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Pat Steir’s critics will be disappointed or delighted at her new paintings, depending on whether they value originality or quality. Steir may do nothing new, but she is aggressively refining the techniques of abstract expressionism. The tension between innovation and revision is evident in her show of 12 new paintings at the Baumgartner Gallery on Seventh Street NW. Steir plays the old modernist rag again, revisiting the world of Jackson Pollock and Helen Frankenthaler, but there is yet an undeniable aura to the work. There’s also a sense, upon entering the gallery, that her paintings have sublimated the space, making it more serene. The works on view may be easel paintings, but they have the power of an installation.
These days, the typical Steir painting is a square or nearly square canvas consisting of a monochrome field striped with rivulets of turpentine-thinned paint and then spattered lightly with colors from a third palette. It’s as though these three elements reside on separate axes, straining toward the illusion of physical depth. Across the bottom of these workswhich range from a manageable 2 feet wide to a monumental 9 feetpaint has pooled along the studio floor and solidified to create an irregular flashing. Steir’s manner is sparer and more refined than it has ever been. And the work is hung low to create the kind of visual immediacy and visceral involvement that Mark Rothko wanted for his Houston chapel.
Steir got to this point by “painting her way through art history,” pastiching a variety of time-tested styles. Her teachers and influences have been many. She studied under Richard Lindner and Philip Guston, and absorbed the lessons of J.Turner, Gustave Courbet, Agnes Martin, and ukiyo-e printmaking. She ended this historicist period with a piece of textbook postmodernism, creating the kind of boring but necessary work that, as the saying goes, would have to be invented if it didn’t exist already. Steir did invent it: She created a version of a Breughel flower picture, gridded off and executed in 64 different styles.
After that catharsis, Steir returned to modernism. She began concentrating on a single painterly style, making it her own. But Steir’s decision to take up the gestures of the already single-minded modernists always risks appearing obsessive in a world where styles exist like menu choices. Like always ordering a California roll a sushi bar, her frank approach seems like a last-ditch effort at self-definition. To be fair, Steir’s work can and often does succeed, largely because it registers its values with an exquisite sensuousness and an almost pretty quality that is rare in modern Western painting. But by the same token, it can also fail by seeming merely visual, just cool, or far-out, like the images from Spirographs, or fractals.
A residue of the postmodern persists even in this late stage of Steir’s work, in her choice of titles. Such names as Wind and Water, Little Red Waterfall, and Silver Sea Coast With Confetti Flies point to the fact that many ab-ex paintings operated as landscapes even if the painters didn’t choose to identify them as such. In this spirit, Pollock might have called a characteristic drip painting Tangled Brush instead of Brown and Silver and Clifford Still could have opted for Aerial View of Mesas over 1948. Steir’s titles cleverly make what was implicit explicit by noting the real-world references of nature scenes. Her work might be stronger without this gesture, which seems by turns overly pious and plainly ironic. But then, Steir would just be standing by her paint pot like Whistler, vindicating the aesthetic qualities of her medium.CP