Pat Steir’s powerful use of color evokes awe, referencing, without quoting, masters of the past
“It takes ten years to make a good painting,” the old adage goes. When it comes to making art, experience does count, as Pat Steir amply demonstrates in “Moon Paintings & A River,” her latest exhibition at Cheim & Read.
This artist shows us the breathtaking majesty, gravity and physical mastery that come with long practice. It is a rare pleasure in today’s art world, marked as it is by a fetish for academic juvenilia and student-grade, sofa-sized oils.
The six large paintings in the show all employ a similar, concentrated range of paint application. Poured cascades of thin oil paint form overlapping curtains of transparent color or quickly separate into shimmering rivulets of pigment. Four paintings are punctuated by a single, circular gesture that hangs midway up the middle of the picture plane, suggesting a rapid-fire pictogram of the moon. That’s it. The palette is equally focused—silver, gold, minty green, black and white with an occasional zip of pure red or yellow quietly radiating from the edge of the painting.
“Blue River” is a 26-foot raving beauty that can barely be contained by the gallery’s vast space. It elicits the sense of awe and wonder that must have been felt by the first audiences for Albert Bierstadt’s enormous 19th-century American landscapes or Jackson Pollock’s all-over “Autumn Rhythm.” Standing at the midpoint of the picture’s seemingly endless span, one is physically enveloped by the sheerest washes of blue, which atomize into a mass of electric particulate upon closer inspection. Massive wedges of cadmium, red and silver flank the ends of the painting, forming steep “banks” for the waterfall of paint inside, simultaneously drawing our attention to the spatial effects created by the pours and the flatness of the canvas itself.
Steir has intelligently mined both the intellectual history and mechanics of picture-making for many years. Free from direct quotation but full of references to the relationship among gesture, the optical and the sublime, her current work sets up a dialogue between post-painterly abstraction and Chinese landscape painting. For anyone who has grown tired of the ho-hum game of stylistic cut-and-paste that grips contemporary painting, “Moon Paintings & A River” represents a very real and satisfying investigation of the fundamental issues of the art form.