New York

Pat Steir

Robert Miller Gallery

Pat Steir’s new paintings, exhibited under the Goethean title “Elective Affinities,” continue to rehearse the abstractly generated waterfall imagery that has preoccupied her for the last several years. As before, a vehement, loaded stroke at the top of the canvas allows thinned paint to drip down, evoking falling water, while below some flung splashes à la early Norman Bluhm represent the water’s upward splash. What’s new is that Steir has renounced the grisaille to which this series had been confined in favor of intense—not to say lurid—color. In one sense, however, Steir’s use of color remains limited: with one exception, she doles these colors out just two to a canvas, one for the ground, one for the splashes.

Steir’s earlier work, culminating in The Breughel SeriesA Vanitas of Style, 1982–84, replicated the stylistic procedures of Western and Asian artworks ranging from the 14th to the 20th century. She seems to have discovered through this research that all styles are equivalent. As she says in an interview accompanying her recent show, “I found no difference in process between abstraction and figuration.” I’d say this is exactly the wrong lesson—proof that Steir touched only superficial levels of the styles she was mimicking. Style is the necessary result of the weight of nearly irresistible cultural and historical pressures against the specificity of an almost immovable individual need. Steir may have moved from eclecticism to reduction, but this shift only makes it clearer that there is no style, no ineluctable point of view here.

In a sense the reintroduction of color, which undoubtedly makes the new paintings more challenging than their immediate predecessors, highlights this lack of style. The effects here are elementary, the coloristic relationships crude and untuned. The 14th-Street fractiousness of the high-strung reds-on-blues and blues-on-yellows blatantly exhibits the arbitrary and underdetermined relations among the elements of these paintings, few as these are; it also shows up the dullness of the few paintings in which Steir continues her earlier tonalism.

In isolating the brushstroke and the drip as chiasmatic figures through which abstraction and representation inevitably cross, Steir has focused with greater concentration on an issue that is also of considerable moment for a younger generation of artists like Fabian Marcaccio and Carl Ostendarp. But her involvement with these issues merely serves to underline that they were already current in the ’70s, when Steir was just emerging. It is as if it had taken Steir twenty years to get to the point from which artists as different as Joan Snyder and David Reed began—positing the individual brushstroke as signifier. Not to mention that Larry Poons was making remarkable drip paintings around 1970, underrated works for which Steir’s paintings look rather like warm-up exercises. Steir’s waters spring from abundant sources, but thin out to a distressing shallowness by the time they hit the falls.

Barry Schwabsky