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Steve Poleskie performing in 1983 for Florida’s Hollywood Art and Culture Center.
Steve Poleskie performing in 1983 for Florida’s Hollywood Art and Culture Center.

Steve Poleskie (1938–2019)

The American artist and pilot Steve Poleskie, whose spiraled, looped skywriting scrambled the boundaries between drawing and performance, has died at age eighty-one. After starting out as an Abstract Expressionist painter in the 1950s, Poleskie eventually developed a more daring mark-making strategy: trailing smoke and motor oil from customized biplanes to stage an “Aerial Theater,” an artistic arena originally proposed by the Italian Futurists. “I stopped making studio art and decided I would just make my art in the sky, using it like a giant pencil or drawing tool,” he said. “It destroyed my total sense of perspective.”

Born in Pringle, Pennsylvania, Poleskie mounted his first solo show, which consisted of large gestural abstractions, while he was still an undergraduate at Wilkes College. A mostly self-taught painter, he soon began experimenting with screen-printing after reading a Sherwin-Williams booklet. After travels to Cuba, the Bahamas, Mexico, and Canada, in 1961 Poleskie moved to New York, quickly falling in with Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Larry Rivers, Frank O’Hara, and other Tenth Street mainstays. In 1963, he opened Chiron Press, the city’s first fine-art screen-printing shop, whose extensive clientele included Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, and Alex Katz. Poleskie’s own prints from this time depicted subtle geometric landscapes.

In 1968, Poleskie sold his shop and became a professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, where he secured a pilot’s license. His Aerial Theater performances—carefully choreographed beforehand and often supplemented with parachutists, dancers, and live music—proved especially popular in Italy, where he lived intermittently for three years and whose foremost art critics, including Enrico Crispolti and Pierre Restany, championed Poleskie’s “Planetary Art” as “the logical extension of Futurism.” Poleskie, who flew in numerous aerobatic competitions and won the 1977 Canadian Open Aerobatic Championship, also referenced his ephemeral, “four-dimensional” aerial maneuvers in two-dimensional works. Reviewing an exhibition of Poleskie’s collages in the October 1988 issue of Artforum, Howard Risatti wrote that the artist “challenges the rigid hierarchical order of Renaissance perspective and presents a more complex, fluctuating world-view reflective of individual experience.”

After he stopped flying in 1998, Poleskie began writing novels, and, in 2004, he made and exhibited photographs. His drawings, prints, and paintings have been shown widely around the world and reside in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; the National Collection in Washington, DC; and the Tate and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. He is survived by his wife, the novelist Jeanne Mackin.