Mountain Water Painting is an immersive and monumental work from Pat Steir’s emblematic series of Waterfall paintings. Spanning over twelve feet across, the work perfectly captures a painterly sensibility that the artist embraces through the paint’s interaction with chance. Painted in 1990, Mountain Water Painting is a classic example from the artist's celebrated Waterfall series and narrates the very apex of Steir’s acclaimed oeuvre. Innumerable drips of paint pouring down the canvas are accompanied by forceful splashing across the bottom. Steir first mused on the idea of devoting herself solely to the celebration of pure paint and chance in her seminal work from 1971, Looking for the Mountain; however, it was not until the late 1980s that she gained the confidence to totally embrace the possibilities of chance. With its drips and splashes, the work is perhaps most importantly a tribute to one of paint’s most elemental properties—its fluidity.
Steir arrived on the New York art scene in the 1970s during the afterglow of Abstract Expressionism and the height of Minimalism. Her canvases evoke the painterly abandon of Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings through their celebration of the embodiment of the drip marks. Whereas Pollock’s abstraction elicits the dynamism between action and paint, Steir’s emphasizes the weight of the paint itself rather than the action of the hand behind it. Only in her later works did she begin to incorporate a more diverse color palette into her compositions. The early palette choices acted as a vehicle to further relinquish expressive control, the primary focus of her Abstract Expressionist predecessors. Mountain Water Painting is among the early Waterfall paintings that are characterized by their muted color palette. As such, despite the visual resemblance, Steir’s Waterfall series challenges the critical hegemony of Pollocks’ renowned drip paintings.
Drawing from ancient Asian techniques as a source of inspiration, in particular the Yi-pin “ink-splashing” paintings from the 8th and 9th centuries during the Tang dynasty in China, Steir began to loosely apply paint to unstretched canvas tacked to wall in the late 1980s. Standing atop a ladder, she would apply the over-saturated paint brush at the top of the canvas, then remove herself from the action and allow paint to slowly trickle down the canvas. The mere act of removal completes the work by allowing gravity to act on her behalf and letting chance dictate the final destiny of the paint. The autonomy exhibited herein is nonetheless guarded by the artist’s premediated composition, where Steir exerts her artistic authority. Steir had already preemptively orchestrated the symphony of the drips and organized them into premediated and compartmentalized grids across the canvas before gravity could irreversibly alter the composition. Here, the adaptation of the modernist grid is particularly evident in the composition, often interpreted as influenced by Steir’s dear friend, Agnes Martin.
Taking after its name, the painting not only eludes to the subject of a waterfall, but also embodies a painterly reality that captures the fluidity of water in a frozen time capsule. The drips pulled down by gravity are frozen in time as the paint dries and is displayed across the canvas as a static flow. By this method, the paint medium simultaneously depicts the literal subject as well as conjures a phenomenological experience of a waterfall that stimulates a full range of human senses, including the sight, sound and smell of standing in front of such a powerful natural phenomena. Such illusion of natural reality is not delineated by the artist's hand through the paint, but instead captured by the essence of the demeanor of the drip marks. In a conversation with Ted Castle, Steir explained of her works, “When I began making these paintings that show marks, I started with the idea of making a picture of the desire to make a picture. The mark would be the picture, that’s all, a kind of primitive picture of desire” (the artist quoted in Thomas McEvilley, Pat Steir, Cambridge 1995, p. 65). By channeling a wealth of disparate sources, from her close personal sphere through Martin to early Chinese ink paintings, Steir masterfully opens up new critical and formal ground for the technique of drip painting, freeing the drip from the shackles of its now-canonical history in the narrative of post-war American art.
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