Thursday, November 19th, 2009

Pat Steir: Self-Portrait: Reprise 1987-2009 at the New York Studio School

November 5- December 19, 2009
8 West 8 Street, between 5th and 6th avenues
New York City, 212 673 6466

Pat Steir, Self-Portrait: Reprise 1987-2009.  Wall Drawing, ink and chalk.  Photo by Christopher Burke , Courtesy The New York Studio School
Pat Steir, Self-Portrait: Reprise 1987-2009. Wall Drawing, ink and chalk. Photo by Christopher Burke , Courtesy The New York Studio School

It’s always extremely instructive to see a mid-career artist momentarily give up her signature style. Here, assisted by New York Studio School students and other volunteers (including some associated with Sol LeWitt) Pat Steir has recreated an installation done at the New Museum, 1987, and then at other venues in Canada and Europe. On the walls, which are stained blue with gold chalk grids, are larger than life size drawings after old masters: Albrecht Dürer, Odoardo Fialetti, some baroque figures who worked with Guercino and Agostino Carracci, and Alexander Cozens. In the first room her Dürers show bodies of men, women and children; then in the second gallery, the other artists present ears, eyes and mouths. Finally, on the last wall running counterclockwise is a signature style Steir waterfall, drawn by her, with reds flowing down to the floor. This show transforms totally (but temporarily) a very familiar exhibition space. Knowing that these exquisite images are physically vulnerable, you need to keep your distance from the walls. Recognizing that come December 20 these images will be effaced, you want to look closely at the finely drawn details.

LeWitt’s wall drawings are his typical works of art, while Pat Steir is famous for painting majestic abstract waterfalls, post-historical versions of Morris Louis’s stained color fields. In what sense, then, is this magnificent installation, whose old master images have no obvious connection with Steir’s usual paintings, a self-portrait? Asked how to understand repetition in her art, Steir replied: “I, like many other artists, make certain marks, which are typical—like a signature.” The idea of continuity, she added, “is the idea of history.” These many body parts are “all parts of one, single Self” because, she believes, everything she has seen and experienced “becomes my own Self. All the experience of the world become(s) part of me.” Steir was inspired by a highly personal view of psycho-analysis, but a more accessible version of this way of thinking appears in Ernst Gombrich’s Art and Illusion, a book that illustrates many of the schemata found in this exhibition. In the history of  illusionistic art, in what he calls making and matching, each artist takes up and extends tradition, finding her own identity by employing the creations of her predecessors.  By learning how to draw bodies, ears, eyes and mouths an artist prepares to make  original compositions. By revising radically this very traditional way of thinking, Self-Portrait defines Steir’s place in a post-Gombrichian history of art.

Taking subjects from the raw materials for old master art, Steir transforms them in accord with her very contemporary sensibility. For the old masters, schemata were the basis for art. For her, however, this assemblage of vastly enlarged fragments constitute her subject, for the whole body seen from outside has been replaced by an array of depicted body-parts. As she says: “When you entered Self-Portrait you were inside a body if not many bodies, looking out from within.” One reason that this installation is fascinating is that it is visually exhilarating. Another, that it provides an unexpected interpretation of Steir’s familiar abstract paintings. Seeing how she understands a Self-Portrait, we learn about her conception of the place of her waterfalls within art’s history. According to Gombrich, abstractions like Jackson Pollock’s are a form of decoration, what develop after the real history of art is ended. And so Steir is only a belated figure in that post-figurative tradition. Steir offers a plausible, totally different interpretation of her paintings, showing, as she says, “the reality already within you, but one you haven’t yet perceived.” By placing herself within the ongoing tradition of abstraction she shows how much a Self-Portrait can reveal about her paintings.