe. The gravitational pull of Steir’s vertical drips is further contested as we see paint flowing from both the top and bottom of the canvas, converging away from the edges. We feel both joy and solitude in this endless buoyant space: joy from the stunning play of transparent blacks, blues, and greens before us, and solitude from the thickly stacked marks in yellow and red, isolated towards the center of the work.
Another variation, 9 × 7, F (2022), develops a pictorial space that feels like the smoke ripples after fireworks, dividing light and air into oscillations and creating a stark contrast with masses of gray, of brushmarks set against aqueous turquoise greens. The drips become more sculptural, like stalactite forms, and the prevalence of fatter white, wet brush marks suggests a fluid splash of fertility within the vast green glow of a world deep underwater. In contrast, 9 × 7, D (2022) offers a deeper blue green cosmos and long delicate thin trickles of white paint that appear from under a pile of orange, red, green, and gray horizontal brush marks. Yet we still have a sense of placement, as Steir’s thin, straight, and flickering white grid lines transform the canvas into a Cartesian grid of six ample rectangles.
In another work, 9 × 7, C (2022), the dividing lines are white and red, further piquing our color sensibility in contrast to a Caribbean turquoise field. This seems like a new development in Steir’s abstract work, and an evolution from the single dissections dividing the canvas in two seen in her 2017 show at Lévy Gorvy, Pat Steir: Kairos. The new work is reminiscent also of the sectionals in her much earlier work, “The Brueghel Series (A Vanitas of Style)” (1984–85). The stack of horizontal brush strokes, her iconic image echoing abstract expressionist gesture, is suddenly no longer in free fall. Instead, it is held by these grid lines, just as the painting in turn holds us in the moment, as if we’re holding our breath under water.
The primary colors red, blue, and yellow in 9 × 7, E —and in the exhibition as whole—are like a north star, serving as a collective, foundational understanding of color theory that guides us through the wilderness of the unknown. This meditation on the meaning and purpose of the primary colors is one Steir has explored in the past with the grand installation at the Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden, Color Wheel (2019), and Paintings at Gagosian Rome (2022). In the “Rainbow Waterfall” series, we find three strokes or pours, loud and clear in the primary colors. Here the canvas is split into a triptych, each stroke heading its own column, each repeating a different tone of red, yellow, and blue.
One variation, Rainbow Waterfall #5 (2022), uses the pastel versions of the three primary colors on an orange ground that crackles like the skin of a citrus fruit. Steir’s work has often drawn from ideas in Chinese landscape painting and philosophy, Japanese calligraphy, and John Cage’s performances based on Buddhist ideas and the operations of chance. She is removed from the painting, from the responsibility of the act of painting, as the painting paints itself through pours, splashes, and the action of gravity. In the “Rainbow Waterfall” series, Steir’s three pours stand before us and provoke the same awe that ancient totems or religious figures inspire as something larger than us. This is especially felt in the scale and the finesse of the pure colors and their complex undertones.
After admiring all of the vertical pours in this show, we’re confronted with the immense scale (over 37 feet wide) of an infinite horizontal landscape in Blue River (2005), where we can really see the essence of haboku (broken ink/splashed ink) at play in her work. Haboku is a technique of Chinese and Japanese Zen Buddhist painting where washes and layers of ink describe a landscape using minimal brushwork. Steir’s work has often echoed the work and ideas of pioneering abstract expressionist artists—Jackson Pollock’s drips, Helen Frankenthaler’s pours, Morris Louis’s gravitational pulls, and Barnett Newman’s zips all come easily to mind—and in the monumental and singular Blue River we find traces of them all. We can hear the sound of water, feel the transparency of light. There are mounds and crevices of overlapping fields in diluted green, blue, and white that meld together, floating on the surface of the canvas harmoniously. The whole is flanked by a shimmering silver wash with visible splashes to the right, while the left is edged by a bold volcanic red, an awakening in these otherwise meditative and calming fields of color.
We are moved by the color and immersed in the work like a monk might be in the landscape. We become one. She becomes nature, and we with her—a speck in the universe.