Pat Steir

Pat Steir: “I avoid struggle”

Short Profile

Name: Pat Steir
DOB: 10 April 1940
Place of birth: Newark, New Jersey, United States
Occupation: Painter

Ms. Steir, what moves you about the way that colors interact on a canvas?

Everything. Everything moves me about it. That’s my business, the way colors interact when they’re on a canvas together or when they’re out the window together or when they’re on your dress together. Color affects me.I’m really not working with anything else but color so it has an emotional and physical affect on me.

Have you always felt that way about it?

Well, I chose to work with color my whole life. I think everybody is moved by color — aren’t you?

Not always, it depends on the color and the situation.

I think people are moved by it, you know, we see in color, we dream in color, we see the movies in color. It’s like the weather; the weather changes the color in the atmosphere, in the outside world. Payne’s Gray, for example, is the color of a fall sky, it’s a purple-grey, and from my window the autumn sky at dusk looks that color. Color affects everything you see and everything you feel whether you know it or not.

You once said that the way that red and blue vibrate when they touch each other means everything to you.

The way colors mix and the way they touch each other explains the world to me like mathematics explains the world to a physicist. That’s what I can say. When I’m choosing colors for a painting, though, I tend to choose ones I’ve not used before — except for this particular red in my show, Kairos.

Why did you choose to work with that red again?

Because I like that color.

It’s that simple?

In this work I wanted to express light. These colors are made by pouring paint in layers, none of the colors are mixed colors, they’re perceived colors. Each pigment has a weight and of course, some pigments are heavier than others, so the weight of the pigment affects the tone of the final product. The color that you end up with is what the transparent layers of paint make, one on top of the other. This is a purely intuitive process. I choose a range of color I want to work with and then I layer them intuitively. It’s not exactly a plan — more like a chaotic plan. In the work, I deal with chaos and accidents.

You’ve previously described it as using gravity as your collaborator.

When I do something, it always takes 24 or 48 hours for the paint to settle into what it is so when I’m working on it, I can’t evaluate it. I can only see what it is a day or two later when gravity pulls it down as far as it can go. I can only pour one color at a time and I have to wait weeks or a month before pouring the next color so it’s very slow. But in a way, there’s no sense of anything “not working together.” Since I don’t plan the outcome, it can’t be different than my plan; whether it works together or not is not a question I ask myself. There’s no judging them immediately and in a way, there’s no judging them at all.

“If I put limits on it, it would be as limited as I am.”

It sounds like a comparatively relaxing process compared to, for example, Georg Baselitz, who said that the struggle of expression is essential to the presentation. 

No, it’s not relaxing but it’s also not not relaxing. I do avoid struggle. There’s no struggle to these paintings. I mean, those men who did abstract expressionist paintings, who talked about fighting with the painting or all that macho stuff… These are not that. They’re based in a Zen meditation. My process involves taking myself out of it — of course, not totally, that’s not possible, but it’s an idea of embracing accident and chaos that I learned from John Cage’s theories and work. Do you know who John Cage is?

Of course.

Well, I love the way that John embraced what is. In other words, his was the symphony in the elevator, the ballet at the bus stop. And John said, “Everything is art,” whereas Duchamp said everything canbe art. Can be — it doesn’t mean everything is.

Do you believe that? 

Everything is art, yes. I love the way Cage looked at the world, the way he looked at life. It’s through my friendship with him that I came to this idea that relinquishing control would make something beyond myself, better than myself. That if I put limits on it, it would be as limited as I am, but if I didn’t, it would go beyond my personal limitations.

Has it been difficult for you to find that perfect boundary of your own limitations?

There is no perfect boundary. It just is what it is. I don’t think about a perfect boundary between control and not control.

But there is some control in your work — you choose the colors, right?

Of course, I choose the colors, I choose the shape of the canvas… Those are conceptual controls. But then when I use paint, I let the paint do its own thing. But the kind of controls that abstract expressionist painters use… I’m not an abstract expressionist painter. The kind of controls that they have are not controls that I embrace.

Which control has been the most challenging for you to let go of?

None of them. I’m happy to let them go. It was challenging to try to control the canvas, it’s much more pleasure to let it go. I think about my paintings as non-objective conceptual paintings. I never felt it was a burden to have to say something with my work. If I wanted to really say something, I would be more direct. A painting can’t say something to you. I don’t find most political art successful because it’s not direct. You want to make a direct influence, you go out and march, you stand with a sign, you do something direct. I think making something beautiful, putting beauty into life is a political action — but it’s not direct.