New York

Pat Steir

Robert Miller Gallery

Pat Steir’s waterfall paintings dance masterfully on the line between figuration and abstraction. Steir has been obsessed with water as figure or trope for some time now, but these new waterfall paintings represent a great leap forward from the series she showed last year. The master is the one who does without doing, and Steir has certainly found a way of putting paint on canvas by adhering to this Taoist discipline. It takes control, however, to really let go, and Steir has given in to the medium so that she can reach the point of feeling the similarity between paint and the water she depicts. Here the viscosity of the paint mimics that of water; both fall in the same way.

The paintings are remarkably luscious considering Steir’s limited palette of blacks and silvery whites with variations of yellowed ivory and muted green. Primary Amsterdam Waterfall (all works 1990) is the least representational and the most ominous; a monstrous stroke form hovers in the void. In Mountain Water Painting, the title suggests the forms; each fall of water oscillates between figuration and abstraction, mountain and water, and disperses in foaming waves at the bottom of the canvas. Steir has mastered yet another method of applying paint to canvas and the allusion to Chinese shanshui painting is clear. The waterfall has evolved out of obsessions that have occupied her throughout the years. Steir’s former motifs, the flower and the wave, have found in the waterfall a way of existing symbiotically; a waterfall could be imagined as a blossoming of water.

The dark backgrounds, more or less prominent in these paintings, are a figure for the void, the empty space that every artist and student of the Tao has struggled with. What marks the void is the gesture of the artist. Steir confronts her self-made void with the gesture of a cipher who has given way to the will of the material. The lacy striations of white on black are spasmodic, but they reveal a particular rhythm.

A lot has been made of the marriage of East and West in Steir’s painting. The work has been described with platitudinous tags like “centerless” and “nonhierarchical”; one begins to wonder if Chinese painting also wears Birkenstocks and eats macrobiotic. Steir, however, has absorbed something profound about Chinese process and the Chinese esthetic. The Chinese painter confronted nature by contemplating it in its materiality and letting it enter his spirit, and Steir’s paintings seem naive and almost romantic in the most literal sense of the word.

Chinese landscape painting is abstract because it idealizes figuration by conventionalizing it. Hence at times its stiffness, its beauty lies in pure restraint. Steir has certainly been able to idealize the process of painting. Throughout her career she has opened herself up to the visions of others, allowing a style or a moment to pass through her. This in itself takes great control and mastery; nowhere does she better demonstrate these attributes than in these works.

Steir has taken painting to its outer limits and her gorgeous objects are drenched in the aura of a time when painting was indeed a kind of heroic, monumental undertaking. Today, however, these beautiful paintings seem almost too purely esthetic to convince. This bespeaks not so much the limits of the artist as the limits of the medium in which she has chosen to work.

Catherine Liu