Pat Steir

At the center of this small, concentrated exhibition of the work of Pat Steir are three oil paintings in several parts. These are sequences in which the individual painting, though independent, can fully disclose itself only in the context of the other panels. Only the interaction among the paintings in the sequence makes it clear that Steir’s concern is with the components of perception, as revealed by the sections of a painting that is intended to be read in its totality.

In I-R-IS, 1982, a work consisting of a horizontal row of three square paintings (each measuring 60 by 60 inches), Steir’s blend of conceptual thought and emotional act becomes particularly clear. Each of the three paintings shows a dirty blue ground, applied in a fluid, speckled manner and covered with a symmetrical grid like that of a blueprint or a map. On the grid covering the left-hand picture is a bouquet of irises in a vase, painted rapidly, sketchily, and in a gestural manner resembling that of a drawing. The center painting shows a single iris bloom, a detail from the bouquet. The final painting, on the right, consists of separate brushstrokes distributed across the canvas like an explosion of bloom. All three paintings indicate a specific kind of painting—the rapid, gestural painting that delights in color and images. It takes possession of the grid, creating on the right-angled, ordered space moments of chaos and uncertainty which, because of the presence of the grid and the immediate proximity of the other canvases in the sequence, become simultaneously immediate and detached.

Iris, 1982, a four-part sequence (each panel measuring 30 by 30 inches) plays out another variation. Here, instead of suggesting a specific gestural painting style by applying it to variations on a theme, a theme is used as the means for investigating various possibilities of painting. The far left painting is an orgy in tonal values, conjuring the beauty of flowers as painted by the old masters; shades of green, blue, and red mix with the dominating white in a pale, unreal vision of a plant growing from a dark base. Beside it is the “same” image, but this time executed in precisely placed brushstrokes against a blue, visibly “painted” ground. The preceding glazed vignette has become here a conscious kind of work that indicates painting’s limits while adding a dimension the first panel lacks. In the third painting the splendid flower is dissolved into a Futuristic/Orphic composition, prior to emerging anew, in the fourth panel, as an Abstract Expressionistic variation executed with a wide brush.

The issue here is clearly not irises, but painting itself. And Steir’s reflections on painting must also concern various qualities of consciousness of reality. This particular iris is not painted from nature, but is a quotation of a floral still life by Jan Bruegel. And for Steir this reference, rather than connoting the Bruegel work itself, may be more a homage to the painting of northwest Europe (she has spent much time in Holland), and may be intended to suggest the tradition of painting in general. Iris, then, has to do with the history of perception—it is an excursus on how the world can be seen and portrayed. Furthermore, by incorporating spelt-out words in some of her work Steir deals with problems of perception and reality not only at the level of painting but also at the level of language, which leads the discussion to a more distant, complex level. For if in the five panels of Peony, 1982, a peony in the style of Bruegel dissolves into styles of handwriting actual letters (the word “peony”), after running through two “realistic” and one “abstract” panel, the concept of reality seems removed completely into the realm of fiction.

Steir’s painting reflects a constant discourse about the dialectics of perception. It offers an approach to reality which, if not taken simply as a given, repeatedly eludes us and dissolves into fictions and metafictions. And this investigation of reality occurs with a painterly sensuousness and bravura which acts powerfully on the viewer. The result is that one stumbles almost blindly into the conceptual traps, and is drawn altogether intuitively into the set of problems concerning the things behind things.

Max Wechsler

Translated from the German by Martha Humphreys.