1989, the year of work was completed, was a significant year for Steir's aesthetic development as it would mark the point at which she started using a primarily-monochromatic palette and, most importantly, it was the year that she met the composer and intellectual John Cage. Asked about the influence of Cage on her work, Steir fondly noted how “John was free and buoyant and unbelievable. He opened a new world. [Through him] I have set up a little system that involves chance. Chance is like a partner, an amusing partner: we’ll make something and see what happens” (Pat Steir cited in: Kathan Brown, ‘Pat Steir and Agnes Martin: No Pretensions’, Crown Point Press Newsletter, April 2012, online). The role of chance, sparked by Cage’s musical experiments, is the life force behind the Waterfall paintings. Pouring from her brush, it is the unexpected journey that her drips travel that entices the viewer and, in turn, enlivens the picture. Indeed, the late 80’s mark a crucial period for the artist in terms of her critical reception as well. During this period, large exhibitions of her work opened at The Tate Gallery, London and the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam to great reviews. The late 80’s, therefore, were her coming of age, her breakthrough into the top tier of contemporary art, and consequently it is work from this period, such as First Waterfalls, which carry the undeniable energy that her newfound position imparted on her.
In First Waterfalls, Steir’s mature style - which would become her trademark - is at its outset. The key influence of Steir’s close friend, Agnes Martin, is normally difficult to detect in Steir’s canvases that celebrate the joy of painting over Martin’s cool, calculated conceptualism. Yet in the present work, their 30-year friendship shines through in the controlled and decidedly linear approach with which Steir organises her drips, influenced by the modernist grid that Steir encountered in Martin’s work. It is here that we see the push and pull effect of both Martin's and Cage's influence. While Cage provided her with her freedom, Martin offered a structure within which she could harness it. More conceptually, First Waterfalls also speaks to Martin and Cage's shared interest in nature and the philosophies of the East. The almost ethereal washes of paint, that seek to envelop the viewer in the waterfall of paint, are reminiscent of Chinese ink painting, particularly eighth and ninth centuries Yi-Pin ‘ink splashing’.
This emphasis on action painting, which invokes the legacy of abstract expressionism, is in fact a radical departure from it. Emphasizing the weight of paint rather than the action of the hand behind it, Steir’s Waterfall paintings challenge the critical hegemony of Jackson Pollock's renowned drip paintings. Taking on the legacy of one of America’s greatest artists and movements, they are a bold riposte to the idea that the drip technique should stay consigned to history. By channeling a wealth of disparate sources, from her close personal sphere through Martin and Cage to early Chinese ink painting, Steir masterfully opens up new critical and formal ground for the technique, freeing the drip from the shackles of its now-canonical history in the narrative of post-war American art.
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