New York

Pat Steir

Droll/Kolbert Gallery

The title of Pat Steir’s new show is “Rembrandt’s Hairline” which clues us into the ironic side of these meditative and critical paintings about painting, and accounts, in no small way, for their fascination. In a series of four large diptychs (70 by 144 inches), Steir directs us to the 20th-century realm of the gestural, where abstract markings carry the authority of words and bear the same basic messages about art and life traditionally reserved for representational forms, like those of Rembrandt’s. The diptychs all have the same format, two equal-size canvases (70 inches square), each with a centered square framed by narrow bands. Inside the centered square there is a marking which recalls the “additive element” in Kasimir Malevich’s painting charts, and this is the key to the rest of the painting. Like Malevich’s “additive elements,” Steir’s markings are schematic signs of specific pictorial systems. Yet, where Malevich will include a famous painting in a style which is organized by the “additional element,” Steir makes new works from her consciously art-historical markings. Again, like Malevich, what interests her are the styles leading up to the present. In Malevich’s time, the most advanced expression was Suprematism; in Steir’s, it’s “no-style”—see the irony building up in the never-before-in-art-history-has-it-ever-been-like-this stance of these paintings. Among the markings which Steir is investigating and reinventing in these paintings are the linear grid of Cubism, the color grid of De Stijl, the diagonal of Futurism and Suprematism, the square of Suprematism, Hard Edge and Minimal painting (this is also the underlying structure of the diptychs), the curve, wave, and squiggle of Suprematism, Abstract Expressionism, and post-Minimalism and finally, the crooked horizontal of Conceptualism. The coloring is also appropriate to the marking; for example, in the De Stijl canvas, the colors are the Mondrian-approved primaries of red, blue, yellow. And the importance of black and white in recent art—particularly of the post-Minimalist and Conceptual varieties—is indicated in the diptych which pairs a crooked horizontal with a squiggle. The bold image of this diptych is typical of the series in general and of Steir’s uncanny ability to appropriate past signs and make them uniquely her own.

Steir makes sequence an important element in viewing the series. The diptych arrangement not only causes us to think about the relationship between each pair of panels, but about the possible connections between the diptychs themselves. The installation—one diptych to a wall—makes the center of the room the ideal viewing point, and the physical action of turning 360 degrees is a necessary part of the experience; distance is also brought into play as a means of referencing painting as to image, a concept which is being increasingly explored by artists today. At the same time, Steir, in emphasizing the gestural and tactile qualities of the markings, urges us closer to the paintings’ surfaces which are rich in the values of traditional and early modernist work. This dual aspect of the distant and close-up concern adds more irony still to these paintings.

Steir is no stranger to the heady conceptual/perceptual games involving multiple relationships of form and expression, markings and words, which are being played here. Yet, instead of distancing with the seriousness of these issues, she presents them all with such wit and bravura that they tell us not only who they are and where they are coming from but, most importantly, where they are going.

Along with the large diptychs, there are four small paintings (171/2 inches square) hanging side-by-side with a format similar to the diptychs. The markings which are investigated in this group include the grid of Cubism, the fibrous line of naturalism, the running line of Van Gogh, the spiral and diagonal lines of Futurism. In them, there are intensely colored surfaces radiating a luminosity reminiscent of early Italian Renaissance panels and which, in their footnote scale, emphasize and elaborate on the meditative qualities of Steir’s investigations.

Ronny H. Cohen