PAT STEIR (B. 1940)
PAT STEIR (B. 1940)
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PAT STEIR (B. 1940)

Red and Blue Berlin Waterfall

PAT STEIR (B. 1940)
Red and Blue Berlin Waterfall
signed and dated 'Pat Steir 1992' (on the overlap)
oil on canvas
59 1/8 x 59 1/8 in. (150.2 x 150.2 cm.)
Painted in 1992.
Cheim & Read, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner

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Lot Essay

From an aesthetic, philosophical or spiritual point of view, the process is like unleashing something, allowing the paintings to make themselves. You just happen to be the instigator, the inventor.
—Pat Steir

An inventor of drastic means, Pat Steir triumphs over physics itself on a powerful scale in Red and Blue Berlin Waterfall (1992), a tour de force of color and gesture that harkens back to the early days of New York’s Abstract Expressionists. Rich scarlet rivulets stream down a backdrop of variegated shades of blue, dripping off the canvas into an unseen pool of red. Hidden behind the streaky curtain are sideways impressions traversing the lower register, vaguely reminiscent of a smudgy landscape before a blurred, distant horizon line. Hailing from the heart of the artist’s iconic waterfall painting series, the present lot stands as a testament to the artist’s facility with palette and form, refined through a lifelong study of the medium and commitment to the painting journey.
Having embarked upon her creative quest at the Pratt Institute, graduating in 1962, Steir quickly ascended through the art world hierarchy, participating in group shows as early as 1963. A brief but determined stint as an illustrator for a variety of publishing houses, including Harper & Row, further clarified Steir’s dedication to her career as an artist, which she fused with professorships first at Parsons then at Cal Arts, stewarding young artists such as David Salle and Amy Sillman. Simultaneous with bestowing her technical know-how, Steir was swept away in the strengthening women’s movement of the early 1970s, swiftly realizing and addressing her position in a male-dominated milieu: “I was amazed, shocked, and thrilled to find hundreds of women who felt as trapped as I did by the very real limitations of society and government on women. …I felt compelled to participate to save myself. I was a young artist. I hoped to escape the isolation I felt. I wanted to be seen simply as an artist, I wanted to be a contender, an equal. I am an artist, that was and is still my feminist statement” (P. Steir, quoted in “Pat Steir with Phong Bui”, The Brooklyn Rail, March 2011). How appropriate, then, that Steir would turn to the most macho of media to make such a statement, revisiting and reconceptualizing the visceral strokes and glowing spaces of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and their virile contemporaries.
Inasmuch as the present work invites connection to the New York School of almost forty years earlier, Steir’s faith in her medium, allowing gravity to draw the paint from her brush and settle itself on the primed canvas, bespeaks a natural harmony absent from the spiritual explorations of the Abstract Expressionists: “I measure a certain amount of pigment to a certain amount of turpentine and oil. That’s how I control the flow of the paint. What I also realized was that if I make the shape in the air, let’s say, a foot and a half maybe from the canvas, it will float. It floats, as a physicist explains it, because of the heat magnetism toward the canvas that keeps its shape, so I can draw in air and it moves to the canvas” (P. Steir, quoted in “Pat Steir with Phong Bui”, The Brooklyn Rail, March 2011).
This gentler approach no doubt derives from the artist’s interest in Chinese Literati paintings and Southern Song Dynasty pottery and scroll painting - “I realized that I didn’t have to use the brush, that I could simply pour the paint, that I could use nature to paint a picture of itself by pouring the paint” (P. Steir, quoted in “Pat Steir with Phong Bui”, The Brooklyn Rail, March 2011). Thus, rather than praising man’s victory over the natural world, Steir’s masterpiece, underscored by the smoky landscape reminiscent of the seventeenth-and-eighteenth-century Literati brushy atmosphere, like that of Wang Jian, instead elevates the symbiotic relationship necessary between a human and her environment.
Learned in spheres outside of painting as well, Steir’s practice weaves similar themes throughout. The present work, in fact, inspired the eponymous edition of 108 screenprints executed the following year and featured on the publicity poster for New York’s Lincoln Center’s Midsummer Night Swing. Steir’s resonant waterfall imagery, coupled with her nuanced comprehension of art as the fulcrum of history, sets Red and Blue Berlin Waterfall apart as the defining chapter in a story still being written: “My subject was and is always the paint itself. No matter what you do with paint, it’s paint, though one is able to speak or sing or cry through paint, it is paint that is singing or speaking or crying” (P. Steir, quoted in “Pat Steir with Phong Bui”, The Brooklyn Rail, March 2011).

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