For the past five decades, Pat Steir has been an acclaimed figure in contemporary art history, known for her signature style of abstract painting. Sharing a deep affinity with postmodernism while always charting her own course, Steir’s deconstructive approach to the painted image has long focused on charged icons of allegorical painting, such as the rose. Her early work was loosely associated with conceptual art and minimalism; later in her career, she distilled her visual language down to near-abstract, landscape-style paintings. She is best known for her abstract dripped, splashed, and poured Waterfall series, first created in the 1980s.
The Life of Pat Steir
Pat Steir was born Iris Patricia Sukoneck in 1940 in Newark, New Jersey, the eldest daughter of a Russian-Jewish immigrant family. Her father, who had aspired to be an artist, instead worked in several art-related businesses. Steir recalls knowing she wanted to be an artist or a poet from the age of five, later giving up a scholarship to study English at Smith College to pursue a degree in art instead. She attended the Pratt Institute in New York from 1956 to 1958, where she developed a strong interest in graphic design, illustration, printmaking, and typography.
Following her marriage to high school friend Merle Steir in 1958, she moved to Boston, briefly attending the School of the Museum of Fine Arts before transferring to Boston University’s College of Fine Arts, where she studied painting and comparative literature from 1958-1960. She then returned to New York and to the Pratt Institute, and earned a BFA in 1962. At Pratt, she was most influenced by her teachers Adolph Gottlieb, Richard Lindner, and Philip Guston.
After graduating, Steir immediately began to show her art publicly. Her work first appeared in a group show at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia in 1962. Her first solo exhibition was at the Terry Dintenfass Gallery, New York, in 1964.
From 1962-1966, she worked in New York as an illustrator and a book designer, and from 1966-1969, worked as an art director at Harper & Row publishing company. In 1969, she took a position at the Parsons School for Design at Princeton University.
Also in 1969, Steir met Marcia Tucker, Curator of Painting and Sculpture at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Tucker introduced her to the women’s movement and to many fellow artists working in New York. An introduction to John Baldessari led to a lecture at the California Institute of the Arts. She was invited to teach at CalArts and continued there until 1975.
In the 1070’s, Steir met conceptual artist Sol LeWitt, who would become an important influence on her work; she also met Minimalist painter Agnes Martin and continued to visit Martin for over 30 years until Martin’s death in 2004. From Martin, Steir learned the importance of investing the artist’s spirit into the art object.
In 1995, the monograph Pat Steir was published by the American art critic Thomas McEvilley, chronicling Steir’s work up to that point. In November 1999, Steir was the subject of an Art in America cover feature, “Watercourse Way,” by critic G. Roger Denson. Steir has since received copious public honors for her work, and currently lives and works in New York and Amsterdam. She has been the focus of numerous solo museum exhibitions and site-specific wall installations.
Steir’s early work often explored floral motifs combined with a grid or color field, blurring the dichotomy between abstract and figurative work. In these early pieces, she used overt references to specific art historical gestures and styles, and in a challenge to iconography, sometimes negated the image with a cross. She rose to fame in the 1970s with monochromatic canvases of roses and other images that were crossed out. Nothing, created in 1974 and now housed in the collection of the Honolulu Museum of Art, is an example of this phase of the artist’s work.
Steir’s introduction to John Cage in 1980 proved revolutionary to her artistic development. It was Cage’s reliance upon chance as an artistic device that opened a new direction for Steir. Stephen Addiss, a student and colleague of Cage, introduced Steir to Chinese yipin “ink-splashing,” a technique developed in the 8th and 9th centuries. This led to Steir’s experiments with dripping, splashing, and pouring paint onto canvas, as evidenced by works such as Wind and Water, and also centrally featured in her ongoing Waterfall series. In these works, she focuses on relinquishing control of the final product to the whims of gravity and viscosity.
Steir’s approach to the Waterfall series sees her flinging a loaded brush across her immense canvases with calculated movement, producing works that embody a specific element of chance, where layered drips of pigment descend the surface. This serendipitous process places emphasis on the physicality of her materials. As Steir explains, “The paint itself makes the picture… gravity makes the image.” The transcendental power of the ongoing Waterfall series is perhaps Steir’s most well-known, and includes a commission by the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. Steir is the first artist to make site-specific work for the institution since Matisse, and her commission is a testament to a lasting legacy.
Steir continues to explore the fluidity of paint with various influences from landscape painting and increasingly subtle washes of paint pours. Starting in the mid 2000’s, she began making split canvases that meet at the center in a kind of “zip”, a process she continues to develop. The split canvas works reflect Steir’s own conceptual interests akin to Chinese painting, which embody binaries in order to form a harmonious whole.
Collections and Exhibitions of Pat Steir
Steir’s work is included in major public collections around the world, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Tate Gallery, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and Contemporary Museum, Honolulu.
Recent exhibitions include:
Silent Secret Waterfalls: The Barnes Series
Pat Steir: Color Wheel
HIRSHHORN MUSEUM AND SCULPTURE GARDEN
Value at Auction
Coastal Winter, China Waterfall, included in Steir’s Waterfall series, takes the paint itself as its subject, as the painting literally manifests what it suggests to represent – it is both a figurative and literal waterfall. This work was estimated by Sotheby’s Auction House at 80,000-120,000 GBP and sold for 87,500 GBP in April 2020.
Blue and Red Waterfall also captures the essential beauty of the Waterfall series, and attests to Steir’s long-standing interest in Asian art and thought, particularly the ancient Chinese philosophy of Daoism, embodying the flow of water down a surface. It had an estimated value at auction of 120,000-180,000 USD, and sold for 275,000 USD in March 2019.
Add the Works of Pat Steir to Your Own Collection
Keep an eye out for live auctions in Dania Beach for the chance to add a work from this American artist to your collection. There are opportunities to participate in auctions via phone or online from anywhere in the world.
Selling the Works of Pat Steir
Do you have works by Pat Steir that you are interested in selling, appraising or cosigning? Call Joshua Kodner today, and ensure you receive the true value of your property.