Pat Steir

One does not typically visit the exhibition of a veteran artist expecting to be surprised by some sweeping stylistic change, although that can happen. Instead, the appeal is in seeing the latest steps in the evolution of a body of work and in discerning how what is being produced relates to all that has come before. Such is the case with work recently on view by Pat Steir. Steir already had a sizable reputation when she began her “Waterfall” paintings in the late ’80s, an ongoing series that has become her most celebrated accomplishment. Nine examples from the past twelve years, all first-rate except for the small, oddly inert Simone’s Snow, 2001, were shown in this airy two-room exhibition.

These paintings evoke the natural phenomena that give the series its name, at the same time that they are, in a certain sense, literally waterfalls or records of waterfalls. In each case, Steir allowed diluted oil paint to run down the canvas, counting on the effects of chance while relying on skill to direct the outcome. The result can be almost opaque, as in the assertive wall of drip tracks in Waterfall for a Mature Bride, 1990, or ghostly, as in sections of the Asian-influenced Buddha in the Cave Waterfall, 2001–2002. These pieces are clearly descendants of Jackson Pollock and his process of applying splatters and drips. In Dusk, 2001–02, each of Steir’s stair-stepped applications of a paint-soaked brush is visible: the splashes as she swiped it across the canvas and the drips as the released paint ran down the surface. This nuanced eight-foot-square work, with its soft mix of purple, lavender, green, and white, is one of the show’s standouts, along with the closely related Nearly White, 2001–02, hanging opposite.

It would be understandable based on these selections to think that Steir’s paintings have become more delicate and open during the past decade or so, but, in fact, that is not the case. The mood and tone of the “Waterfall” series continue to go through repeated cycles. Despite the eleven years and the intervening harder pieces that separate a painting not shown in Aspen, Sixteen Waterfalls of Dreams, Memories and Sentiment, 1990, and Buddha in the Cave Waterfall, they share many striking similarities. Spread across the latter are roughly sixteen translucent white horizontal bands with rivulets of paint dripping below them. This veil of elements seemingly hovers above a mottled background of greenish gold and black, creating a sumptuous, meditative whole.

Steir has always believed in the fundamental power of paint, making work that is not now (nor has ever been) about the subversion or parodying of the medium. In the face of contrary trends, she has exalted the poetic, ethereal, and simply beautiful, an intent that might have seemed anachronistic some years ago but is now back in vogue, as evidenced in last year’s much publicized SITE Santa Fe Biennial. It is easy to wonder how much longer Steir can sustain her “Waterfall” paintings, but the creative spring that feeds them is obviously not yet in danger of running dry.

Kyle MacMillan