Pat Steir - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Thursday, May 16, 2019 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Robert Miller Gallery, New York
    Collection of the Artist
    Dominique Lévy, New York
    Private Collection, Texas
    Acquired from the above by the present owner

  • Exhibited

    Sarasota, Selby Gallery at Ringling School of Art & Design; Youngstown, Butler Institute of American Art; Des Moines Art Center; New London, Lyman Allyn Museum of Art at Connecticut College, Dazzling Water, Dazzling Light, January 21 - October 16, 2000, p. 22 (illustrated, p. 23)
    Rome, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna, Water and Air: Pat Steir Works from 1986 to 2003, July - October 2003

  • Literature

    Thomas McEvilley, Pat Steir, New York, 1995, pl. 52, p. 70 (illustrated, p. 137)

  • Catalogue Essay

    Standing over 12 feet high, Monk Tuyu Meditating Waterfall, 1991, is from Pat Steir’s most renowned body of works, her waterfall series. With its vast scale and dramatic visual impact, this monumental painting prompts a response from the viewer akin to one inspired by standing before a waterfall in nature. Steir created this painting gesturally, without touching the canvas with her brush, instead splashing and dripping diluted white oil paint across its matte black ground. Arrayed across its top and middle sections are staggered horizontal passages from which paint streams down, reading both as abstractions and as the representation of cascading water breaking over rocks. In the lower register, gestural splatters emphasize horizontal and diagonal movement, evoking rapids under the waterfall. Profoundly influenced by the tradition of Chinese landscape painting, Steir blends its aesthetic with techniques that extend and challenge the concerns of Abstract Expressionism. Revisiting the monochromatic origins of her series, Steir has recently returned to the dramatic use of black and white with her Silent Secret Waterfalls, 2018, a newly commissioned cycle of eleven paintings now on display at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia.

    Steir’s critically acclaimed waterfall paintings emerged from her painterly investigation of the history of art through time and across cultures. Progressively interested in consolidating Asian and Western aesthetic traditions, her approach became increasingly abstract and gestural. Beginning in 1987, Steir began using an oversaturated brush loaded with paint, allowing it to flow and drip, a technique that lead to her waterfall paintings. Steir has explained: “I was thinking a drippy brush stroke is the symbol of an abstract painting and I was going to make it paint a picture by itself” (Pat Steir, quoted in Hilarie M. Sheets, “Pat Steir Gets Discovered, Again”, The New York Times, January 18, 2019, online). Over the course of four years, she developed these works in black and white before reintroducing color, a reductive impulse that allowed her to introduce both rigor and expression in these classic paintings. Thomas McEvilley identified Monk Tuyu Meditating Waterfall as an example of Steir’s “apex of fruitful production” in which her “methodology, mingling Asian and New York School approaches to action painting, produced an elegant resolution” (Thomas McEvilley, Pat Steir, New York, 1995, p. 70).

    A generation younger than the Abstract Expressionists, Steir extended new possibilities for gestural painting in these works, challenging the hegemony of her predecessors by employing abstract gesture to introduce imagery. Her technique established a dialogue with the legacy of Jackson Pollock’s renowned drip paintings without duplicating his methods. Instead of painting with a canvas on the floor as Pollock did, she hung the unstretched canvases vertically on her studio wall, using a ladder to work. Steir’s methods require her bodily engagement and a balance between chaos and control, using the power of gravity and practiced gestures to paint. She has stated: “I’ve been making gestures in air long enough to know more or less how they’ll hit the canvas. The thing that I always have to force myself to do is let the paint hit the canvas, walk away and let it do its thing” (Pat Steir, quoted in Anne Waldman, “Interview with Pat Steir”, BOMB Magazine, no. 83, April 1, 2003, online). In addition, Steir treasured her friendship of over thirty years with Pollock’s contemporary Agnes Martin and was inspired by the repetitive gestures and meditative qualities of Martin’s abstract work.

    The spontaneous but studied methods in Steir’s painting were also inspired by Chinese landscape traditions. She explained this connection, noting: “I began looking at Chinese Literati paintings and at Southern Song Dynasty pottery and painting, and I realized that I didn’t have to use the brush, that I could simply pour the paint, that I could use nature to paint a picture of itself by pouring the paint” (Pat Steir, quoted in “Pat Steir with Phong Bui”, The Brooklyn Rail, March 4, 2011, online). Steir’s palette from this era also invokes the monochromatic and calligraphic characteristics of Chinese bokugwa and Japanese sumi-e ink painting, particularly the flung-ink tradition, which emphasize freedom of brushwork.

    Essential to traditional Chinese aesthetics and philosophy is the understanding that landscapes offer a material embodiment of the vital spirit that permeates nature. A symbol of eternal change and persistence, waterfalls are a perennial motif. Indeed, the Chinese term for landscape, Shan shui, means “mountain-water”. The title of Monk Tuyu Meditating Waterfall suggests the contemplation of transience and the sublime power of nature by scholars or monks, a key motif in Chinese art and philosophy that Steir connects to the scale of her paintings: “I am similar to the monk on the ground, a speck like a fly looking up at the sky. These paintings are simply rectangles around a piece of infinite space. The waterfall paintings are painted as though the waterfall is directly in front of the artist, chaotic but confrontational” (Pat Steir, quoted in Anne Waldman, “Interview with Pat Steir”, BOMB Magazine, no. 83, April 1, 2003, online).

    Steir brings these themes together into Monk Tuyu Meditating Waterfall, creating a powerful painting that transcends the distinctions between abstraction and representation, evoking the spirit of the monk contemplating a waterfall. As critic Holland Cotter declared, Steir’s work “demonstrates that objective and subjective, realism and abstraction are ultimately the same thing: the ‘water’ is paint; its fall is line; the energy of Steir’s hand and the accident of gravity are equal creators of this intensely rhythmical work” (Holland Cotter, Pat Steir, exh. cat., Robert Miller Gallery, New York, 1990, n.p.).

Property of an American Collector


Monk Tuyu Meditating Waterfall

oil on canvas
149 3/8 x 114 5/8 in. (379.4 x 291.1 cm.)
Painted in 1991.

$600,000 - 800,000 

Sold for $800,000

Contact Specialist
Amanda Lo Iacono
Head of Evening Sale
New York
+1 212 940 1278

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 16 May | On View at 432 and 450 Park Avenue