Pat Steir

Pat Steir on poetry and the color wheel

Pat Steir, Twenty, 2018–19, oil on canvas, 108 x 84". Photo: Alex Munro. Courtesy Pat Steir and Lévy Gorvy.

Since the late 1980s, Pat Steir has slung her paint from a loaded brush, letting oils arc and flow in a signature gesture of both creation and sublime surrender. For her latest exhibition, at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC, the American artist has filled the building’s rotunda with a new suite of thirty paintings that, together, form a color wheel—an art fundamental that dates back to the early eighteenth century. “What Goethe was really pursuing was not a physiological but a psychological theory of colors,” Wittgenstein once wrote. The same might be said of Steir’s singular approach to the subject. “Pat Steir: Color Wheel” opened on October 24, 2019 and runs through September 7, 2020. 

THE COLOR WHEEL IS HISTORICAL. The first one was made by Isaac Newton, and the most famous one is by Goethe. It’s not standardized—every scientist and artist’s is different—but what is standard are the primary colors. You start with red, yellow, and blue, and then their opposites: green, purple, orange, and all the permutations in between. Every color you see in this exhibition resulted from anywhere between five and eleven transparent layers of paint. It’s all about gradations, color describing itself. Even the paintings that look black-and-white are color paintings, because there’s black, and then there’s blue-black, red-black, orange-black, gray-black. Same for white. For me, this was a gigantic adventure in color. My color-best-friend might be green . . . “Green, green, how I love you green. Green wind. Green branches. Green hair, green flesh . . .” From Federico García Lorca’s poem “Sleepwalking Ballad.”

When I was younger, I wrote poetry. There was a state oratorical contest I won as a teenager, and as I gave my talk, a woman in the front row was nodding, “Yes, yes, yes.” I thought, “Oh my god, she understands me! I better do something else.” It’s easier to hide behind paintings. My friend Sylvère Lotringer says that, through my paintings, I’ve been trying to disappear. Not because I want to disappear, necessarily. I was very influenced by John Cage. When I met him, a long time ago, I thought his approach was so wonderful. I wanted to do the same in my work—an art that was not tight or totally planned. Not planning what you see, what the artist feels, what the viewer feels. The shape of the mark.

I’d never done this kind of intimate research with color before. Over a period of time, things become habitual, unconscious. Like the gesture I make when I fling the paint from the brush: Your information becomes part of your body and your mind. But I like to do what I haven’t done before. I think of art as a kind of research project—art is for the artist to learn from. You jump into something perhaps without knowing what you’re looking for. If you’re lucky, you find something related to what you started to look for, or not. Maybe you find something even better.

With this project, I didn’t make swatches of what I wanted before painting; we did it and then got what we got. We wanted what we got. I let the colors happen, I let the marks make themselves. I mean, I put the paint on the brush and put the brush on the canvas, but what poured off the brush is what made the mark. I always wanted to make paintings that made themselves; I thought that would be better than anything I could do.