New York

Pat Steir

Cheim & Read

Earth, water, and air are the principal themes in these eleven paintings by Pat Steir, most of which were begun over the past three years and completed last winter. Their mood is somber: They are meditations on the transience of natural phenomena (Bay of Mumbai, 2001–2002; Sand, 1998–99), the passing of time (Winter Sky, 2000–2002), and the fragility of life (Hungry Ghost, 2000-2002). Steir achieves her abstraction by the strict observance of procedural rules regarding palette, methods of paint application, and so on—something that’s been important to her since her early conceptual period Once these rules are set, she sticks to them, even when the painting’s execution takes two years—but they combine paradoxically with a sense of letting go, derived from her studies of Zen calligraphy and from her knowledge of Lao-tzu’s Tao Te Ching, the 2,500-year-old Chinese book on the art of living and the alignment of thought and action with the path of nature.

Steir’s rules construct her frame, while meditation allows her to attain an inner condition in which action happens effortlessly, without interference—the wei wu wei (literally “doing not-doing”) that Lao-tzu insisted on: “When nothing is done, nothing is left undone.” If the paintings carry a mood, it is because that was, in fact, the mood of the moment. They embody the revelation, the satori, of the here and now. As Steir told me, “It takes time to get there, and then. . . it makes sense in a second.”

This is apparent in Hungry Ghost. Here the phantasm of grief makes an unexpected entrance, lacerating the layout of everyday experience like the sudden apparition of a restless spirit. (The canvas reveals Steir’s sadness over the recent death of her sister, Karen.) The background is a layering of more or less oily rivulets of dark paint poured on the canvas and red, orange, and yellow splashed spots. In the foreground, a shiny semicircle of black paint enters forcibly from the bottom right and breaks into two “tails” toward the top. As the gesture is released upward, the paint splatters violently on the canvas, and there it is: Matter equals feeling. No second thoughts, no pentimenti.

Winter Sky verges on landscape painting. Cold and dark yet full of luminosity, the sky is crossed by stars and comets; an elongated shape reminiscent of the Milky Way spreads over the central portion of the canvas. Steir peers deep into the limpid depths of a winter night, ready to take in its inherent splendor. Infinitesimal flashes of celestial bodies reach us from the darkness, stellar lights that pulsate with energy. A splash of black in the center of the canvas creates a vortex of dark matter, that ubiquitous nonluminous component of the universe whose identity remains a mystery. The same luminosity, this time from the ocean, appears in Night Sea, 2000-2002, a painting suspended at the border between abstraction and the depiction of “something” emerging from the deep. Green spots of plankton, red dots of coral, and blue fluctuating algae at the bottom of the canvas hint at minute submarine life. The technique here is a mix of pouring and splashing oil paint (fatter for the underlayer, less oily on top) so that it flows down the surface in accord with gravity. Steir maintains control over her medium, then suddenly relinquishes it. (Lao-tzu: “Do your work, then step back.”) The paint finds its own way freely down the surface. At play here are only discipline, gravity, paint . . . and good luck.

Ida Panicelli

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.