New York

Pat Steir

Pat Steir’s The Brueghel Series (A Vanitas of Style), 1982–84, is a complex piece of painting related to the mode of combining images that Sergei Eisenstein called “intellectual montage.” Its image complex begins with a quotation of a 16th-century Netherlandish painting, Jan Brueghel’s Flowers in a Blue Vase, 1599. The piece is often reproduced—Steir copied her version of it from a museum poster—and its selection as the found work to be altered or quoted has some slight resonance with Duchamp’s use of a museum postcard of the Mona Lisa. Though not widely known as such, Duchamp is in fact a “father” of the current wave of quotational work: in 1967 and 1968, the last years of his life, he produced a series of copperplate engravings of details from different works by Cranach, Courbet, Rodin, and others, combining these details into new images, and others of his engravings from the same years incorporate images from magazine advertisements. The quotation genre has taken a number of directions recently—I think of the work of Mike Bidlo and Sherrie Levine, for example—but with The Brueghel Series Steir moves it into new reaches of complexity. She has created a massive icon of the artwork as a Platonic ideal, and at the same time has broken it down into atomic constituents with determined and determining roles. Duchamp's point is both obscured and expanded upon.

Steir divides the Brueghel painting twice, first into 16 and then into 64 equalsized rectangles, and reproduces every rectangle on its own canvas. The 16-panel version is painted in a green brown monochrome, the 64-panel one in full color; all the panels are the same size, about 26 by 21 inches, and each is painted in a specifically allusive style, such as that of van Gogh, Matisse, Cezanne, Mark Rothko, or Jackson Pollock. When assembled on the wall as in this installation the canvases form two paintings, the larger nearly 20 feet high, through which flow a multitude of stylistic currents. The Brueghel vase now reveals a history of oil painting. The pieces of Steir’s jigsaw puzzle are ultimately intended to be sold separately; how many of them will “work” alone is a question that must await another type of installation. The exhibition will travel, and in its future sites the canvases will be hung serially, that is, one after another at the same height on the wall.

This is a passional painting arising out of the desire to incorporate the sensibilities of past artists and unify them in one’s own person. At the same time, it is a learned painting, a rejection of work that fails to constitute itself out of a double stance toward art history, the stance of both receiver and transmitter. On one level The Brueghel Series is a quasimystical expression of the idea of infinity: in a comment on the interpenetration and reciprocity that exist both backward and forward in time between elements in a self-conscious tradition such as European oil painting, Steir’s piece suggests that anyone painting contains, by implication or causal linkage, all painting. The oil-painting tradition becomes a sign for art history as a whole, and such a vision can also be inferred to pertain to all experience, which is presented as a unified, coherent web of formal causes with an infinite number of possible relations among them.

Unpacked differently, the piece centers on an interplay between the absolute or universal and the relative or conditional. Steir’s apotheosizing of art history as a self-sustained formal evolution proposes the autonomy of art-historical process from historical process in general; the similarity of The Brueghel Series to a rebus or jigsaw underlines this game playing view of the art activity. Clearly, an auratic worship of oil painting in itself is implied. The medium becomes a macrocosm, standing for all of art history, art process, and art impulse; the separation of art from social realities, its embeddedness in a formalist developmental history, its absolute value independent of its use in the world—all these concepts are brought into play.

Paradoxically, the artist’s own statement asserts a relativistic view of the evolution of artistic styles, which, Steir writes, “are simply grids . . . of the conventions of a particular era.” Yet she goes on to posit an ineffable, universal essence that is art: “This thing we call style is simply and only a grid created by its time. What slips through the grid of convention, that is what is common and human and essential to all time and all humans.” Such statements are in the tradition of transcendental Platonism. What slips through the grid, of course, is inherently invisible or unidentifiable except to some occult faculty which fancies itself not subject to changing conditions—that is, to a metaphysicalized “taste.” The role of the individual artist is similarly both relativized and universalized: as a medium through which the conventions of one’s time express themselves, the artist is seen as neutral or empty, filled by ambient conditions and their relations; as the medium through which moves an ineffable invisible, the artist claims something of the Wordsworthian Romantic soul.

It is important to realize that quotational painting does not eliminate factors such as auratic feeling, feelings of self expression, esthetic feeling, and the mystical feeling of merging into tradition. Conceptual and rational elements are basic to The Brueghel Series, yet its concern is the ineffable: Brueghel’s vase of flowers, which as a painting has long signified art and beauty, becomes a transcendent thing that cannot be fully caught by any single artistic style, yet incarnates itself partially and imperfectly in all. The traditional mythical roles of the vessel—both source and receiver, womblike, a common image in goddess cultures—and of flowers, signifiers of the eternal recurrence of beauty and warmth, are further elements in the macrocosmic, transcendentalizing aspect of Steir’s piece.

A painting that works on this variety of levels is a new development in conceptual and quotational work. Its inherent contradictions may be its strengths, its most interesting inner tensions. If there is something decadent in The Brueghel Series, it is to a degree offset by its flamboyant reach and exuberant ambition.

Thomas McEvilley