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Pat Steir, Black and Gold, 2009, Oil on canvas, 84 x 84 ". Photo Courtesy of Cheim & Read.

Life is Art​

A Studio Visit with Pat Steir

By Deanna Sirlin

The experience of meeting an artist, of seeing the connection between the physical body and the artwork, can be profound. I met with Pat Steir this past September in her Chelsea studio, and we chatted about her life as an artist. Her work is huge in scale; however, she is so attuned to a physical process that requires her to climb ladders or scaffolding to make her work that it seems effortless. Known for her work since the seventies, her first museum exhibition was in a group show at the High Museum in Atlanta in 1963. Her life, which is all about being able to work and make paintings, is her art. Pat found a kindred spirit in her friend the painter Agnes Martin (who died in 2004) when she visited her in New Mexico: “For Agnes, art was life and life was art, this was a great inspiration to me".

In Steir’s studio six new paintings at very early stages of completion, each 12 feet tall are stapled to the wall. Seeing these sneak previews of works to come provides unique insight into the paintings. There is a tall ladder for the artist to climb up and down on while painting, a physically demanding task that Steir tackles tirelessly. The painting closest to the window is made up of dark shades of a warm green that turn almost blue against a warm version of a mixed green that will serve as an under layer for the color to be applied next. The first few layers are very liquid and made from layers upon layers of transparent paint that are poured over each other. The studio columns are adorned with Steir’s signature drips where she has tested some beautiful, metallic hues  of pigment and medium to see how each combination  might effect the drip. When I asked about painting on huge canvases versus painting on ones the length of her arms, Steir surprised me by saying that she does not prefer one over the other but simply considers them to be different.

Pat Steir in her studio, 2010. Photo: Deanna Sirlin.

Steir’s studio has been extremely busy of late, but I think she is not one to let her works sit idle. She has made more than fifty wall paintings around the world, agreeing to do so whenever she has had the chance. These works are responsive to their architectural settings, though the architecture can be an adversary rather than a partner, as was the case of her show at the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center whose building was designed by Zaha Hadid. Steir’s monumental installation, Water and Stone, juxtaposed rigidly gridded austere walls stained with sixteen layers of indigo and black paint with splashes and drips of white paint, evoking waterfalls, splashes of water, and celestial bodies. In a video of the piece’s installation, one can see Steir atop of scaffolding painting directly on the dark wall. Her hand touches the black wall with her brush, which is laden with very liquid white paint that ever so eloquently drips and slides down the wall. In this installation, Steir employs motifs, such as the waterfalls and more graphic minimal drawing that have preoccupied her for some time.

Four other shows of Steir’s work have opened this year, including Pat Steir: Drawing Out of Line, which opened at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum and traveled to the Neuberger Museum at Purchase College, State University of New York, focuses on four distinctive bodies of drawings Steir has made over the past thirty-five years. In conjunction with this exhibit, a team of thirty students from the college is recreating Self-Portrait: An Installation (1987), a large-scale wall drawing of eyes, noses, and mouths rendered in the manner of Renaissance anatomical studies. As if all this were not enough, Steir will have exhibitions both in Paris at Galerie Jaeger Bucher from October through January and this coming February and March at Cheim and Read Gallery in New York City. And at Sue Scott Gallery on Rivington Street in New York City, Steir will unfold an immersive site-specific installation transforming both rooms of the gallery into what she describes as a “nearly endless line.”

Column in Pat Steir's studio. Photo: Deanna Sirlin, 2010

Pat Steir has been important to me as a painter since I first saw her work in the Virginia Museum in Richmond in the early 80’s when she developed her painting motif by dissecting Breughel still-lifes into gridded, mural sized works. In each square of the grid she made a painting that constituted her response to the corresponding area of the original painting “in the style of an historical painter that the space brought to mind.” Each square was different; collectively, they added up to a very large work in a collection of styles and colors. I could not help but enjoy these monumental post-modernist pastiches--the painting as a wikipedia of styles. She took over the master’s painting, and she owned it. 

The Breughel Series (A Vanitas of Style) (1982-4) represented a postmodern turn in Steir’s work. In the 1970s, her work had been abstract. Her paint handling was gestural, but her compositions were discontinuous, often broken down into discrete elements. She then went on to a series of works about color and mark making. Currently it is her relationship to nature that is extremely compelling. Her gestural drips and splashes of paint now read as weather, as waterfalls, as water, as the oceans climbing up the shore. Steir can change water into fire, or tree limbs with a flick of the color wheel. There is a bit of magic going on here, magic that derives from the necessary relationship between nature and humanity. As Steir puts it, “We are all the shape of nature, our inner sound, our heartbeat, is the rhythm of the universe, for sure. What else can it be? Sometimes we're in contact with it and sometimes we're not. I think this is what Pollock meant when he said ‘I am nature.’”

As I leave Steir’s studio, she hands me a heavy book on her work published in 2006. On the cover is an image from Venice Veils: A Dream Project (1999) in which a Venetian façade is rendered ethereal by being glimpsed through waterfalls. The impossible artworks that make up this project are fascinating: splashes of water and drips fall down over Venetian archways and under bridges.

I find Steir’s dream fascinating; she is forever thinking of what the work can or cannot be and pushing beyond the physical limits of painting.

Pat Steir is represented by Cheim & Read in New York. 

Deanna Sirlin is an artist and writer based in Atlanta, GA. She is Editor-in-Chief of TAS.

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