New York

Pat Steir

Max Protech Gallery

Pat Steir’s flowers, still lifes, and geometric shapes seem to exist in enchanted worlds. In some compositions Steir paints these images, usually floating against the background, within a square, and then paints a wide “frame” around this central form. Within these outer frames, with busy abstract marks and letters, Steir muses on the contours and gestures evident in the central image. The total effect of these paintings-within-paintings is, not surprisingly, harmonious; Steir is primarily an abstract painter, more interested in how one image relates to another than in the cultural significance of any one image.

In a series of three “Icon” triptychs that follow this painting-within-a-painting format, Steir uses diamond-shaped canvases. The images within the central diamond shapes move progressively from abstraction into recognizable forms. In Icon One Triptych, The Mother, an etched, horizontal line in the center of the first painting becomes a squiggled line in the second and, in the third, a conglomeration of squiggled lines which form a haloed Madonna figure. The sense of perpetual mutation in this triptych, of something continually coming into being, exists in all of Steir’s new work. She follows it most methodologically in Icon Two Triptych, Eros. The third painting in this triptych, which is of a cubistic rose, is conceptually built in the two preceding paintings: in the first, the diamond is geometrically divided, while a cubist squiggle in the second could be the inside of the rose. Though the relationship between the images in Icon Three Triptych, The Boy are less formal than those in Eros, Steir’s symbolic shorthand allows us to understand, and accept, a more poetic equivalence of forms.

Three large triptychs, in which Steir does not use the painting-within-a-painting format, focus on a single image or subject. In the first painting of Chrysanthemum, and the starkest, two small white flowers sit in a vase against a black background; in the second, a single, large flower ominously occupies the center of the painting; in the third, Steir moves into the flower so that it seems to be bursting out of its confines. Though the perceptual shift from real to abstract is Kafkaesque, the flower’s passage is more graphically than intellectually interesting. Steir’s other triptychs are more conceptual and tightly constructed, but their connections are open-ended, less artificial.

The enchanted quality of the flower in Chrysanthemum seems an artistic contrivance, whereas the contrivances of the flower in Eros or of the figure in The Mother seem a natural outgrowth of Steir’s personal vocabulary. When Steir is most personal her work transcends the preciousness of Chrysanthemum, and assumes a strong originality that seems an outgrowth of pure painterly delight.

Joan Casademont