“The career of the American artist Pat Steir has been one of pushing against the current to reach a pinnacle of strength,” wrote Herbert Muschamp in a feature article in Vogue in 1990. “Steir has spent three decades navigating the treacherous eddies of an increasingly competitive art world, finally reaching a peak of achievement with the series of waterfall paintings that has preoccupied her since 1987. Legendarily an artist’s artist, Steir has managed to sidestep the movements and factions that have snared so many of her contemporaries.” Her critical support has been enthusiastic as time has gone by. “Beauty and intellect join forces in Pat Steir’s impressive new paintings,” reported Ken Johnson in the New York Times in 1997. And in 2005 Susan Harris wrote in Art in America that “the joy of Steir’s work lies in its simultaneous occupation of real and metaphysical realms, which is sourced as much in her surrender to the pulse of the universe as in the process of making art.”
Steir was born in 1938 in Newark, New Jersey, and lives in New York City. She attended the Pratt Institute in New York in 1956–58 and Boston University College of Fine Arts in 1958–60, then returned to Pratt to receive a B.F.A. in 1962. Both institutions have honored her: Boston University in 2001 with a Distinguished Alumni Award and Pratt in 1991 with an honorary doctorate.
In 1962, the year she graduated from art school, Steir was included in a group show at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. In 1964 her work was in a show called “Drawings” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Her first one-person exhibition was at the Terry Dintenfass Gallery, New York, in 1964. During that time, she worked in New York as an illustrator and a book designer. Around 1970 she became friends with Sol LeWitt, Lawrence Weiner, and other conceptual artists, and she made a trip to New Mexico to visit Agnes Martin.
Steir’s first museum exhibition, in 1973 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, marks the beginning of a career dense with painting exhibitions. Her work is like a chant, and evokes stillness. For the past ten years the stillness has become denser, and she has made her marks by flinging, pouring, and dripping paint. Images of waterfalls resulted naturally from this approach, and she has also worked from time to time with images that evoke the night sky. Steir has said that she makes her work with the attitude of a gymnast, “first the meditation, then the leap.” In her art, she has given up chasing the self in favor of something larger.
Steir has also made installation work (shown at Documenta IX, Kassel, Germany, in 1992) and is an important printmaker. Crown Point Press began publishing her prints in 1977, and in 1983 the Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas, gave her a print and drawing exhibition. A print retrospective at the Cabinet des Estampes in Geneva traveled to the Tate Gallery in London.
Steir has had one-person painting exhibitions at the Brooklyn Museum in 1984 and the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York in 1987, both of which traveled to other museums, many in Europe. Her work is in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim Museum, and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, and many other national and international museums, including the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, and the Tate Collection, London. She was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2016 and received the International Medal of the Arts from the Arts in Embassies Program, U.S. Department of State, in 2017. Silent Secret Waterfalls: The Barnes Series, 11 seven-foot-high paintings, were made for the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia by invitation, and were on view from January 2019 until November 2019. In October 2019, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden presented Pat Steir: Color Wheel, the largest painting installation to date by the painter. Pat Steir is represented by Lévy Gorvy Gallery in New York and London.
-Rachel Lyon, Crown Point Press
Pat Steir at Crown Point Press, 2008 (3 minutes)
Artist Pat Steir discusses working at Crown Point Press in San Francisco.