Pat Steir - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Afternoon Session New York Wednesday, November 15, 2023 | Phillips

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  • In a sweeping horizontal format, darker browns cascade into an abyss of foamy whites in Pat Steir’s From Dark to Light, 1990. Upon closer inspection, iridescent gold and warm earthy tones brilliantly layer to form this triumphant, large-scale example from Steir’s acclaimed Waterfall series. Seafoam greens and pale pinks underlie the eggshell rivulets, spilled via controlled drips reminiscent of the organic but directed flow of rushing water. Steir’s unique, waterfall-like application of paint results in a stunning, densely built composition that creates a visceral experience evocative of natural phenomena.


    Detail of the present work.

    Steir developed her signature technique in the 1980s, working from a ladder to sling, pour and flick oil paint to her canvases. Adding solvents to her paint creates a unique texture that allows for prolonged skeins media to traverse her composition. Steir’s Waterfall series, begun in 1988, achieves the perfect marriage between material and subject, as pigment streams down in a controlled but serendipitous abstract rendering of waterfalls. Other examples from the series are found in major museum collections such as July Waterfall, 1991, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Sixteen Waterfalls of Dreams, Memories and Sentiment, 1990, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; and Curtain Waterfall, 1991 at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. From Dark to Light is a powerful, museum-quality example from a defining year for the artist.


    Transcending the binary of representation and abstraction, From Dark to Light both represents a waterfall and is a waterfall. Responding to forebears such as Jackson Pollock, Steir has reflected: “These paintings are in a sense a comment on the New York School, a dialogue and a wink. They say ‘You didn’t go far enough. You stopped when you saw abstraction. You didn’t see the full circle.’… I've taken the drip and tried to do something with it that Modernists denied. The Image.”i Steir relies on gravity to realize the image in a process analogous to the waterfall, conveying a similarly sublime, kinetic visual experience through paint and color. As Holland Cotter declares, 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.”ii

    “I want the paint to tell me something... I want the paint to tell me something about the nature of art, about the secret of art, the secret of nature, about the universe that we exist in.”
    —Pat Steir 
    Amidst a revitalized interest in Pat Steir’s work, the artist has been the subject of major museum exhibitions at The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia, in 2019, The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C., from 2019–2021, and the Long Museum, Shanghai, in 2021. Steir has, however, been a central and longstanding figure in the New York art world, being one of the few female abstract painters to gain prominence in the city in the 1970s. She began her career loosely aligned with Conceptualism and Minimalism and was close with related artists like Sol LeWitt, with whom she lived in that decade. In 1976 she was a founder of the feminist collective Heresies alongside art world figures including Mary Heilman, Lucy Lippard and Harmony Hammond. Her mature practice developed in the 1980s, in part owing to her friendship to John Cage. Cage introduced Steir to ideas regarding chance that have had a lasting influence on Steir’s practice, as well as to Zen Buddhism, which opened the doors to broader philosophies and artistic histories.


    The ideas of harmony with nature expressed in Zen Buddhist and Daoist thought alongside influences ranging from Chinese Yi-pin painters of the eighth and ninth centuries to the brushstrokes of Sumi-e ink painting are crucial to understanding Steir’s work. She cites inspiration from the calligraphic gestures of Chinese literati paintings with their expressive treatments of reality and emphasis on the natural landscape. Reflecting on how these paintings enabled the artist to free herself from brushwork, Steir explains: “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.” From Dark to Light also draws influence from the Japanese Haboku, or flung-ink, style of painting, which is characterized by splashes of ink in seemingly random compositions and gradating tonalities and lines ranging from crisp to watery and amorphous. Crucially, her subject matter, the waterfall, is also symbol of eternal change and persistence: it is without beginning and without end.



    i Pat Steir, quoted in Brooks Adams, Pat Steir: Elective Affinities, exh. cat., Robert Miller Gallery, New York, 1992, n.p.

    ii  Holland Cotter in Pat Steir Waterfalls, exh. cat., Robert Miller Gallery, New York, 1990, n.p.

    • Provenance

      Private Collection, Switzerland
      Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2003

    • Literature

      Axel Vervoordt, Maisons de lumière, Paris, 2013, p. 127 (illustrated with the incorrect orientation)


From Dark to Light (from the Waterfall series)

oil on canvas
98 3/8 x 126 in. (250 x 320 cm)
Painted in 1990.

Full Cataloguing

$400,000 - 600,000 

Contact Specialist

Patrizia Koenig 
Specialist, Head of Sale, Afternoon Session
+1 212 940 1279 

20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Afternoon Session

New York Auction 15 November 2023