Pat SteirThe abstract paintings of seem to involve physical dexterity as much as artistic sensibility. At 76, this acclaimed scion of the mid-20th century avant-garde remains endowed with both attributes, as shown in a video accompanying Steir’s current exhibition at the Helen Day Art Center.
The Manhattan-based artist, who also works out of a studio in Stowe, is shown dragging buckets of paint ladders, dumping their contents onto king-size canvases and brandishing her brush like a flywhip as she leafs through random inks, oils and acrylics. Steir fires a squirt gun loaded with paint at one of his pieces and squirts glitter at another.
“I try not to think when I’m working,” she told Stowe videographer Molly Davies. “Painting does what it does, depending on the circumstances.”
And the paint does some great things in the processes Davies documented. A work featured in the video could be a portrait of the Milky Way. The white flecks Steir produced by throwing paint on an expansive surface shimmer against a deep, dark background. It’s a haunting starscape.
Viewers also see Steir creating what could be a recent addition to the “Waterfall” series that made her famous in the 1980s. Streaks of green and aqua cascade and intertwine as the artist clad in noir pours paint from the top edge of a large canvas, letting gravity do what gravity does.
Steir’s method was inspired by the “indeterminate” approach pioneered by the composer John Cage (1912-1992), whom she met in 1980. Cage lets the dance of chance shape many of her works, the artist serving more as an instigator than a facilitator. Steir’s style also owes something to the automatic painting technique used by surrealist artists in the 1920s and 1930s.
About half of the pieces on display at Helen Day reflect her practice of let-it-be in its most practical form. One result is a set of black drops on white paper taped to the white walls of the art center’s main gallery. A suite of 14 such pieces, arranged in a horizontal row, includes a few splashes of ink that may remind viewers of Rorschach tests – except that these shapeless coagulations don’t conjure up associations with much.
Some intriguing shapes and an occasional burst of brightness appear amidst the darkness of the works created over the past 10 years and assembled here. But this painting may disappoint visitors who the video has prepared to expect visual magic.
The mood lightens and the tempo picks up in Helen Day’s East Gallery, which features some of Steir’s paintings made between 2004 and 2008. In addition to using a richer range of hues, these pieces typically smaller scale have a more refined appearance. That’s partly because their plain white frames make them look sloppy compared to the display stuck to the wall in the main room.
Steir has also worked with a more subtle hand in pieces made over the past decade. A few black drops are included, but the artist dialed in most of these paints with a lighter touch. Large parts of some surfaces remain unworked, and Steir’s edgy forms have room to breathe. Grace and harmony emerge in paintings that reflect the figurative use of a scalpel rather than a hammer.
Steir’s debt to Jackson Pollock is particularly evident in one of these pieces, which may also be the show’s finest piece. Black, brown and purple paints are dripped, swirled and splattered onto a vertically oriented canvas with enough negative space for the colors to twist and splay.
The scenes of Steir at work in Davies’ video may remind viewers of an iconic Pollock photograph: a cigarette stuck between his lips, the Abstract Expressionist crouches next to a canvas on the floor, paint dripping with a paintbrush he dipped into a box he holds in his other hand. A few pieces from the Helen Day show demonstrate similar results from this coasting painting method.
A third phase of Steir’s career is represented by a single work suspended above the art center reception. It’s from 1977, when the artist was a minimalist – not the maximalist she seems to have become. This piece, entitled “Drum Series”, consists of eight sheets of colored paper, each containing two images, neatly grouped inside a frame. Most of the leaves bear black pencil marks arranged in rows. A few include easily recognizable symbols – the letters of the alphabet, for example. The influence of the exceptional American minimalist Agnes Martin (1912-2004) – a friend of Steir – is unmistakable in “Drum Series”.
It is the only work in the exhibition to have received a title. The absence of the Others forces viewers to focus on the paintings without resorting to clues as to their “meaning”. Curator Rachel Moore picked up on that cue to let the art speak for itself. It omits explanatory footnotes and wall labels that can make museums and galleries look like libraries. Moore shows that less can be more in curating as in painting.