Pat Steir: For Philadelphia


Locks Gallery, through June 21

by Samantha Dylan Mitchell


The vaulted space of Locks Gallery instills art with a kind of reverent power unique to places of worship. The dim lighting and stately pillars of its second floor gallery evoke a cathedral, with pale, gleaming hardwood floors gently reflecting the spot-lit pieces on the walls and creating an ethereal, continuous, reverberating space where art and viewer can exist without boundary. It is a fitting venue for Pat Steir’s new paintings in her current exhibition For Philadelphia, which are infused with an ancient, eternal feeling. This sensation of artifact enhances the artist’s method of creation, relying on physical and natural phenomena to form these expansive, engaging color field paintings.

The exhibition consists of eleven large canvases, each vertically separated into two parts by a ragged, complex slice of pigments near the center. Created through the signature drip style that Steir has cultivated since 1988, this new group has a unified framework, a set of rules that the artist pushes in a number of directions, simultaneously employing and bucking against a minimalist aesthetic. For Philadelphia maintains a meditative energy, paired with a rumbling, ever-present sensation of underlying chaos.

Each canvas maintains two distinct zones of color that take on a binary relationship. Light to dark, reflective to flat, they seem to turn on and off as your eye moves from one to the other. Engaging with both parts simultaneously, seeing the canvas as a whole creates an oscillation that grows in intensity as one approaches the surface. Once close, the layering effect becomes clear, both as an activity and a texture. Individual drips of color hum alongside one another like vibrating strings, while rivulets and delicate lattice-like interruptions in thicker curtains of paint reveal layers beneath them and obfuscate others. It is the interrogative examination of surface that sheds light on the basic material interactions at the heart of these paintings: oil vs. water, pigment vs. liquid, thin vs. thick, and Steir’s choice of color pushes this dynamic. Metallic paint creates passages of light that actively engage the illumination of the installation space, while the matte depths of darker tones create cavernous moments.

Clearly present here are a handful of Steir’s influences, from Chinese brush painting to Helen Frankenthaler and the color field painters, all deftly engaged to serve her unique methodology. And while the concept of drip painting undoubtedly calls forth the frenetic verve of Jackson Pollock, the energy of Steir’s technique is from another world entirely. If Pollock’s use of liquid paint expressed the immediacy of human movement Steir uses paint to engage the ponderous pull of gravity and the bonding and separation of particle and liquid. Both capitalize on random occurrence, allowing the evidence of a process to become the image itself, but Steir’s paintings are less concerned with the artist’s presence, instead focused on capturing something elemental, universal. There is something inherently human here, not necessarily cerebral, but clearly physical. These canvases are large enough to lose yourself in, but they remain manageable, conceivable, and relatable.

Another artist undeniably referenced here is Barnett Newman, whose signature “zips” – distinctive lines of color moving across the canvas, dividing monochromatic fields –are evoked in the central slice that appears in each of Steir’s paintings. Her approach to this division in the field is more of a fissure, building off of the hairy, imperfect elements of Newman’s decisive mark rather than their call for the viewer’s separation from the surface. Her lines expose the edge of the pouring and layering she employs, creating a space where the process is deliberately made clear. While Newman created lines by shielding a part of the canvas with a piece of tape, removed afterwards to reveal a strip of base coat, Steir’s lines are ambiguous zones between the creation of two fields, developed in tandem yet independently. The unexpected character inherent in these linear marks defies the seemingly binding regularity of their positioning on the canvas. In Red and Red, surprising, confetti-like slips of turquoise, lilac, and orange emerge from beneath the thick layers of deep, rich, crimson and rose pigments on either side. The striated pinks and peaches of Flesh and Orange are joined by a luminous silver band punctuated by bright reds, activating the metallic sheen of the painting’s surface. Within the framework of these canvases, the central line is a geological remnant, a testament to time and process. It is for this reason that the inherent separation between left and right seems naturally occurring rather than alienating, allowing the viewer to enter the limitless expanse of each field, defined by this canyon between them. As ancient waterways leave gaping divides that keep two planes apart, the paint has changed the landscape of the canvas, allowing each piece to evolve independently.

One of the most exciting things about Steir’s paintings is the simplicity of their creation and the seemingly endless phenomena that the resulting textures evoke. Made by pouring washes of oil paint, layer over layer, from above the canvas and letting them drip down to the bottom, it is perhaps the ubiquitous random motion in natural formation that allows the paintings to cue so many experiences: curtains of rain falling, blades of grass moving in the wind, water eddying in tide pools, the settling distortion of old windowpanes, the rutted bottoms of riverbeds and strata of limestone deposits.

During the Song dynasty, Chinese landscape painting developed a strong connection with Taoist philosophy, seeking to emphasize the insignificance of a single human in the vast eternity of the universe. It is in the presence of powerful natural phenomena, like cascading waterfalls or enormous rock formations, that our connection with the natural world—and our relatively trivial presence in relation to it—become abundantly clear. Steir evokes this sensation through the simultaneous division and unity of the space created. Marrying key elements of the Modernist tradition with an undeniably organic process, the work urges us gently, yet powerfully, toward a place of reverence and awe for both.

Samantha Dylan Mitchell is an artist, writer, and teacher living in Philadelphia.