Pat Steir cut her teeth in the 1970s and went on to become part of the fabric of the New York art world. From her quasi-conceptual paintings of that decade to the Waterfall paintings of the late ’80s, Steir has long been something of a ubiquitous presence — but, like many of her generation, she also hasn’t received the due she deserves. Her latest feat, an exhibition of recent works at Cheim and Read, is perhaps her most successful in recent memory. We can see a veteran artist flexing her deeply toned creative muscles. Though she’s painted using a drip technique since the 1980s to varying effect, these newest works invigorate that practice.
Steir’s technique may call to mind Abstract Expressionism, but the marks that permeate her splashy, washed surfaces suggest the weight of the paint itself rather than her own hand. Her earlier Waterfall paintings juxtaposed two colors in foreground and background, sensationalizing the dramatic force of gravity pulling her splatters down the plane. Then her work seemed to atomize, becoming canvases covered in semi-monochromatic fields of shimmering color and pigment.
These newest works operate in a binary. In “Two Whites Over Antique Red Over Cadmium Red” (2013), the left and right sides of the canvas are separated by what The New Yorker referred to as a “Newmanesque zip.” This exposed stripe of brilliant underpainting does recall the compositional structure of a Barnett Newman work; however, when you really look at the painting, you notice that this line acts as a sort of firewall, or chromatic DMZ, between the two sides. We are left to reflect between left and right, feeling the difference in viscosity and density; they serve as two sides of one coin. We end up with a zen-like juxtaposition, wherein both sides offer moody depths of undulating paint.
“Silver and White” (2013) features a similarly sketchy band separating one hemisphere from the other. The eye wanders back and forth across this unassuming barrier — the tarnished depths of the left feel alchemical, while the right is full of denial, pushing against your eyes the way rain spatters on a car windshield. Perhaps the most interesting piece in the exhibition, “Colors Without Names” (2013), is also the most heavy-handed one. The surface fluctuates in fits of gold, orange, and red. A thick expanse of white plays itself out down the middle of the painting. In several places there are small swipe marks that seem to indicate the artist’s fingers or the opposite side of a paintbrush. This direct evidence of the artist’s hand reminds us that the paintings are far from incidental. In a funny way, they seem like modernist studies of color and material.
New York magazine’s capsule review of the exhibition this month exemplifies a kind of lazy art reviewing and frustratingly common Steir misconception. The unidentified writer says that Steir has “extraordinary nerve to take on Barnett Newman and Jackson Pollock at the same time.” How do these paintings take on Pollock at all? If anything, they relate to the 1970s and ’80s work of Larry Poons, and are certainly in a dialogue with Color Field painting, yes — but Pollock? The writer goes on to say, “These late-late-late additions to the Abstract Expressionist canon are miles better than many similar knock-offs being churned out by younger artists.” While Steir has certainly added her own chapter to the history of abstract painting, there are several significant decades between her and Ab-Ex. I will agree, however, that at a time when so many younger artists are launching themselves into the choppy waters of abstraction, this accomplished body of work by an artist in her 70s sets the bar rightfully high.
Pat Steir continues at Cheim and Read (547 West 25th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through March 29.
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