Lot 10
  • 10

PAT STEIR | Blue and Red Waterfall

120,000 - 180,000 USD
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  • Pat Steir
  • Blue and Red Waterfall 
  • oil on canvas
  • 32 by 32 in. 81.3 by 81.3 cm.
  • Executed in 1994.


Courtesy of the artist and Lévy Gorvy, New York 

Catalogue Note

For five decades, Pat Steir has actively pursued painting as a conceptual practice. Early in her career she centered her artistic output on in-depth investigations into various icons and symbols sourced from traditional Western painting. Sharing a deep affinity with the nascent discourse of postmodernism while always charting her own course, Steir’s deconstructive approach to the painted image has long focused on charged icons of allegorical painting, such as the rose. These flowers often appear isolated and crossed out, stripped of their conventional contexts but still conveying their essential natures. In 1985, Steir turned her focus to another shorthand for natural beauty: the waterfall. This shift in content witnessed a simultaneous breakthrough in method and style, as Steir began to fling and pour paint onto the canvas. This forceful incorporation of gesture brought the artist’s practice into a close and multifaceted relationship with the represented object. The series and stylistic developments within Steir’s practice that precede the Waterfall Paintings reveal a remarkable diversity in both formal imagery and conceptual approaches to the medium. She has lived in New York for the duration of her career, and arrived in the city to find the dominance of the Abstract Expressionists ebbing. Steir studied with Philip Guston as a young artist, while supporting herself through teaching and jobs in the publishing industry. Steir was (and remains) extremely well-versed in art historical scholarship on both the Eastern and Western traditions, and writes masterfully on the subject. While she came of age artistically under the strong Conceptual impulse of the 1970s, she was more drawn to Minimalism’s reductive purity, particularly in the work of Agnes Martin. Her appreciation of art history deepened during a residency in Europe, and in the 1980s she created a unique place for herself within the Pictures Generation by appropriating the work of established masters of painting. However, unlike the other Pictures artists, Steir borrowed without irony. She cast a wide net, sourcing imagery from several centuries, from Botticelli and Brueghel to Basquiat. Toward the end of the decade she distilled her visual language down to near-abstract, landscape-style paintings executed with a masterful gesturality. A circular line became the central motif of her paintings for a few years, which she usually set against an atmospheric conflation of land, sea, and sky-like horizons. The dynamic materiality of the linear elements of these paintings largely stems from the streams of paint flowing from the tondo-shaped forms. The Waterfall Paintings are thus a logical extension of these works, all comprised of a cascade of washy pigments streaming over a matte (usually) black surface of paint that is thick enough to thoroughly cover the canvas yet thin enough to retain the imprint of the artist’s brushstrokes. Steir makes these paintings by applying oil paint to canvases while they are oriented vertically, using thick brushes and slow, methodical strokes. This results in dense areas of pigment (sites of the initial contact between brush and canvas) that trail into thin vertical drips. Steir also flings paint onto the canvases, applying an active horizontal vector to the compositions. These elements of the composition index the movement of the artist’s gesture, imprinting a material trace of an ephemeral performative act. After examining photographs of herself painting, Steir was surprised to find that her arms move along a trajectory that matches the desired shape of the image: “I always thought [the paint] took its horizontal form when it hit the canvas, but it takes its form in the air right in front of the canvas and then it moves to the canvas.” Flung passages of positively-pigmented paint often intersect with the vertical rivulets of paint in the lower third of the canvas. A formally conspicuous means of approaching Steir’s Waterfall Paintings is to examine the works’ similarity to Chinese landscapes. The Chinese aesthetic ideal for the genre is rooted in clearly-defined principles that consider the painting’s subject to be a channel connecting concept and act. The goal for these landscape artists was to create an aesthetic totality that manifested a new visual entity within the world (rather than a window onto another, virtual world). Repetition and practice were of primary importance when developing one’s skills as a painter—not as a means of honing one’s craft but as a way to internalize the ideals of the artists they were emulating. These painters did not consider their images to be representational in the same way that Western artists did; the marks made by the ink were considered “natural” in the same way that the mountains, trees, and rivers in their landscapes were natural and, accordingly, the use of “unnatural” color (that could not be derived from the ink itself) was discouraged. Geometric perspective was never applied to the compositions of the classical period, for it was considered to be the bending of Nature to the human will and therefore perverse. They employed an all-overness strikingly similar to the Abstract Expressionists of the West, and like the Minimalists, considered the viewer’s gaze to be a continuation of the act of creation, insisting that their works were never finished, but simply passed into the realm of the viewer after the painter ceased painting. Similarly, the subject of Steir’s Waterfall Paintings is the paint itself, for, like Jasper Johns’ Flag, it literally manifests what it suggests to represent; it both is a picture of a waterfall and is a waterfall. The scale and space of these works present an immersive, nonrepresentational but recognizably figurative and architectonic space expressed through organically dissolving and emerging forms within the non-hierarchic, centerless composition. Indeed, these works are sites where myriad artistic philosophies that emerged across multiple centuries and continents converge and coalesce to create a body of work that cannot be wholly incorporated into any one movement or paradigm outside of those established by Steir herself.