New York

Pat Steir, Morning Moon, 2016–17, oil on canvas, 108 x 108".

Pat Steir, Morning Moon, 2016–17, oil on canvas, 108 x 108".

Pat Steir

Pat Steir, Morning Moon, 2016–17, oil on canvas, 108 x 108".

The ancient Greeks had two words to indicate time: kronos and kairos. While the former refers to sequential time, the latter signifies “a time in between,” a moment when something special occurs. “Kairos,” then, was an appropriate title for this show of twelve new paintings by Pat Steir. In each of them, something momentous occurs at the center of the picture—a vertical caesura that centrally divides the canvas. When I look at this liminal line, I think of the irreconcilable dichotomy of existence, encompassing the separation between spirit and body, essence and appearance. The fissure reveals the abyss that underlies each painting, a place that contains the time of becoming, the manifestation of a continuum. It is also a metaphysical space that alludes to the most authentic and secret life, as in Aporia (ancient Greek for impasse) and Morning Moon, both 2016–17. These two works signal Steir’s exploration of the physical, psychological, and ontological realms of darkness and light, which she penetrates with equal curiosity and without fear. Yet a question arises: Is the line a fissure or a suture?

As much as this central line suggests a rupture, it also serves to accentuate the verticality of the paintings, as does the layered paint, which, having been poured or splashed onto the canvas, reveals the descending trajectory imposed by the force of gravity. The line, often consisting of paint from Steir’s first or early layers, implies a subterranean light that emanates from the depths toward the surface, as in Tundra, 2016–17, where we find the green underpainting that is always at the base of the paintings. In Angel, 2016–17, a luminous orange slash plays a role similar to Clyfford Still’s powerful pointed flashes, or to the slit in the garment of Piero della Francesca’s Madonna del Parto, ca. 1455; that small sartorial detail articulates the composition’s symmetry while opening a void that allows us to peer into the mystery itself.

Importantly, Steir doesn’t intend to evoke any feeling or emotion, but rather remains anchored to her process. Her method of pouring thinned paint foregrounds chance operations—relinquishing artistic agency and letting matter express itself. The work’s final appearance depends on a multitude of factors: Some (such as the weight and density of the oil paint) Steir controls, and others (such as the movement of air through her studio) she does not. The painting happens, and the artist neither resists nor fully commands the outcome. Faithful to the teachings of John Cage, she doesn’t fight destiny, but rather circumvents it.

Gone are the sharp contrasts of black and white or primary colors of Steir’s earlier painting. Now the dominant hues—lilac, pale blue and gray, pinkish white—relate more to nature and are almost transparent. It seems as if the colors themselves radiate light, a flickering light that reveals what lies beyond. Yet Steir is not afraid to confront dark spaces, as in Interior Forest, 2016. In accordance with the principles of Taoism, she shows light and darkness as equal fields, each containing the point of origin of the other, and she reconciles the dichotomy with a wholeness that absorbs everything.

Ida Panicelli

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.