Rembrandt van Rijn painted and etched his own image dozens of times over the course of his life, but it’s one of his earliest self-portraits, from around 1628, that haunts the New York artist Pat Steir. In this work, simply titled “Self-Portrait,” the 22-year-old Dutch master in the making renders himself in heavy chiaroscuro, his gaze obscured and light bouncing off his jaw to illuminate an earlobe and the edges of a helmet of frizzy hair. It’s an oddly dispassionate depiction. “He painted it the way he would paint a model, without personifying it,” observes Steir. “It’s letting go of imparting wisdom to the figure. Brilliance, scale, beauty — letting go of all that. That’s what’s hard to do.”
Steir should know: Now in her early 80s, she’s made a career-long quest of divesting her work of just that kind of painterly ego — even if she has in the past few years received the kind of recognition that might give someone less grounded a big head. That includes two major site-specific museum installations of her ethereal and monumentally scaled “Waterfall” paintings, the first at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia in early 2019, the next in an ongoing (though temporarily shuttered) exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., where she has lined a circular gallery with 30 vibrant canvases that make up a three-dimensional color wheel. In 2018, her painting “Elective Affinity Waterfall” (1992) sold at auction for a career-record $2.3 million. And the filmmaker Veronica Gonzalez Peña just released a sensitive documentary about Steir’s life and unusual way of making art.
Steir paints using a carefully choreographed aleatory process inspired by her late friend, the modernist composer John Cage, and informed by her interest in Zen meditation and Japanese and Chinese art-making traditions. Standing on a cherry picker to reach the top of her canvas, which often measures upward of seven feet tall, Steir pours, flings or swabs a line of paint, then patiently waits for it to trickle down in rivulets. She controls the color — building it up on the surface in dense layers — the weight and viscosity of her pigments and the force of the flick of her wrist. Gravity and atmospheric conditions do the rest, creating a dance with chance that she finds liberating (when things go well or awry, nature gets the credit). Her drippy mark, her athletic way of working — “painting is also my gym,” she says — and her outsize scale call to mind the Abstract Expressionists, but Steir’s work is a deliberate rejection of their angsty, macho schtick. She describes her art not as abstract but as nonobjective: Her lush, dramatic paintings resemble cascades of water, but they are actually cascades of oil paint, not landscape paintings but literal landscapes. “Like an open door, not a window,” she explains.
Steir has been honing this process for the past 30 years, which may account for why she finds Rembrandt’s precocity so touching. Born Iris Patricia Sukoneck in Newark, N.J., (she took the name Steir from her flash-in-the-pan first marriage), she turned down a scholarship at Smith College for the Pratt Institute, and entered the New York art world at a moment when the prevailing wisdom held, she remembers, that “a woman couldn’t be a good painter: She didn’t have the balls.” In her early years, Steir made psychologically fraught figurative work, but by the late ’60s, she was beginning to wrestle with questions of representation, producing paintings throughout the 1970s that resembled pictograms, topographical charts and book mechanicals, using a personal lexicon of childlike marks, cryptic symbols and scribbled words (she was shaped by two influential relationships — a friendship with Agnes Martin and a romance turned lifelong friendship with Sol LeWitt, one of her collaborators in founding the downtown art-book shop Printed Matter).
In the ’80s, inspired by the architectural discourse around postmodernism and the rage for appropriation art, she turned to what she called quotation painting. Steir’s thing was to borrow the hand, not the imagery, of her forebears. She produced a series of self-portraits in the manner of painters like Courbet, Matisse — and, yes, Rembrandt: By this point, she was living part-time near his onetime Amsterdam home with her second husband, the Dutch book publisher Joost Elffers. In her most epic undertaking, Steir reproduced a floral still life by the early 17th-century Flemish painter Jan Brueghel the Elder at massive scale in 64 panels, each painted in the style of a different artist (Manet, Van Gogh, Rothko) or artistic period. “The Brueghel Series (A Vanitas of Style)” (1982-84) was a grand mash-up of Western art movements that slyly inserted its author into the canon — two panels are in the manner of Steir herself. But it was also a way of relinquishing control, using other artists’ gestures to mediate her relationship with her own.
“Such a relief,” she remembers fondly, describing her journey as a painter as first trying to express herself, then trying to express something outside of herself, then arriving, at last, at “not trying to express anything.” With her mature practice, “I’m not trying to do something to you. I’m not trying to make you see yourself, or make you see even a waterfall. I’m giving you the opportunity to stand there and become part of the painting. But if you want to walk by, there’s nothing that says you can’t.”