Along the lines

Subtle wit of Pat Steir’s work comes across in RISD exhibition

Many of Pat Steir’s works were produced in series. Pictured: “The Austria Group, No. 2.’’ Many of Pat Steir’s works were produced in series. Pictured: “The Austria Group, No. 2.’’ (Courtesy of Pat Steir)
By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / April 9, 2010

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

  • E-mail|
  • Print|
  • Reprints|
  • |
Text size +

Surgeons draw. Scientists draw. Composers, carpenters, and children all draw.

Artists draw, too. But so what? Drawing is one of those peculiarly human functions of thinking (or not thinking), like talking or writing. It may be remarkable. But because it is so fundamental, so ubiquitous, it can also be pretty prosaic.

Inevitably, in the art world — and especially in art schools — there’s a special rhetoric that surrounds drawing. You would think, in the face of it, that the universe itself began with drawing. And perhaps it did.

But increasingly I find myself recoiling from the obsession with drawing that is whipped into a kind of cult by some art institutions, as if putting pencil or charcoal to paper were somehow imbued with spiritual radiance, connected with deeper, more authentic modes of being.

“Pat Steir: Drawing Out of Line,’’ at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art in Providence, has more than a whiff of the academic cult of drawing about it. The experience comes dangerously close to crossing the line that separates art from pedagogy. I suppose that makes RISD, one of the country’s leading art schools, the perfect host venue. But I went through most of the show, handsomely installed in the museum’s main gallery for temporary exhibitions, feeling subjected to various propositions about drawing — and resenting it.

It was only when I went through a second time that I began to develop a sneaking admiration for Steir’s subtle wit, and the way her work unexpectedly harbors many modes of feeling — from cerebral reticence to full-blown barbaric yawps.

Steir is a widely admired artist in her early 70s. She studied at the Pratt Institute in New York and then Boston University, and now lives in New York. She began writing poetry before she painted. But she studied and practiced art from early on. Her formative years — the 1970s, the heyday of minimalism and conceptualism — saw artists examining the viscera of art with beady eyes and sharpened scalpels, as if hoping to divine a glorious future even in the midst of widely rumored ruins.

Steir’s early works reflect the obsessions of the day with unimpeachable fidelity, like a light- sensitized plate. Her drawings resemble worksheets, filled with grids, diagrams, color charts, crosses, dashes, and crosshatching. They’re self-consciously about process, in other words: the very building blocks of art.

But they have none of the dry rigor (blooming into bliss) of Sol LeWitt or Agnes Martin, two artists she clearly revered and whose work reflects similar interests. Instead they mingle minimalist restraint with the emotive effusions and scientific obsessions of more singular artists, from Leonardo da Vinci to Cy Twombly.

An untitled drawing of 1972, for instance, includes two sets of script that look like lists, or scientific inventories, both crossed out but still legible. In fact, one is a poem, the other a love letter (I thought of Twombly’s wonderful “Letter of Resignation’’). Other sheets pair figurative drawings of squids, plants, or fighter planes with straight lines, smudges, and other basic marks.

Sometimes, in trying to combine such different registers, Steir’s drawings fall between stools. A drawing called “The Burial Mound at Stonehenge’’ shows a rudimentary landscape under a sky that is actually a grid of parallel pencil squiggles, each a different degree of darkness. I suppose both parts of the drawing argue, intellectually, an affinity with first principles and deep history, but the combination seems arbitrary — and not in a jolting or illuminating way.

An early series called “Fear Map,’’ which developed out of Steir’s attempts to allay her anxieties, similarly combines blurted or random gestures with what the wall text describes as more “artful considerations’’: diagrams, black rectangles (alluding to Kazimir Malevich), and contrived symmetries (suggesting Rorschach blot tests). None of them, regrettably, transcends the tentative self that made them.

But a series of works made in 1975 and 1976, when Steir stopped painting and toyed more vigorously with words, suddenly takes flight. These works mostly use monochrome squares, bordered with writing or other smudges and scribbles. One, called “Green Grass,’’ is a landscape described with aptly placed words, not images. Another, called “Don’t Make a List,’’ is really an exercise in disobedience: “He said,’’ it begins, before launching into its little act of rebellion: “1. Don’t make a list. 2. Please don’t make a list. 3. Don’t. 4. Your art is getting so secret. 5. I can’t understand it,’’ and so on. Items 11 through 14 are accorded no more than a giant cross, and each line of script is written in a different hand, from fluent cursive to irate block capitals. The variations eloquently suggest different states of mind, different moods, different temperatures. We grasp the closeness of image and text not as a classroom demonstration but as an intimate and cloudy complication.

The highlight of the show for me was the nearby “The Spoleto Series,’’ eight interconnected square sheets, each containing a smaller square. The inner square is filled first with a grid of short dashes, and later in the series, block lettering or cursive writing — variously, a repeating uppercase alphabet; the word “WORD’’ repeated 160 times; or the word “line’’ repeated obsessively in a flowing cursive script. The relationship between the inner squares and the border around them gets more interesting as the series progresses, with one or the other filling up with subtly modulated cross-hatching or overlapping and crossed-out words.

“The Spoleto Series’’ harks back to the early work, such as “Fear Map,’’ with its demonstration of anxieties soothed or forestalled by obsessive mark-making. But here the work is stronger, and richer in connotation, because it also presents language and mark-making as a trap, a non-signifier, a non-starter. The black squares in one of the series, which recurs in works from this period, entrench the sense of nihilism.

After this, the drawings suddenly shift from small scale to big, and very big. Several large-scale paintings are included, to indicate the continuity of Steir’s concerns in both drawing and painting. But the idiom that suddenly comes to dominate in both media combines expansive gestures and drips.

I found some of these works more convincing than others, but they all suggest an artist freshly hatched from the brittle shell of self-consciousness, launching herself, full body, into a vigorous, expansive vein of creativity.

Waves are followed by waterfalls. The influence of artists such as LeWitt and Martin is quickly overtaken by Courbet, Hokusai, and the whole Asian tradition of ink painting. Steir dives in, embracing chance and spontaneity, as well as the idea that in painting a waterfall, the drips of ink and oil paint and the spatter of gold powder she uses might all actually be the thing represented, not just imitations of it.

It’s an ancient ambition. (One thinks of Zeuxis painting grapes so lifelike that birds flew down to peck them.) It may be folly, but there’s no denying the fundamental axiom that every image is a thing before it is anything else. So why not a wet and dripping, spray-soaked thing?

Sebastian Smee can be reached at

PAT STEIR: Drawing Out of Line At: The Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art, Providence, through July 3. 401-454-6500.