PRINT May 1982


The only thing that is different from one time to another is what is seen and what is seen depends upon how everybody is doing everything.
—Gertrude Stein1

THINGS ARE SIMPLER THAN they seem. Over the years we have learned to qualify our every mood and statement in the awareness that there is nothing we can do or feel that cannot be demeaned by some other notion or emotion. We seek why we feel the way we seem to feel in the hope that personal history will encourage us. We fear we may have been misunderstood when we said such-and-such to so-and-so; but our experiences teach that everyone, ourselves included, interprets things in just the way they want to, no matter what we say. We hesitate and qualify, consider and investigate, and often forbear to speak at all considering that nothing but platitudes will be understood aright.

“Lovely day, isn’t it?”

“Perfect day for war!”

Last spring, when I was working in Los Angeles, I noticed among my cohort the rise in use of a certain word which as usual caught on everywhere, and I wrote a little text about it:

Suddenly everyone began saying wonderful. I mean the word, wonderful. It was wonderful, everything was wonderful. It turned out that we were about to go to war. At the time, however, we didn’t know that. We only knew that it was really wonderful.2

Whether or not this prophecy comes true, it is one of many opinions that we are, at the moment, in a prewar period. In both international politics and international art, the vacillation, the lily-livered conspiracies, and downright pluralism that characterized the anti-bellicose ’70s have given way to the bracing sensation that something big is about to pop. Many feel strongly that they don’t want it to, but they don’t ignore the possibility.

The art wars of the ’60s resulted in the domination of characteristically American abstract, minimal art. We strove toward classicism, toward conceptual clarity and consistency, favoring the thing itself against illusion, against romanticism, and against painting. The general result was the artistic and critical triumph of material or conceptual “sculpture,” in quotes because it was hardly worked at all, it was often ordered from the factory or written down and blown up for wall hanging. If it was painting, which it usually wasn’t, it was usually stark, big, and lacking details. Many paintings were admired that contained only one or two details, and some highly regarded sculptors never handled any of the few elements of their work themselves. Above all, it was the stylistic canon of the ruling ideology that art in any medium must resemble nothing else in any way. Minimal art was self-referential and supposedly unprecedented.

Pat Steir began working in the early 1960s as a painter who was not in step with the current fashion. Born in Newark, she spent her youth in a New Jersey suburb of Philadelphia studying music, poetry, art, and philosophy. A sudden choice in her senior year of high school took her to Brooklyn in 1956, where she studied painting, with Richard Lindner, and graphic art, perhaps the specialty of Pratt Institute. Transplanted to Cambridge by her student husband, she enrolled in an academic course of studies at Boston University but ended up in the fine arts department, where Brice Marden was also studying. “I used to watch him paint rather than doing my own work,” she told me in one of our frequent conversations over the last nine months. What she loved was Marden’s “waxy surface” and also his less characteristic stripe of paint drips left at the bottom of the painting, the signs that the work was indeed made by human head, heart, and hand. Marden went on to become one of the best-respected painters of his generation, most of whose members were busy slaughtering painting at its roots with their anti-illusionistic, unpainterly, dematerialized, reductivist modernist formalist work. Pat Steir left her husband (keeping his last name, which she liked) and moved to Mulberry Street in New York, where she has lived and worked in different places ever since.

Steir’s early work was influenced by Lindner and also by van Gogh. There is a painting of a girl in cheery colors on a swing, but the girl looks distracted. In another, a buxom, not-too-beautiful bather makes a gesture of . . . contempt? The woman seems to be posed inside an abstract painting that someone, possibly for the purpose of measurement, has painted certain numbers on. The hand in the center is boldly encircled in red and numbered “1.” There are many self-portraits among the early works—or are they all self-portraits? In any case some of them are clearly recognizable as the artist herself, for instance, sitting at a table with a coffee cup, and in another one, looking very introspective clad only in a huge fruited hat and a small blue shoe, with a hand between her legs. Another shows her as she looks today, but the body is that of a blue mannequin. One thinks of the work of that period, to the small extent that one can know it today, as primitive, a word which could equally well be applied to her altogether different works of the last 12 years. Although Steir considers that until 1970 she was still making a student’s efforts to find herself, oddities that have later become hallmarks crept in. Drips. A dog saying “bowwow” right across the grass field. There’s also an intriguing, rather van Gogh fieldscape in which the scene is penetrated and destroyed by a figure probably mounted on a bike riding away from and right through the composition. We can see now that Steir’s childlike primitiveness was a genuine motive in her work, which if anything has become more simply gestural since, but in these early works she seems impatient. Her late early work is uncharacteristically neat, not very colorful, but she is beginning to see that there are other uses for the space of a canvas than filling it up with big painted skies and exaggerated figures. Her portraits also look depressed, though not morbidly so.

Several years later, Pat Steir was moving house and she had her assistant take these twenty or thirty canvases down to the street and abandon them. “I didn’t feel like carrying them around anymore,” she said in our formal interview.3 “I do that with many things I have. I keep very few things; I’m careless that way. I didn’t do it to control other people’s views of me historically; I just thought to myself, I can make better ones. After I started showing regularly, in ’71 or so, I sold all the paintings I made, so they’re safe in other people’s hands.” Her house and studio are singularly uncluttered with her work—the only thing one can see there may be the piece she’s at work on at the time. “I do love seeing old paintings of mine in somebody’s house or in a gallery or a museum—it’s like stumbling on the work of a person I used to know. But to live with them is like living in the past. I also don’t like to force visitors to comment on my work.”

For more than ten years now, Steir has been developing a body of work which has been dispersed by sale in this country and abroad. She belongs to a generation of American artists whose reception in Europe rivals their success at home. In shows every year since ’70 (except ’74), often in more than one a year, she has displayed her intelligence, her ambition, and her philosophy, as well as her ability with paint and her mastery of line in a wide variety of situations. She also became a master of etching, making prints that are highly related to her paintings and which have contributed to the advancement of the state of the art. Her prolific and rather wispy drawings are also admired, as are her lithographs. Two traveling retrospectives are being organized jointly by the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston and the Spencer Art Museum of the University of Kansas at Lawrence. A show of about thirty paintings is being gathered in Houston and about forty prints, working proofs, and drawings are coming together in Kansas, and one or both of the shows will visit several cities in 1983.

Steir also writes and reads poetry and she loves historical novels such as those of Marguerite Yourcenar, the only woman ever elected to the French Academy. When I asked her for a reading list Pat said, “Oh just say Lewis Carroll and Cervantes.” Both Alice and Don Quixote are comic heroes who handle an alien, cruel world with wonderment and wisdom disguised as youth or madness. These techniques, more technical than the most complicated etchings, remind one of Steir herself. Although she doesn’t think of her painting as very close to her poetry, one can see connections in an early poem which will serve to close this lengthy introduction:


the room is exquisitely quiet

Many little deaths hardly observed
Pass before the final sleep occurs

In rooms like this
Painters begin to ruin
the architect’s wall
and poets corrupt
the virgin page

Death has passed unknown;
to replace it with birth
they pour salt
on the open wound of consciousness
perhaps wishing only to be a gull

Knowing worms,
birds remain beautiful.
—I. P. Sukoneck4

In her speech to groups of students and faculty at Oxford and Cambridge in 1926, Gertrude Stein at the age of 52 said some important things. She related how at a certain point in her life she had realized that everything was really the same thing, and then how that awareness changed for her:

. . . Everything being alike everything naturally would be simply different and war came and everything being alike and everything being simply different brings, everything being simply different, brings it to romanticism. . . . This then the contemporary recognition, because of the academic thing known as war having been forced to become contemporary, made everyone not only contemporary in act not only contemporary in thought, but contemporary in self-consciousness, made everyone contemporary with the modern composition.5

Stein thought that the 1914–18 war had speeded up the process in which art could be recognized, accepted, made into a classic, and universally regarded as beautiful by about 30 years. I doubt if things have changed very much since then, although we are so vain about the speediness of things today that we are apt to confound thoughts current in 1926 with thoughts associated with the Wars of the Roses, whenever they were. Pat Steir and I, being the same age, were brought up not in a prewar but in a postwar period.

“We are a generation between wars. We had a very leisurely and optimistic education because the war had just ended, whereas now I think people force themselves to become adults, they don’t linger. I lingered all through my twenties in a kind of adolescent way. I worked and had troubles but I never thought of myself as having to hurry to develop quickly as a painter. I dallied in other fields and I think that many people in our generation did that.” Her other field, chiefly, was book design and production. She became the art director of Harper & Row. After awhile she began to yearn for time to produce her own work, and Cass Canfield, the legendary publisher, let her do her five-day job in three days a week. It was then that she began in earnest to build the foundation of what has become one of the most solid, flawed, directly significant, and wonderful oeuvres in this period of modern art.

Although she had shown her “student work” a few times in the early ’60s, the first works she displayed in her maturity were the “Dog-men” of 1968–69. These impassive wolves with human pectorals and penises are armless signs in a wilderness of pure paint, both in the painting and in the syntax of painting at the time. In the slide I am looking at, two of these never-never men are separated by a wall slightly reminiscent of the barrier between the visitor and the visited in a prison, zoo, or taxicab. There’s a figure like a poster on the wall (an owl?) and what might be a black slot for passing notes and guns back and forth, had they arms. Am I imagining things, or do chains perhaps connect them? Clearly an unattractive view of both men and dogs, but not of persons. The image is depersonalized considerably to the same extent as were the then-fashionable paintings that showed you absolutely nothing but areas of paint, as in fact does this one. Here on the edge of her major work, it is possible to glimpse the fusion of the abstract and the figurative that by now is one of Steir’s chief accomplishments. She recalls receiving letters about these paintings both from feminist women and openly gay men. “They all said, I know exactly what you mean. At the time I didn’t know what I meant, but I was glad that everybody agreed.” From this time on, the self-portraits and other human figures of all kinds, with few exceptions, disappeared from the work, and Steir embarked on what she thinks of as her first paintings, many of which are marked by the appearance of various birds, and iris blooms.

There is a pink shape framing an important line that looks like the horizon looks in hilly terrain, but Looking for the Mountain, 1971, is one of the most “abstract” paintings Steir ever made. The edge is ruled. I mean that little short lines stick into the painting around the perimeter, not exact but suggesting both the assumption of an imaginary grid and a rough measuring scale. The painting has balance, interest, color, and depth, but the image reminds one of nothing so much as itself. Without the title, it might not even be reminiscent of mountains. It seems to be a kind of color-field landscape, but it has a lot of details that don’t fit such a definition. First, the scale on the perimeter. Secondly, bright red lines denote the inner edge of the image, composed of two images in shades of red and blue. The lines look a little like the instructions to printers that art directors mark on graphics and photographs (called “art” in the trade) to make sure that they appear correctly when reproduced photo mechanically. However, the painting is about eight feet high and six feet wide, and the marks are bright red—not the blue that is invisible to the kind of film used in printing.The blue part of the image shows a camera-viewfinder-like distant mountain, but this horizon is precisely reflected above the window in a different hue. In other words, as with other “abstract” paintings, it is possible to read real things into the context but there are signs that such interpretations are incorrect. For example, nothing explains the perfectly symmetrical red and yellow semi-circle heralded by two red blips on the perimeter except classical color and balance considerations. In this painting I think we see an example of good work in a direction that Steir chose for the most part to avoid. She didn’t choose to avoid the “abstract,” in any sense. On the contrary, she jumped into it, but she insisted on excepting her pictures from the then-fashionable categories such as color-field, stripe, hard-edge, and allover painting—vapid terms suited to vapid imagery. Not that it seemed so at the time, but Looking for the Mountain seems to me the safest of Steir’s masterpieces, and a stunning indication of a path she did not end up traveling very far. If she had gone that way (merely a speculation, of course, since what did not happen could not possibly have happened in any case) we probably would not have much interest in her work today.

Instead of this safety, this rather adventuresome classicism, Steir chose to break the rules. She made canvases that show and insist on at least two kinds of reality at once, both the figurative and the abstract. A good example is Blue, 1972, a painting that she remarks “happened overnight” (usually, she says, they take about a month to do no matter how big they are). It is one of the first bird paintings she did. “If I see a bird in any image at all, even in the Audubon bird book, I think that it’s mine.” She adopted birds in a primordial gesture, as at the end of the youthful poem quoted here, because they are sentient beings that we admire for being very different from ourselves. We love their grace in flight, their colors, expressions, nests, their talent in insect control and blind navigation over long polar circle routes, and their flesh and eggs and feathers as prolific sources of our own food and bedding. Besides, they are the paragon of freedom, an aspiration high on the list of human unattainables. Steir’s birds look like a bird should look, not in flight, but in profile. Some of them are of fanciful species, but they are completely birdlike. The one in Border Lord, 1973, is typical, the ones in Legend, 1969, are prettier, but still typical. The one at the top of Circadia, 1973, is quite clearly a blotch of paint.

The Answer for Anita and Leibniz, 1972, is birdlike in the extreme. To me it seems to be a bird cosmology. Not surprisingly, it is colorless and empty. Birds, being birdbrained, are interested in relatively few things. They seem always about to eat something, which they choose with unerring taste. Since their metabolism is high, like some people they eat all the time without gaining a gram. They perhaps reserve their perception of colors for recognizing possible mates and certain flowers, or predators. The painting has a big, airy sky with few features. The bird is openmouthed, as birds only are if they are about to eat or chirp. This one has evidently chosen the best or most convenient of three possible morsels, cubes of paint, to keep it alive another instant. It is said that they sing and call to warn similar birds that they are feeding and not to peck too close. Such lack of belligerency and its implicit solitude are completely foreign to the human mentality as is eating worms and bugs all day for lunch.

In The Answer . . . , the lone bird faces a huge X. This sign in Steir’s work at different times often means that something has been crossed out. It is a literal, not so much a symbolic, cross. It is right there, here, in front of us (the bird). The bird doesn’t see and can’t read the lines of writing that this mysterious X crosses out so unnecessarily, lines that are almost invisible in the ground of the painting. In other paintings, the X marks something not otherwise effaced at all, as in Steir’s many paintings featuring crossed-out roses. Among the other details and even larger forms in The Answer . . . , which at first glance seems “empty,” the six color-control patches on the left edge of the birdworld are most attractive. They remind us that we are in the world. It looks like we are getting ready to photograph the painting, or it looks like a photograph of the painting. Color-control patches are routinely stuck next to all paintings photographed with color film. Here I find a pun about the ubiquity of “slides,” i.e., 35mm color transparencies which have practically substituted for paintings in all art contexts. These mechanical abstractions of abstractions are more common in art today than horses were in 19th century cities. In Steir’s work, the color patches also conjure up the rainbow. Finally, there are faint lines that texture the fields in this work with a neutral color which if they were not so subtle would probably scare the crow. All in all, it is a rough bird painting, bleak and peaceful, which answers that ours is not the only reality on earth.

The important masterpiece of the early period is Breadfruit, 1973, which is one of the artist’s all-time favorite paintings. Here everything is clear. There are four elements, the first three of which are numbered. Number 1 is scribbling—for Steir this indicates drawing and writing indifferently. As a writer, which few painters do comfortably, she is familiar with the intimacy of written expression, as well as with the primitive, public character of drawing, which few writers have experienced. In Breadfruit it is neither fish nor fowl, but a precursor of one of her most famous motifs, the curlicue. Number 2 is a loaded brushstroke of paint, for itself as material, like the later two-panel and three-panel paintings in which the first panel shows a straight line. Number 3 is a fully painted lavender rose diagonally opposite the scribble and the stroke, enlivening what is essentially a black painting. The field itself is the fourth thing. These “elements” roughly correspond to three of Pat Steir’s axioms, which can be noted this way:

(1) Everything is the same as everything else.
(2) All representation is abstract—the more realistic, the more abstract.
(3) This is a black painting made of paint.

The flower and its little leaves, through contrast, point out the elegantly graded black field which, in terms of abstract art, is the subject of the painting. The title adds a detail, like the black splashes on the unpainted frame and three primary color swatches, echoing the cardinal numbers, but what does breadfruit mean? A staple food in the South Sea islands, its tree is part of a phylum named after the magnolia and classed in the mulberry family which also includes fig, rubber, and paper trees, so it implies everything. But Steir didn’t know that. “I called that painting and several drawings ‘Breadfruit’ because I noticed in Darwin’s notebooks that he thought it could feed the whole world, an idea that never caught on. Like breadfruit the painting was a good idea that wasn’t useful.” The flower in the paint, looked at closer, is not a rose of any color. It’s a cross between a camellia and a water lily, who are not related to the magnolias anywhere.

Pat Steir and I talked quite a bit about meaning. “Meaning is evanescent. Philosophy exists only to discover the meaning of meaning, so we indulge it—we assume that there’s meaning in everything. In the well mind it is important to question meaning. Because life ends, meaning can be anything. We have such a short time to discover that, and there are so many different ways to see it that it ends up being playfulness with dread. If I paint a bird with its feathers and the colors of the feathers next to the feathers, and break it down five ways like a bird book does and a paint chart does and the way I might too, it’s a small, perverse playfulness based on the dread of death. Especially in our forties it becomes clearer, more friends have died, and more parents, and it’s more exhausting because we know we’re only halfway through. So, finally, I think everything means the same thing, although many kinds of believers say it in many different ways.” Steir wants to say “it” in as many different ways as she can think of and perform with lines and colors in as many mediums as she can master. As this is written, she is preparing to go to Japan where she will learn what she can about their very sophisticated woodcut printing techniques.

1974 meant painting a large number of roses, many of which were crossed out. “At different times in your life there are different things that you are preoccupied with. I chose the rose because it could mean so many things, so many solid daily associations. It’s the symbol for the Virgin, Four Roses is a common whisky, ‘a rose is a rose is a rose.’ Then I crossed it out on all the paintings because it was always a central image. I was making jokes about making white paintings—the paintings were always black or white and the rose was always red or white. So I thought if I make an image and cross it out then there’s no image in the painting, it’s a white painting or a black painting, but it looks like a crossed-out rose.” These paintings were extremely important for Steir’s development of her own understanding of things, but they are not her most successful, in my opinion. They seem daunted through the repetitiousness of crossing out the rose. I think making them was a kind of alchemical practice for the artist. The final one, called Moon, 1974, was a black rose on a black ground, crossed out in black, with somber-colored squares in the corners. Somehow, the artist seems discouraged. “The rose is an icon, and at that time I was interested in getting rid of the icon. To arrive at nirvana, or to arrive at white, as opposed to beginning with white, you have to wear out a lot of things. All those paintings are named from the poem Ash Wednesday, by T. S. Eliot. The poem is very laden with symbolism and it can be taken many ways especially if you remove lines from it, so putting in a very romantic image like the rose (which is the way most people saw it, as romantic) and then crossing it out and calling it, Speak to the wind, to the wind only, for only the wind will listen, brings up the complicated meanings of silence and the complicated not-silence of something withheld.” For the next two years, Pat Steir stopped painting.

During one’s third decade of life, there is very often a more or less thorough and lengthy reassessment of what one is all about—what one knows, how one does it and even one’s activity itself. Pat re-did herself in 1975–76, when she produced only drawings, and in 1977 when she took part in an ambitious college program sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts.6 All the drawings are dated “ ’75–’76.” Some of them are called THIS DRAWING IS A MIRAGE. Most of them are rather tentative. One of them says, in handwriting, “My name is Pat Steir” a few hundred times all over it.

“I think that the straight line is what the monkey made, an impulse, and the curved line is manmade, a desire. People who study children’s lines think that children start out just scribbling, and then they make a round moon or human shape, and when they are ready to deal with language they make a diamond shape, and that means they can deal with abstractions. My idea is that the figurative image is actually more abstract than the straight line or the curved line because it requires more abstract thinking. We think so-called abstract painting is more abstract than an image because we only recently dared to think of it as anything at all other than a patch of paint. If one makes a painting that is only red, it is not a picture of red, it is red; it is not an abstraction but the thing itself. If one makes a painting of a red ship on a red sea it becomes not only red itself, for the imagery and the translation of imagery create illusion. Illusion is a collection of elements that are put together to look like something else. But I’m not just trying to prove a point. Since I have so much trouble understanding what I see happening before me, I may as well amuse myself by thinking about it and playing with it. Figurative seems like truth for the figurative painter and abstract seems like truth for the abstract painter, but if they are the same then neither seems like truth.”

Having philosophically reattached herself to herself in her drawings and prints, Steir was able to return to painting in 1977 with a more mature vocabulary and a more childish sense of fun. She made a large number of square paintings from then until the present, mostly diptychs and triptychs, as Greek elegantly terms them. First though, she made an atypical painting of six squares, Beautiful Painting with Color, 1977–78, and one with four parts, very unusual for being the only one in which the parts aren’t square, Long Chart, Large Chart, 1977–78. I often think that the atypical works of an artist point to things that were being considered at a particular time which were later discarded or possibly just neglected for awhile. Long Chart . . . has, as it were, six paintings on the long top panel, and three descending long panels in which the drawn line and the dripping brushstroke, which were to become her trademarks, are terribly elongated. This painting looks like a Pat Steir made by somebody else—it is more tasteful and redundant than most of her work. The six squares of Beautiful Painting . . . proceed from black toward white in gradations, and it looks a bit like Josef Albers, van Gogh, and Rembrandt all together. All the squares that followed these apparently arose from her work on drawings over the years and on prints, which she began making in Chicago in 1973 and in Oakland, California, in 1975. In these etchings and lithographs, she developed ideas to which these mediums are ideally suited, particularly the idea of layering. “Since the addition of color in etching requires a new plate every time there is a different color, I discovered that I could layer the images, and make a print with a great many different plates.” The problem of positioning these plates perfectly makes her graphic work the most complicated and challenging the printmakers have ever undertaken, and she combines all the different techniques for making marks in etching in the same print. “The problem of getting the printers to accept blotches as part of the image was very difficult, because they are super-neat in their work.” It was essentially from her graphic work that the motif of the square within the square, or the heavily framed image inside the paintings, evolved.

The first series in 1977–79 were single or double squares exemplifying, to her mind, the typical ways of painting of various historical masters whose work moves her. These paintings are named for the painters thus parodied but they might as well be called The Song is the Song, the name of a similar drawing of Steir’s of about the same time. In this long series of squares she proved to her satisfaction that all art is made up of straight lines and curved lines, and that all artists, such as Mondrian, van Gogh, Goya, Rembrandt, de Kooning, were saying the same thing. The series included parodies of some unnamed contemporaries such as Robert Ryman, Jo Baer, and Sol LeWitt, but especially, and in more or less all the paintings, Agnes Martin, whose work Steir has admired for a long time and to whom she owes the many suggestions of grids in her work. Steir converts the cool grid and pale tones of Martin into something sensual, messy, and exciting. In a sense, each square painting could be seen as one module of a gigantic grid which need never be assembled in any case, because the whole would mean the same thing as the parts.

“I think the paintings that I love never look finished; whether they’re mine or someone else’s, they seem always to be very flawed and very vain. I especially love Rembrandt because he was so vain. I’m so touched by his human vanity, because as he got older he knew about it and his paintings tell you that he knew about it. His last self-portrait, as the Apostle Paul, is not only a cynical face but it’s cynically painted. He just knew how to paint and he did it. His painting was as cynical as his face. Somewhere in the painting, he managed to say to himself, You fool! I think that painting is the art that is most related to magic. Magic is to make something transcend what it is. The best painting is not only pure paint but it has a spirit that transcends itself. This is done by the addition and subtraction of signs and signals and symbols, and by one’s skill and lack of skill.”

Steir’s graphic work surfaced in her shows of 1979–81 in more ways than as prints and drawings. She made several installations of her work in which she messed up the pristine gallery walls with her own lexicon of signs, signals, and symbols. These excesses, usually very charming, took different forms. It was as if she were continuing her drawing marathon in the galleries in order to amuse herself and to undercut the formality and blankness of the square paintings. While her paintings always managed to be as poetical and as expressionistic as the rigorous minimal art code would permit, she had to do more. In these shows, in order to make the whole experience of her work bigger, more complicated, and less definite, she drew and wrote all over the walls with colored pencils in designs that seem to be notes rather than separate works. On at least one occasion she had the wall drawings executed in her absence by a resident artist.7 She had explored this idea thoroughly during her 1977 college tour when she encouraged students to collaborate with her and with each other in both the design and execution of murals. This is somewhat like the practice of Sol LeWitt, who is a close friend of Pat Steir, but where LeWitt is rigorous in the specific instructions to the drawers yet in many cases allowing the precise outcome to vary, Steir decorates the wall to add to the charm and ineffability of the work, in short, to express herself. She first did this at her Geneva gallery in 1981 where she showed Beautiful American Painting and Beautiful Italian Painting, two somewhat similar triptychs (both 1980) with entirely different wall decorations, being lines and abstract shapes in one case and clouds occupied with a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, Gloria in excelsis deo, in the other. Later she did the same paintings with different drawings in New York, and different paintings with different drawings in Bari, Italy—Il Sogno di Botticelli (Botticelli’s Dream, 1981) and Painting for 1984, 1981, which included a human figure for the first time in some time, a crucifix in the third panel.

In 1981, probably her most prolific year so far, Steir undertook to sum up her commitment to abstract form, beginning with a very complicated etching with the encyclopedic name Abstraction, Belief, Desire, Form, Illusion, Myth. Although neglecting some things at the back of the alphabet, such as semiotic, sensation, sign, symmetry, and symbol, the etching was so successful a conclusion to four years’ work that she went home and painted a very similar painting with the same name, in three panels, each five feet square.

I have slides of two versions of the painting to look at as I write. In the first panel, predominantly blue with the word “form” in the top frame and the word “abstraction” at the bottom, the inner square shows representations of abstract paintings in the shapes of diamond, square, circle, and trapezoid, and there are examples of straight, curved, scribbled, and crossed lines. The second panel, keyed with the word “illusion” above and the word “belief” below and framed mainly in red, represents a pyramid and a cube with shadows, and above them, two overlapping red spheres. This is not yet a landscape because the shadows are cast wrong if the spheres are suns, but one reads it as some kind of a scene with abstract buildings. The ultimate abstractions of the third panel are keyed to the words “desire” and “myth,” and the main frame is yellow. Inside there are parts of a few paintings. At the lower left, a looming self-portrait; next, a still life showing two chrysanthemums in a vase (the subject of another painting made just previously) and a plate and two lemons in front of a dark, hilly landscape with three indistinct figures, one dancing, one reclining, and one on top of the hill. In the early version of the painting, the words had not yet been written in the frames and the figure on the hill was clearly Christ on the cross. Dark clouds in a black sky, a traditional sign foreboding war, complete the rather alarming scene.

“This last year, at the last minute before the show opened I crossed out the boy in one of the triptychs called Icon [Icon Three: The Boy, 1981] to make the painting more violent. It was a painting of an assistant I had who is movie-star beautiful. I hadn’t painted a portrait in years but he was so handsome that I had to do it. Also I wanted to make a painting that he could understand. I think his generation is so warlike, not only warlike but terrified of war—I know this because I have lots of young friends and many of them are preoccupied with the end of the world. I also think that’s why there’s so much figurative painting right now, because there is always figurative painting when people are worried about the end of the world, which is to say war. There was expressionist figurative painting before both World Wars. We do it to have something to recognize readily—there is no time to investigate things ‘abstractly.’ So when he saw the painting, the boy said, ‘Oh look! I’m on an antiwar poster.’ It was like a Fauve painting because of the color and violence.”

Also in 1981, Steir found a way out of her box compositions, something that she had been looking for. Making the squares bigger and eliminating what had been the necessary wide inner frame, she painted, simply, three views of an object, one or two cut flowers. In her latest works, Pat Steir has realized something like the cornerstone of all philosophy: “the way up is the way down.” A picture of a flower is paint. The artist transcends both paint and flowers. Pictures are made up of straight and curved lines. As you get closer to things they lose their original meaning and take on a richer meaning. The space of the canvas is an arbitrary place well suited for a display of colors. Flowers are the sexual organs of a form of life with which we have little in common. People think flowers and birds and things are here for the purpose of our admiration, which is about as right as any other purpose. Some things are much more beautiful than others and it is delightful for the artist to present some paintings of surpassing beauty. I picked up these carnations that my friend gave me and I saw in these forms an example of everything one needs to know in life. But again, as in using anything, the example is not the truth. “Now I don’t feel intensely identified with any image. In the past I was interested in the images because I was interested in meaning. Now I’m more interested in illusion and in the later section of life, and the flower paintings are about that. It’s elusive.”

During the several months that I spent acquainting myself with Pat Steir and her art work, I was also reading some books by writers interested in semiotics, or the study of signs, which is to say of images, which is to say the study of everything we are interested in. Somewhere I found Peter Wollen’s book Signs and Meaning in the Cinema, in which he recommends the work of Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914), the American philosopher who invented semiotics, or as he spelled it in 1867, semeiotic.

A diagram, indeed, so far as it has a general signification, is not a pure icon; but in the middle part of our reasonings we forget the abstractness in great measure, and the diagram is for us the very thing. So in contemplating a painting, there is a moment when we lose the consciousness that it is not the thing, the distinction of the real and the copy disappears, and it is for the moment a pure dream—not any particular existence, and yet not general. At that moment we are contemplating an icon.8

Peirce was a resolutely non-academic thinker who nevertheless had extremely clear ideas about the definition of every word, to the extent that he made his meager living writing and editing the Century Dictionary. His icon is a very special thing.

Anything is fit to be a substitute for anything that it is like. The icon has no dynamical connection with the object it represents; it simply happens that its qualities resemble those of that object. Unless there really is such an object, the icon does not act as a sign, but this has nothing to do with its character as a sign. It would possess the character which renders it significant even though its object had no existence. Anything whatever is an icon of anything, in so far as it is like that thing and used as a sign of it.9

I mean to say that Pat Steir’s whole body of work, including its failures and its masterpieces, is an icon of modern art. Such a claim can be made for very few artists, and most of them are dead. Steir’s favorite line from Peirce might suggest what progress we may anticipate in her development in the second half of life. At the age of 70, Peirce defined yet another great simplicity in a letter to Lady Welby, an English expert on “Significs”: “As to what one ought to desire, what one will desire if he sufficiently considers it is to make one’s life beautiful and admirable. The Science of the Admirable is true Esthetics. Thus the Freedom of the Will, such as it is, is a one-sided affair, it is the Freedom to become Beautiful.10

Ted Castle is a writer who lives in New York.



1. Gertrude Stein. “Composition as Explanation”, in Selected Writings, New York: 1962, p. 520. It is notable that this sentence in this important work is a complete paragraph.

2. Copyright © 1981 by Ted Castle. Written March 27, dedicated to Linda Cossey Gray.

3. All the quotations from Pat Steir in this article are taken from a transcript of a conversation with Pat Steir by Ted Castle, held in New York, February 23, 1982, unless otherwise noted.

4. “Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh” originally appeared in Asterisk 8, Spring 1958, published by the students of Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, N.Y. The author signed her “real name,” Iris Patricia Sukoneck.

5. Stein, op. cit., pp. 520-21.

6. Four artists worked at different times with the students at four colleges. The four colleges were California State University at Long Beach, the University of Kentucky at Lexington, Moore College of Art in Philadelphia, and Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. A catalogue called 16 Projects/4 Artists with an introduction by Lawrence Alloway was produced by William Spurlock at Wright State in 1977. The other three artists were Siah Armaiani, Larry Bell and Lloyd Hamrol.

7. This was done by a student for Beautiful Italian Painting when it was shown at the Bell Gallery of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, Fall 1981.

8. Charles Sanders Peirce, Collected Writings, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University, 8 vols., 1931-58. Volume 3, Paragraph 362.

9. James K. Feibleman, An Introduction to the Philosophy of Charles S Peirce, 1946, reprinted 1970 MIT Press, Boston, p. 91. Despite its discouraging title, this superb book is invaluable for the collation of Peirce’s scattered thoughts into a coherent whole. The redoubtable Feibleman has no other aim than to make Peirce available to readers.

10. Charles S. Peirce, Selected Writings, edited by Philip P. Wiener, 1958, p. 415.