In the 1970s, when I first began paying attention to contemporary art, Pat Steir was one of an emerging cohort of artists that included, among others, Elizabeth Murray, Joan Snyder, Jennifer Bartlett and Judy Pfaff. Forty years later, Steir is a long established presence on the New York and international art scene, an accomplished artist who has extended the vocabulary of the abstract gesture in paintings, prints, and drawings.
Fifty of Steir’s drawings created over 40 years are currently (through July 3) on view at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art in Pat Steir: Drawing Out of Line, an exhibition that highlights the primacy of mark-making in the artist’s work.
“I start with a mark, and the mark is a universal desire to speak or communicate,” Steir has said. “The mark-making that I do in the paintings, in the drawings, in the prints, has to do not with self-expression but with a kind of human expression.”
The RISD retrospective breaks Steir’s drawings down into five distinct bodies of work – minimalist word/image drawings (1971-74), serial investigations of line (1975-76), large-scale wave drawings (1983-86), four series of waterfall drawings (1991), and a series of more recent gestural drawings (2007-2008). For art student and art lover alike, the exhibition provides an opportunity to see the evolution an artist’s most intimate and immediate work, drawings in Pat Steir’s case being a form of non-verbal writing.
In an early pencil and ink wash drawing such as “The Burial Mound at Stonehenge” (1973), you see Steir responding to a place and a form with a rhythm of scribbled marks that might either be mute words or silence, visible music. Art, she is saying, is a language.
In the 1991 drawings “Austria Group, No. 2” and “February Series II,” you see the waterfall forms for which Steir is well known. The material and dynamic correspondence between falling water and the liquid mediums dripping down the paper is evident and elemental. These are not pictures of waterfalls, but art as waterfalls. In her appropriation of dripping forms, Steir is also conversing with the work of other artists such as Jackson Pollock and Helen Frankenthaler who have used gravity as a determining factor in creating their imagery.
Drawing Out of Line also features a wall drawing entitled “Self-Portrait: An Installation” that draws on art history for its imagery and was rendered on a wall at RISD’s new Chace Center with the assistance of a dozen RISD students.
Pat Steir will herself appear in a pair of artist dialogues on the RISD campus. On February 28 at 2:30 p.m., Steir will be joined in public conversation by Kathan Brown, founding director of the Crown Point Press. On March 11 at 6:30 p.m., she will discuss drawing with artist Julie Mehretu, a 1997 RISD graduate who has made the same sort of entrance onto the art stage that Pat Steir did in the 1970s.
[Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art, 224 benefit St., Providence, RI, 401-454-6500.]