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Pat Steir

‘Pat Steir Silent Secret Waterfalls: The Barnes Series’

“In Veronica Gonzalez Peña’s fascinating new documentary about the painter Pat Steir, which premiered at the New York Jewish Film Festival earlier this year, Steir recalls an interview with the philosopher Sylvère Lotringer in which he remarked: “When I look at your work closely, I feel that your entire career has been a long effort to disappear.” “It’s true,” Steir says in the film, adding that she has been “trying to take my ego out of the art and my body out of the art. I want the paintings to express something in the will of nature.” 

“In much of her work,” writes Colm Tóibín, “Steir—whose latest paintings are on view in the exhibition “Pat Steir Silent Secret Waterfalls: The Barnes Series,” at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia until mid-November—applies a mass of oil paint to the upper part of her canvases, many of which are taller than herself, then lets it drip. Or she throws paint at the surface, letting the marks happen by accident or by a process we might call random design. “My idea,” she says in the documentary, “was not to touch the canvas, not to paint, but to pour the paint and let the paint itself make a picture. I set the limitations. The limitations, of course, are the color, the size, the wind in the room, and how I put the paint on. And then everything outside of me controls how that paint falls. It’s a joy to let the painting make itself. It takes away all kinds of responsibility.” 

“In the Annenberg Court of the Barnes Foundation (the large space where people line up to see the permanent collection), Steir’s monumental black-and-white paintings—all seven feet tall and ranging from about five to seventeen feet wide—cover three walls. These eleven “Silent Secret Waterfalls” enact the falling of water, and the idea of water as having its own internal power; but they also enact the falling of paint—the great, luminous whiteness that Steir allows to have its own inner life. She is more concerned with essences than with experiences, more interested in what the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins called inscape than she is in landscape. 

“While it should be possible for someone looking at these paintings to feel that they depict or suggest the flowing of water downward over rock or stone, that is to miss the point of works that are concerned much more with the potential of paint than the need to represent something in nature. They are, to a large extent, autonomous spaces, powered by the visual possibilities of chance and flow. This may connect them to nature: they do what a waterfall does. They have some of the same force. But as paintings, they are dynamic rather than completed; they happened by an arranged accident, the surface is not settled, it is often fully free, moving beyond the natural phenomenon of the exhibition’s title and reaching into the realm of the visionary.”

For more information, visit barnesfoundation.org.

Category: Exhibition
The Barnes Foundation
2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway,
Philadelphia, PA