Steir is best known for her ‘Waterfall’ paintings: large-scale works she makes by dripping, drizzling and flinging paint from a saturated brush, then letting gravity, time and — as she describes it — ‘the will of nature’ guide the cascade.
The meditative technique is informed by her embrace of ancient Chinese ink painting and calligraphy; the chaos and non-intention theories of her friend, the composer John Cage, together with Zen Buddhism and Taoism.
Steir was born Iris Patricia Sukoneck in Newark, New Jersey, in 1938 — the eldest daughter of a Russian-Jewish immigrant family. Between 1956 and 1958. she studied painting under Philip Guston and the German-American Expressionist/Surrealist Richard Lindner, followed by fine art at Boston University. Steir returned to Pratt for her BFA in 1962.
She began exhibiting almost immediately, in group shows at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and MoMA New York. In 1964, she held her first solo show at Terry Dintenfass New York. During that time she also worked as an illustrator, book designer and art director.
Around 1970, Steir met the influential curator and founder of New York’s New Museum, Marcia Tucker, who introduced her to the women’s movement and other female artists such as Joan Jonas and Mary Heilmann. ‘I was amazed, shocked, and thrilled to find hundreds of women who felt trapped as I did,’ Steir has said: ‘It was simply thought that women were not qualified to be artists and thinkers.’
Steir created her first Waterfall paintings in the late 1980s, following a visit to Guilin, Beijing and Shanghai with Crown Point Press — a printmaking workshop based in San Francisco, on which she encountered Chinese Yi-pin or ‘ink-splashing’ painting from the 8th and 9th century.
In 2019, Priscilla Waterfall, painted in 1991 and a prime example of that notable series, sold at Christie’s New York for almost $1 million.
The same year, Steir also completed two major Waterfall suites: Silent Secret Waterfalls for the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia and Color Wheel for the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, the latter spanning the entire perimeter of the second floor inner-circle galleries.
Steir has also created site-specific installations for the Whitney and PS1, New York. Her work is held in the permanent collections of museums all over the world, including the Tate, London; the Louvre, Paris and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.
Steir was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts in Letters in 2016 and in 2017 awarded the International Medal of Art by the US Department of State.
Autumn—The Wave After Courbet as Though Painted by Turner Influenced by the Chinese