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

Camera Obscura

PAT STEIR (B. 1940)
Camera Obscura
house paint on nylon
120 x 120 in. (304.8 x 304.8 cm.)
Painted in 1995.
Acquired directly from the artist by the present owner
A. Riding, "Politics, This is Art. Art, This is Politics," The New York Times, 10 August 1995, p. C11.
Geneva, United Nations, Dialogues of Peace, July-October 1995, p. 153 (illustrated).

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Lot Essay

"The desire is to leave your mark... It’s the desire to say, I was here, I saw, I thought, I felt."
—Pat Steir

Monumental in size, measuring ten by ten feet square, Camera Obscura has been a hidden jewel since its debut in 1995. Conceived specifically for the exhibition Dialogues of Peace at the United Nations in Geneva the same year, the work was installed inside an inconspicuous shed hidden behind the trees. This spectacular example, executed on three layers of mesh support, has been with the current owner for over twenty-five years and is entirely fresh to the market. Camera Obscura belongs to Steir’s most renowned body of work, the Waterfall series, yet its unique, highly tactile surface makes it a rare iteration of the artist’s signature visual vocabulary. The breathable surface, the enormous size and the numerous layers of dripping paint create a surreal experience of the forceful nature of a cascading waterfall, exuding the stirring energy of turbulent currents.

In the 1980s, Pat Steir began implementing her most prominent technique of pouring and throwing paint onto a hanging canvas. All at once serendipitous, delicate and confident, her gesture is distinct from Jackson Pollock's macho and vigorous action. By 1995, Steir obtained mastery in such methods, acting on a variety of surfaces. In the present work, Steir layered three pieces of mesh nylon atop one another, thereby creating a visually transparent and physically permeable base for the imagery. Eight fluxes of white paint, with loosely equal intervals, run down from the highest point of the mesh composition, with thick dollops of white paint enshrouding the surface. The imagery alludes to the serene and evocative effects of Agnes Martin’s horizontal bands of color and light.

This strike leaves such a solid mark that it pushes the array of streams behind it faded into the background. The streaming and gestural marks atop marks create a nuance in shade, and allow the first layers to fade into the background. Steir’s materials splash onto the surface forming a series of swirling lines and washes over the composition, like waves. Drips flow down from some of these marks elegantly and describe a grid that resembles the structure of its supporting material, adding dimensionality to the composition.

Steir specifically used house paint for the work, not only to cite Pollock’s dripping technique but also in favor of the paint's physical versatility: it has a sturdy body that, when desired, can be easily thinned, and it dries fast and rigid. The choice of the medium leads to a collection of paint marks with various visual densities. It also crystallizes the wrinkles on the mesh into the look of sweeping brushstrokes from afar; the physical tactility will only reveal itself upon close examination.

For the 1995 debut of the present work in Geneva, Steir chose to host it in a blue shed secluded behind the trees in the adjunct Ariana Park in the United Nations complex. She suspended the painting in the center of the room with delicate strings and then dimmed the lights, thus concealing the strings and mesh support and drawing attention instead to the flows of paint powerfully undulating out of the dark. While such experience evokes the process taking place in a camera obscura, it also develops a particular theme identified by art historian Thomas McEvilley as fundamental to Steir’s Waterfall series: “Philosophically, these pictures point at something about existence, about moments passing, about the quickness of an impression—about how brief a glimpse of something you can get and still see a picture, an image, a meaning taking shape. There is to them a touch of the theme of the passing moment, flashes of cognition, Heraclitean flux” (T. McEvilley, “Pat Steir,” in Pat Steir, New York, 1995, p. 69).

Steir was among the sixty artists featured in the United Nations exhibition. Curated by the renowned curator Adelina von Fürstenberg, the show presented works dedicated to promoting tolerance, solidarity and peace among global citizens while exploring art’s unmatched potential to bring awareness to and influence social, economic and cultural development. The pieces were presented in the majestic public spaces of the United Nations complex, reaching thousands of officials, dignitaries and diplomats throughout the summer and early autumn. Steir describes her chamber that housed Camera Obscura as a site of “hopes and possibilities,” offering an optimistic and resilient perspective in the transitional years between millennia (P. Steir, quoted in Dialogues of Peace, exh. cat., Palais des Nations, Geneva, 1995, p. 152). With paint speckles shining through the dark as stars and fluxes flowing unremittingly across the surface, the present work embodies Steir’s meditative process influenced by Taoism and Buddhism, infusing the landscape imagery with an upsurge of energy and inspiration at the dawn of a new century.

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