Pat Steir: Paintings, Part II
June 21–September 3, 2022
After arriving at the gallery, located on the Via Francesco Crispi, a short walk downhill from Bernini’s Palazzo Barberini, I needed a few seconds for my eyes to adjust after the August sunlight outside. Then, the full subtlety and clear radiance of these cool, austere paintings had full effect. This second iteration of a two-part summer exhibition by Pat Steir comprised eight paintings—six predominantly red, yellow, and blue on black and two white on black. Barnett Newman’s attitude regarding the use of red, yellow, and blue was summed up in his series “Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue?” (1966-70) and in the conclusion of his 1969 statement, “Why should anyone be afraid of red, yellow, and blue,” which is quoted in the exhibition’s press release. In his succinct response to the non-transcendent, minimal art of the 1960s, Newman was inviting an expressive and emotional response to color rather than a purely formal and technical one. Steir’s own contribution to this discourse on color and its significance—as well as the absence of color, in the use of only black and white—is the central premise for this exhibition. Three paintings titled Red Pour, Yellow Pour and Blue Pour (all 2021–22) make the connection explicit. They are large-scale vertical paintings of identical size at 132 × 60 inches. The black is not an even uninflected color: white paint thinned to gray the black in uneven drips flows downward, finding numerous paths across the resistance of the canvas weave, overlapping and mixing as they go. The color—red, yellow, or blue—is central and is flanked by black either side. The tripartite compositions of both Newman and Brice Marden come to mind. Each color occupies a very different amount of this central zone and appears like water marks on rock: a recording of liquid in motion, or the recollection of an event, now present after passing, in this precise yet open form.
In all the paintings here, cascades of paint released and subject to the vagaries of gravity and liquid viscosity flow in rivulets that combine in beautiful aggregates. Chance as much as judgment make the paintings, allowing for material, circumstantial agency. After Steir’s initial application from a loaded brush, on or near the canvas surface, or a pour from a bucket or similar vessel, the accidental and happenstance recall the astute letting go of both Chinese ink painting or John Cage’s music. All the paintings are initially painted black and have ruled white lines that act as guides for brushstrokes or pours. Small Many (2021–22) combines red, blue, yellow, in a stack of short horizontal gestures that begin at the lowest section; as they are repeated higher on the painting, the streaks of paint combine as drips and flow down to the lower band of color. This painting at 60 × 60 inches, feels compressed and rhythmic in contrast to the tall and towering pour paintings. One Afternoon (2021-22) is another square format painting, a lot larger than Small Many at 120 × 120 inches. One line of repeated horizontal marks leaves a semi-opaque and uneven band near the painting’s upper edge and releases a curtain or veil of white paint over black. There are sprays of white as well as drips as in Steir’s earlier “Waterfall” paintings. 15 inches or so of the right-hand side is left black, the horizontal not reaching across that far: the effect is to make a partial view or shape in the painting. Departing the gallery after such a meditative and sensual experience, it proved impossible to leave the paintings behind. After all, remembering makes us who we are at least as much as what is presently in front of us.