March 28, 2014

Pat Steir and Harvey Quaytman: The Seductions of Surface

Pat Steir, Colors Without Names, 2013; oil on canvas, 132 x 132 in. 

In the small room facing the entrance to Cheim & Read Gallery, light pours in through a skylight, illuminating the painting hanging below, giving it a religious aura. It is the first painting you see in the beautiful exhibition by Pat Steir, up until March 29. I have to admit that until I walked up to the paintings and became immersed in their gorgeous surfaces, I felt that I had no way into them; maybe because of their size, or perhaps their initial impression of emptiness.

Pat Steir, Colors Without Names detail

But oh! once I paid close attention to the richness of incident on the painting surfaces I was entranced. In the pouring of paint, layer on layer, deep and rich worlds open.

Pat Steir, Colors Without Names detail

There is a sense of time, of natural forces building, hiding, and revealing. The shining pigments catch light and remind me of the use of gold in Medieval painting.

Pat Steir, Naples Yellow and Mica, 2013; oil on canvas, 132 x 132 in. 

Many of Steir's paintings appear to be diptychs, as she divides the canvas into two different colors/surfaces. They create a different kind of space, deep and light-filled against one denser and closer to the surface.

Naples Yellow and Mica detail of left side of painting

Naples Yellow and Mica detail of right side of painting

Although so much of the surface is created by the qualities of paint, the artist is masterly at controlling its results.

Pat Steir, Black, Blue, Silver and Gold, 2013; oil on canvas, 132 x 132 in. 

Steir doesn't settle for a set range of color and value, but works from light to dark, warm to cool. Black appears as night seen through veils.

Black, Blue, Silver and Gold detail

The veils are made up of many thin layers of color.

Black, Blue, Silver and Gold detail

Then there are splashes of gold, like light sparks thrown from a fire. I am so glad I took the time to pay close attention to these paintings; once they rewarded me with their engaging details, they spoke of space, light, time, and of the spirit.

Harvey Quaytman, Spector, 1990; acrylic and glass on canvas, 46 x 46 in. 

Harvey Quaytman's paintings, which I've long loved for their minimalist sensibility, seem far from those of Pat Steir. But when I saw a beautiful retrospective exhibition at McKee Gallery, up until March 29, I couldn't help but think of their relationship: both artists have a love affair with the surfaces of their paintings, which go far beyond simply paint on canvas. Quaytman's austere clarity is only part of his work....

Spector detail

.....because his surfaces have an almost romantic voluptuousness within tightly controlled edges. The materials he adds to his paint creates surfaces that shine, have irregular textures, seem to be stuff of the earth itself.

Harvey Quaytman, Voyager, 1991; acrylic on canvas, 60 x 90 in.

A perfect balance of dark and light, with a red bar extending into the white expanse, held by the forms at the left.

Voyager detail

It's not until we see the detail of layers and varied textures that the painting achieves its full complexity. Each color-shape is considered carefully, with its own texture, each juicy and full of feeling.
(I apologize for the too-light photo; Blogger is again color correcting my images)

Harvey Quaytman, Pyrite Hallway, 1988; acrylic and rust on canvas, 29 x 29 in.

Here Quaytman plays with balance and imbalance, symmetrical and not. The red rust (how does one collect rust to use in a painting?) glows.

Pyrite Hallway detail

I love looking at the surfaces of these paintings, so complex and satisfying. Like those of Pat Steir, Harvey Quaytman's surfaces are more than just paint; they are like geological processes, a hymn to the earth and to life.


  1. Very poetic last sentence, Altoon. I see what you mean in your comparison of the two painters, but seem only to appreciate Steir's marvelous textures.

    1. Steir's work is easier to love, Julie; Quaytman is so austere. I find his work gorgeous but can understand that others wouldn't.