Pat Steir (B. 1938)
Property from the Collection of Melva Bucksbaum
Pat Steir (B. 1938)

Hungry Ghost

Pat Steir (B. 1938)
Hungry Ghost
signed, titled and dated 'Pat Steir Hungry Ghost 2000-2002' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
110 x 72 in. (279.4 x 182.9 cm.)
Painted in 2000-2002.
Baldwin Gallery, Aspen
Acquired from the above by the present owner
New York, Cheim & Read, Pat Steir, March-April 2002.
Rome, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna, Water and Air, July-October 2003.
Aspen, Baldwin Gallery, Gravity and Levity, June-July 2006.

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Rachael White
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Lot Essay

“Since the Waterfall paintings, I try to keep the titles to two words, sort of two-word poems that describe the image, so that when somebody says the two words, I can see the image. So two-word descriptive poems…”—Pat Steir, 2008

("Oral History Interview with Pat Steir, 2008 March 1-2." Interview by Judith Olch Richards.

Pat Steir, whose unique mode of abstraction owes as much to conceptualism and minimalism as New York school painting, is among the most enduring abstract painters of the last half-century. At the outset of her career in the early ‘70s, Steir was aligned with conceptual artists looking for innovative ways to push the envelope following the explosive and tumultuous ‘60s. In the early 1980s, encounters with John Cage and Agnes Martin led to two enduring friendships and a paradigm shift in Steir’s practice. Moving toward a more expressionistic mode of painting, Steir nevertheless retained the conceptual rigor for which her earlier work was so renowned. As the ‘80s progressed, Steir increasingly worked to apply John Cage’s radical idea of using chance as an artistic strategy, eventually arriving at the Waterfall paintings for which she is perhaps best known today. As her main mode of painting in the ‘90s, Steir’s Waterfalls are volatile and visually kinetic. Continuing her painterly evolution, Steir’s paintings began to eschew explosiveness for a Martin-like allover meditativeness as the ‘90s ended and the current millennium began. Executed in 2000-2002, Hungry Ghost is a seminal, visually arresting canvas from this decisive moment of Steir’s distinguished career.

A rich ochre background anchors the composition like an expanse of dry, scorched earth; its fissures form a network of thin capillaries cascading down the canvas. Orange, yellow and black flecks of paint create a consistent, atmospheric field. Closer to a rogue wave than a waterfall, the semicircular whiplash of paint on the right side of the canvas demonstrates Steir’s ongoing flair for the dramatic, even in the most contemplative compositions. Like a crack of thunder on an otherwise clear night, Hungry Ghost’s defining brushstroke pierces the fog with a swift, heavy gesture. Perhaps a veiled reference to - or representation of - the painting’s title, the brushstroke seems to have a mind of its own, moving directionally through a space otherwise devoid of motion. It also continues the great struggle between chance and deliberateness that defines Steir’s best works: Precise, controlled action(s) on the artist’s part leads to an only partially controllable outcome.

At nearly 10 feet tall, Hungry Ghost is physically forceful; engulfing the viewer and rewarding careful, up-close examination. Steir’s work is most successful on a large scale and, indeed, necessitates monumentality. In ceding a measure of control to the paint itself, Steir’s marks require room to move, float and mingle with one another in a process approaching some measure of autonomy or self-determination. This crucial tenet of Steir’s practice is fully articulated in the present work, a testament to the artist’s proficiency with large-scale composition and an uncanny ability to simultaneously minimize traces of her hand while creating paintings that are unmistakably her own. In embracing chance and a radical faith in her medium, Steir subverts a core notion of New York School action painting: that every mark is intentional and controlled.

Steir first developed this balancing act in her Waterfall paintings of the previous decade, the iconic body of work from which the present painting evolved. Investigating the potential for controlled chaos in painting, Steir arrived at an abstraction that draws from both action painters like Jackson Pollock, and more sedate abstractionists like Barnett Newman. If her earlier Waterfalls relate more closely to the former, her paintings from the early 2000s owe more to the latter. Steir suffuses gestural abstraction with a brooding mysticism, resulting in paintings that are at-once a continuation of and a departure from her Waterfall works. Hungry Ghost finds Steir settling into a new phase in her career marked by the accumulation and deployment of the painterly strategies gleaned from three decades of painting. Rather than combine the various elements of her previous work, Steir treats them like an arsenal, availing herself of them as necessary.

In subsequent years and continuing to the present, Steir’s paintings typically oscillate between her more chaotic, expressive ‘90s mode and this newer, subtler approach. Hungry Ghost, then, should be seen as a formative painting of that latter style, and one that would help form the blueprint for a sizeable portion of Steir’s work of the 2000s and 2010s. The present work’s combination of atmosphere and action establishes it as a key painting in the artist’s later career, and one that anticipated a tectonic shift in her work. Hungry Ghost is a testament to the canvas’s ability to broker compromises between disparate wings of an artist’s style; it successfully negotiates the space between Steir’s varying artistic impulses and forms an important snapshot of the artist moving ever forward.

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