New York

Pat Steir

New Museum of Contemporary Art; M. Knoedler & Co.

For her installation at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, Pat Steir had the movable interior walls taken out and the permanent surrounding walls painted with a dilute solution of India ink that was then wiped away. The resulting feathery or windblown-looking gray ground received, from the hands of Steir herself and of several coworkers, about 140 images of human facial features drawn with black Conté crayon and oilstick. These images were adopted from various books ranging in date from the 17th to the 19th centuries, mostly books about how to draw human anatomy. The installation’s title, Self-Portrait, 1987, refers not to an individual but a communal selfhood, and the array of images constitutes a collaborative self-portrait of Western humanity.

The use of all the inner walls as pictorial surfaces redefines the museum space, placing it in a category with painted paleolithic caves, Egyptian tombs of the Middle and New Kingdom periods, Byzantine chapels, European cathedrals, and so on—primarily religious spaces, though Roman frescoed rooms are related, too. By analogy with these religious spaces, the museum space is sacralized in a way that does not depend on the Modernist sacralization of artistic content. The history of art is implicitly summed up, first as an instrument of religion and later (since the Romantic period at least) as a quasi religion itself.

As in Steir’s Breughel Series: A Vanitas of Style, 1982–84, the individual and the communal were joined in this work through the mediation of the mega-person, history. The Breughel Series broke down Western tradition into fragments while at the same time paying homage to it as a whole. Like certain cabalistic texts (especially the Zohar), the Self-Portrait breaks the Macroprosopus, or Great Face, of humanity into categories of constituent parts (eyes, ears, noses, mouths), which lie ready to hand as if they were materials to be recombined by some grand artificer. Here in this museum-temple, Steir seems to be saying, are the parts of which a human being has been put together since the Renaissance. Now they have fallen apart—how will they be put together again for history’s next adventure?

In the simultaneous exhibition uptown Steir showed nine oil paintings from her new series, “The Moon and the Wave,” 1986–87. These paintings, all but one of which are round, are based on a Japanese genre in which the full moon is seen through or behind a breaking wave, and on certain similar phenomena in the work of the 19th-century forerunners of European abstract painting, especially the style of J. M. W. Turner as seen in Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory)—the Morning after the Deluge, 1843. Each of Steir’s new works shows a single breaking wave that almost entirely fills the canvas, the viewer gazing down the wave’s curl, or what surfers call “the tube.” The circle of each round painting represents the moon, which is almost obscured by the wave. Behind these paintings lies the development of proto-abstraction in 19th-century painting—partly through japonisme, the influence of Japanese graphic work on many European artists of that period. The transition from representation to abstraction was approached through attempts to represent natural forces so vast or so elemental that they innately hover on the edge of abstraction. As Monet’s lily ponds and Turner’s seascapes show, the watery element is especially an interface between abstraction and representation. In ancient mythologies the ocean is the cauldron in which the dissolution, transformation, and reemergence of forms occurs—the site, that is, where the abstract and concrete change into one another. Steir, compressing into these works the formal sequence that leads from Chinese and Japanese origins through japonisme to Modernist abstraction, has suggested something here about the natural energy that drives history and renders it untame and ever new, an oceanic force that is always casting up new forms and taking down old ones.

Thomas McEvilley