photography by Patella Brothers 
written by Susan Harris 


Pat’s studio, New York


Looking ahead to a busy year starting with a one-person painting exhibition at Cheim and Read Gallery in New York City, as well as a site-specific wall drawing for an exhibition of seminal, twentieth century women artists at The Armory Show.

Pat Steir invited me to her studio several times in early December where we spoke about her art and its influence as well as the techniques she has evolved to address ongoing visual, intellectual and philosophical concerns.

“…because I dare to make it beautiful!” Pat declared, in an almost defiant response to my question about why she thought her art had a strong following among younger artists. Pat Steir is a highly esteemed painter of conceptually based and, unabashedly beautiful paintings. Depending upon how the art world wind is blowing, beauty is sometimes embraced as an acceptable strategy or, as is more often the case, derided as “decorative” or “woman’s art.” We were looking over the list of women artists in VENUS DRAWN OUT, an exhibition I am curating for The Armory Show Modern that features innovative drawings by visionary, twentieth century female artists.

Pat agreed to create a large-scale wall drawing that takes two full days to execute for only five days of viewing by the fair-going public before being painted over. We talked about the challenges still plaguing women artists in the art world today, and she told me how aggressive those who “made it” had to be in order to make a name for themselves. She recalled a humorous anecdote about being in the bathtub when her husband insisted she take a call.

It was Helen Frankenthaler, a notoriously difficult person who was less than generous towards fellow women artists, yet who was calling Pat to say she was following her work and liked it. Having studied in the late 1950s and early ‘60s under both Richard Lindner, a figurative painter, and Philip Guston, an Abstract Expressionist painter at the time, Pat developed from the beginning an artistic vision that quite naturally encompassed both figuration and abstraction. Her early works, visibly influenced by Lindner, were unsurprisingly out of fashion during the height of Minimalism. They were characterized by taut and compartmentalized compositions with figurative, dream-like images, joined by a vocabulary of abstract painted and drawn marks with brushed and dripping paint that foreshadowed key elements in her later signature waterfall paintings.

In time, she sought ways to make paintings that explored the nature of making a picture while representing nature itself, and found inspiration in Chinese Taoist principles of “non-doing” and in John Cage’s ego-less reliance upon chance operations. Like this pioneer composer- seer whose theories and practices of indeterminacy had a profound influence on the thinking and practice of avant-garde art in the second half of the twentieth century, Pat wanted to remove the subjectivity of self and decision-making from her process of painting. She devised a technique of pouring paint down the surface of the canvas—harnessing the properties of both gravity and the fluidity of paint to make a picture of nature that was also a picture of painting.



During the photo shoot for MUSE, Pat agreed to paint—allowing us to witness what seemed like a private, intimate act. She chose to work on a large, unfinished, stretched canvas leaning against the wall. Standing quietly with a zen-like focus, she was suddenly on a ladder holding a brush and can of black paint, and with a fluid, continuous gesture of her arm, submerged the brush in the paint and brought it up to the painting surface laying down thick, horizontal bands of black from which drips of liquid streamed downward. She then poured the bucket of paint directly onto and across the canvas producing cascades of falling liquid that invoked images of flowing water. Pausing to thin the paint with water, she continued with a series of small flicks of the wrist to generate an atomized veil of paint evoking the shimmering spray emanating from the pounding force of a waterfall.

“What interested me about the waterfalls was that with a single brushstroke, with the economy of an entirely abstract gesture (which is the icon of American abstract painting), I can make a picture—and achieve the opposite of American abstraction. The painting paints itself, as it were, from the gravity of the flowing paint. My whole work revolves around this force of gravity which is capable of generating an image as a result of the process.”

Floating Line, the wall drawing that Pat is executing for The Armory Show, is the latest in a continuum of drawing installations she started doing in 1975. Just as the drip in Pat’s paintings is at once, a line, a mark, an image and a process so is line, to her way of thinking, simultaneously something literal in and of itself, and an equivalent to both writing and drawing. In previous conversations I had with her for Pat Steir: drawing out of line, the 2010 drawing survey that we worked on together, she expressed her belief in the act of making a line as being charged with an association to humankind’s earliest efforts to communicate. In the mid-seventies, she stopped painting altogether and engaged in an intense exploration of the properties of line and drawing that was deepened by her encounter with calligraphy, a visual art/language merging line and content.

In the early nineties, Pat did several versions of a continuous line installation called The Heart Line that kept mutating as it moved along walls and rooms: from a Phoenician maze, to a labyrinth, a Celtic knot, an endless Leonardo drawing, subway graffiti, and more.

Floating Line also features a single, unbroken line–a drippy, meandering line–an amplification of her signature, horizontal brushstroke–that appears to float across two intersecting walls through the simplest of means. This floating line is a mapping of Pat’s gesture and movement in space achieved by setting a white line against a dark ground and, according to Pat, a slight adjustment to the perspective in the corners. The drawing marks a literal space defined by the architecture of the two walls that viewers can physically inhabit and in which they experience the tracing of the artist’s passage. The illusion of a floating line, meanwhile, conjures up a magic space by summoning up something there that really isn’t. Now isn’t that beautiful…?


Endless line, 2013
Newcomb Art Gallery, Tulane University
Photograph by Owen Murphy