Pat Steir Gets Discovered, Again | Modern Society of USA

Pat Steir Gets Discovered, Again

Pat Steir Gets Discovered, Again

“Chance can give you a gift,” said Pat Steir, offering a preview of 11 just-completed paintings in her studio in Chelsea. The petite, monastically dressed, 78-year-old artist stood before a monumental black painting, with a row of broad white strokes from which rivulets of pigment spilled down the dark ground.

Ms. Steir allowed the random shower from each brush stroke to determine the composition without further intervention. “In some way, the paintings paint themselves,” she said.

The works are titled “Silent Secret Waterfalls” and are all seven feet high and as wide as 17 feet, part of an ongoing series that goes back 30 years and traverses the artist’s engagement with abstract expressionism and Eastern philosophy.

“Pat’s ‘Waterfall’ paintings have this performative, gestural, meditative activity,” said Thom Collins, executive director and president of the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. He commissioned the new works for the serene, naturally lit central Annenberg Court in the collection’s home, designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien. It is the first time an artist has been invited to make something site-specific for the Barnes since the collector Albert Barnes commissioned his Matisse mural, “The Dance,” in the early 1930s.

“I became an artist against all odds and nobody was going to tell me what imagery is good for me,” she said, describing her early work as “intimate conceptual art” blending words and pictographs with expressive brushwork.

Next month, she will have a solo show in St. Moritz at the Vito Schnabel Gallery, and she is creating projections of her “Waterfall” paintings as the sets for the centennial celebration of the choreographer Merce Cunningham on April 16, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

“It was unimaginable to everyone around me that a small girl — not even a big strapping girl — could live a life as an artist and stay alive and committed,” Ms. Steir said. Her father had gone to art school but, with four children to support, couldn’t achieve his dream of being an artist. He encouraged his daughter to be a poet because he thought she would make more money.

“I kept in my head the idea that I’m going to do this, and it’s going to mean something — maybe not to everybody but to somebody,” she said.

With the Barnes paintings completed, Ms. Steir is diving into her largest site-specific commission yet, to open in October at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington. She is painting 28 large canvases with the spectrum of colors in gradation, turning the museum’s inner circular gallery into a monumental color wheel.

Asked what drives her to keep working, Ms. Steir noted that Ruth Bader Ginsburg had shown up to work at the Supreme Court with three broken ribs and that the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi “is as smart as ever and looks as good as ever.”

“If you feel that you have to do what you do, for whatever reason, either political, public or private reasons,” she said, “you just go on doing it.”


Silent Secret Waterfall: The Barnes Series

Through Nov. 17, the Barnes Foundation, 2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia, 215-278-7000; barnesfoundation.org


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