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Pat Steir

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Pat Steir
(Newark, New Jersey, 1940 - )

Pat Steir was born Iris Patricia Sukoneck in Newark, New Jersey in 1940.(1) Since she disliked her first name, she convinced her family and friends to call her Pat.(2) Steir's artistic talent was recognized and encouraged early, particularly by her father who bought her a paint set when she was still quite young. Steir also began writing poetry at an early age. During her childhood, Steir's family moved constantly between small towns in New Jersey, but her school years were otherwise uneventful. Though she continued to make art, she did not show her work or enter competitions and her parents did not encourage her to consider becoming a professional artist. It was not until college that she began to pursue art as a career. Though Steir was awarded a scholarship to Smith College when she graduated from high school in 1956, she chose to enroll at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn to study graphic art and painting under Richard Lindner.(3) While in school, Steir supported herself by working at the school library, modeling clothes in the Garment District, and through scholarships.
In 1958, Steir married her childhood friend, Merle Steir, and the couple moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts. Steir enrolled at Boston University to study philosophy and literature. She became particularly intrigued with the work of Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibnitz, an 18th c. mathematician who invented a number of mathematical signs. Steir eventually transferred to the Fine Arts Department where she studied with Brice Marden. Her short-lived marriage ended in 1960 and she returned to New York to study with Richard Lindner at the Pratt Institute. She graduated with her BFA in 1961.
After graduation, Steir drifted for several years. She continued to live in New York, working as a freelance illustrator for Harper and Row, and she continued to paint, but she was isolated from the art world and there was little public awareness of her work. In 1964, however, she began to actively make the rounds of the New York galleries and the result was her first solo exhibition at Terry Dintenfass Gallery. In 1966, Steir accepted a permanent position as art director at Harper and Row, but she arranged to work only three days a week so that she could paint and teach during the remainder. From 1970 to 1973, she taught at the Parsons School of Design, Princeton University, and Hunter College. In 1971, Steir traveled to New Mexico to visit the painter, Agnes Martin. The grids that appear in much of Steir's work have their origins in this visit and are often a direct reference to Martin's work.(4) In 1972, Steir was invited to exhibit in the annual show at the Whitney Museum of American Art and, since then, she has held annual shows of her work in New York.
After the Whitney show in 1972, Steir quit her job with Harper and Row and began to pursue art full-time. She came to know other New York artists such as Nancy Grossman and Sol LeWitt, and in 1973 she was offered her first solo museum show at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. It was also in 1973 that she began making prints with Landfall Press in Chicago. From 1973 to 1975, Steir taught at the California Institute for the Arts, dividing her time between Los Angeles and New York. After her teaching appointment ended in 1975, Steir began to travel frequently to Europe and she had her first solo European exhibition at Galerie Farideh Cadoh in Paris. Also that year, she began making prints with Crown Point Press in Oakland with whom she still works.
In 1979, Steir met, and eventually married, Joost Elffers, a Dutch publisher. As a result, she began to spend a great deal of time in Amsterdam where she pursued her interest in Rembrandt and Dutch still-lifes. Steir also began to show frequently throughout Europe. During the 1980s, she began to divide her time between New York and Amsterdam, a practice she continues to this day. Steir also continued to exhibit frequently during this period. Her most notable success was the four year tour of the show "Pat Steir, The Brueghel Series" which opened at the Brooklyn Museum in December of 1984 and traveled through the United States and parts of Europe before closing at The Hague in June of 1988. Her most recent exhibitions have included shows at the Kunstwerke in Berlin, the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin, and the Brooklyn Museum. In 1991, Steir was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. She continues to pursue her poetry as well as her paintings and prints.
Steir's exhibition history is impressive. There has been a show of her work every year since 1970 and most years there have been several. A high percentage of these exhibitions have been one-man shows, though Steir also actively participates in group shows. Steir's primary exhibition venues have been gallery shows, though she also has shown at museums across the United States and Europe. Complementary traveling retrospectives of her paintings and works on paper were organized by the Spencer Art Museum, University of Kansas, Lawrence and the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston in 1983.(5) Her works have appeared in the Whitney Biennials for 1973, 1977, 1983, and 1991. Steir's works form part of the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Tate Gallery in London among others.
Steir's primary media are painting and printmaking, though earlier in her career she also drew frequently. She paints in oil, sometimes mixing her paints with various materials or using layers of glazes to achieve different effects. Her graphic works are highly complicated involving numerous plates and often, combinations of different printmaking techniques in a single print.
Steir's style has evolved continuously throughout her career. Though she destroyed much of her early work from the 1960s, the paintings that survive were heavily influenced by Richard Lindner and Van Gogh in their use of compressed space.(6) These paintings also were characteristically quite large and included a number of self-portraits and other figures such as male nudes with animal heads. After 1968, human figures and self-portraits disappeared from Steir's work and were replaced by paintings of flowers, particularly roses, against a black background. Prints from the early 1970s revealed Steir's growing fascination with letters and words and many contained whole phrases and other texts in addition to isolated words and letters. These elements slowly worked their way into her paintings, as well. One of the earliest marks to appear in her paintings was an "X" which was used to cancel out objects. In 1974, Steir transferred this motif to her rose paintings and did a series of paintings of roses with an "X" through them.
Between 1974 and 1976, Steir stopped painting and produced only drawings. When she began to paint again in 1977, she produced a series of paintings of squares which she continued through the early 1980s. Steir also stopped drawing and began to experiment heavily with prints, using them as a forum in which to work out new ideas. In 1981, Steir produced a series of triptychs which featured successive enlargements of an object or objects, and from 1982 to 1984 she worked on the Brueghel series, a multi-paneled reproduction of a Brueghel flower painting with each panel painted in a different artist's style. Work on the "waterfall" series of drip paintings and prints, which currently occupies Steir, began in 1989. The original paintings in this series were monochrome; limited color was added in 1993.
Steir has listed Vincent Van Gogh, Richard Lindner, Agnes Martin, and Sol LeWitt as her primary influences, though she has explored and interpreted the styles of many other artists and artistic periods in her work. Her artistic philosophy is deeply grounded in a sense of history and a commitment to learning from the past, particularly the work of other artists.(7) Another important element of Steir's work is her ongoing fascination with human mark making in all forms. She believes that art is as articulate as language and believes that the gestures and symbols which comprise her art are in themselves a form of writing. Steir also is fascinated with layers, a concept she has explored throughout her career. Steir's works are often physically created from layers (glazes, multiple printing plates etc.) as well as containing layers of imagery and meaning, and suggesting multiple ways of seeing and reading the world.

(1)Biographical information has been compiled from the following sources: Gerrit Henry, ARTnews 75, November, 1976, p. 47; Ted Castle, "Pat Steir and the Science of the Admirable", Artforum 20, May, 1982, pp. 47-55; Frederick Ted Castle, "Pat Steir: Ways of Marking", Art in America, Summer, 1984, pp. 124-129; Paul Gardner, "Pat Steir: Seeing Through the Eyes of Others", ARTnews 84, November, 1985, pp. 80-88; Marti Mayo, Arbitrary Order: Paintings by Pat Steir, Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, Texas, 1983; Elizabeth Broun and Jan Howard, Form Illusion Myth: Prints and Drawings of Pat Steir, Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas, 1983. (2)Critiques of Steir's work are numerous and span her career. The following is a selection: Jonathan Crary, "Pat Steir", Arts Magazine 50, June, 1976, p. 10; Paul Brach, Artforum 15, October, 1976, p. 62; Ellen Schwartz, ARTnews 77, May, 1978, p. 186; Jeff Perrone, Artforum 16, May, 1978; Sarah McFadden, "Pat Steir at Droll/Kolbert", Art in America 66, September, 1978, p. 118; Ronny H. Cohen, Artforum 18, May 1980, pp. 82-83; Deborah C. Phillips, Arts Magazine 55, April, 1981, p. 29; Deborah C. Phillips, "Pat Steir", ArtNews 81, February, 1982, pp. 164-166; Carter Ratcliff, "Pat Steir at Castelli Graphics", Art in America, July, 1986, pp. 113-114; Catherine Liu, "Pat Steir: Robert Miller Gallery", Artforum 29, December, 1990, pp. 136-7; Barbara A. MacAdam, "Pat Steir", ARTnews 89, December, 1990, p. 155; Richard Kalina, "Pat Steir", Arts Magazine 65, December, 1990, p. 85; Barry Schwabsky, "Pat Steir", Artforum 31, March 1993, p. 93; David Bourdon, "Pat Steir at Robert Miller", Art in America 83, November 1995, p. 83; Kathan Brown, "Abstract or Figurative?", Crown Point Press Newsletter, Crown Point Press, San Francisco, California, Spring , 1996 (3)Steir was the last name of her first husband. Though the marriage ended in divorce in 1960, she has retained Steir as her last name. (4)Mayo, 1983, p. 6. Steir has credited Lindner with establishing the foundations of her artistic vision by encouraging her to pursue her own ideas and ignore artistic fads. (5)Mayo, 1983, p. 8 (6)Marti Mayo, Arbitrary Order: Paintings by Pat Steir, Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, Texas, 1983; Elizabeth Broun and Jan Howard, Form Illusion Myth: Prints and Drawings of Pat Steir, Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas, 1983 (7)Castle, 1982, p. 49; Mayo, 1983, p. 7 (8)"All art making is research, selection, a combination of thinking and intuition, a connection between history and humanity" (Pat Steir in Gardner, 1985, p. 83). See also "Conversation with Pat Steir" in Arbitrary Order: Paintings by Pat Steir, Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, Texas, 1983, pp. 16-21.
M. Bullock 11/26/96

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