New York

Pat Steir, Winter Group 3: Red, Green, Blue and Gold, 2009–11, oil on canvas, 10' 11 5/8“ x 11' 3/8”. From the series “Winter Paintings,” 2009–.

Pat Steir, Winter Group 3: Red, Green, Blue and Gold, 2009–11, oil on canvas, 10' 11 5/8“ x 11' 3/8”. From the series “Winter Paintings,” 2009–.

Pat Steir

Pat Steir, Winter Group 3: Red, Green, Blue and Gold, 2009–11, oil on canvas, 10' 11 5/8“ x 11' 3/8”. From the series “Winter Paintings,” 2009–.

Since 1989, Pat Steir has remained committed to producing her signature “Waterfall Paintings,” for which she pours thinned, almost aqueous oil paint in multiple layers onto a dry, primed ground so that it cascades down the canvas. Reminiscent of their namesake cataracts, these works effect—through Steir’s incorporation of drips and frank homage to modernist geometries—what Matthew Guy Nichols aptly described in 2008 as a “rain shower through a Newman ‘zip’ painting.” Others have written paeans to Steir’s gravity-abetted rivulets and torrents, and most cannot help but note her engagement with natural phenomena: responses begged by her skilled, if ultimately aleatory, process and her very deliberate foregrounding of it. (One thinks of Steir’s longtime mentor, Agnes Martin, in this respect, Martin being the great interpreter of her own egoless production.)

But whereas Steir’s “Waterfalls” explicitly court the pictorial—even if that picture is of, as the artist puts it, the “randomness of nature”—her seven new works forgo even this roundabout connection with subject matter. The massive, incandescent “Winter Paintings”—an ongoing series begun in 2009 that also features the pouring of pigment—are about, if anything, paint, and, indeed, the elusive possibility of deferring meaning beyond the material. Unlike her earlier, distinctly imagistic compositions, in which paint courses down the surface in clusters of lines that look, in fact, like falling water, Steir’s recent canvases reveal no obvious source from which the paint begins its descent. The whole picture becomes a color field, one that perhaps suggests, to extend the analogy, the occlusion of vision by spray, but gives way to the stubborn (and presumably welcome) persistence of contour, depth, and pattern.

Owing to Steir’s treatment of the paint, planes seem to convulse and release in patches. Winter Group 3: Red, Green, Blue and Gold (all works 2009–11 ), for instance, features drips of dark green on either side of the central, ziplike line, while in the gorgeous Valentine, the splashes of dark red and light red appear only at the canvas’s vertical edges. The paint seems to have been worked in such a way that it exceeded Steir’s control: Most of the paintings evidence stray splatters and subtle changes of course. Steir’s forthrightness about their materials extends to her titles; save for Valentine, they enumerate the colors of the paints—sometimes generically (light green) and other times precisely (Payne’s gray)—listed in the order in which they were applied.

However effervescent, especially owing to her use of metallic paints, the “Winter Paintings” are undeniably made things. And, as in her earlier Brueghel Series (A Vanitas of Style), 1982–84, she here makes her borrowings known; as Steir herself admits, the works refer to Mark Rothko and Fra Angelico. But also, despite themselves, they evoke holiday tinsel in their palette of red and green, silver and gold, and—more elegantly—they seem to figure the structure of meditative space. Sectioned into two vertical rectangles of varying shades and densities, as in Winter Group 5: Dark Green, Red and Silver, the works often divide the color fields into non-hierarchical complements of light and dark. This gives the paintings an assertive frontality, allowing them to stop the viewer at their rich surfaces, before opening out in a manner reminiscent of Martin’s own grids.

In sum, the show proposed that Steir remains loyal to a would-be obsolete model of painting and to precedents at some temporal remove. This puts her in a distinct minority, despite the recent groundswell of abstract painting by younger artists with altogether other, amnesiac critical ends. When asked in a recent interview about her ability to talk about her work, Steir replied, “I once read a short story by an Italian writer about a man who took lessons in a language from another man. The man who took the lessons wrote a novel in that language, and in the meantime, the teacher died. And he discovered that no one on earth spoke that language; he had written a novel in a language that no one speaks.” Knowing how imperiled the conditions are for receiving her work, Steir nonetheless makes them the basis for continued production.

Suzanne Hudson