Pat Steir’s Silent Secret Waterfalls: The Barnes Series

By Julie Hamon, Art History Media Intern

Over President’s Day Weekend, I took a trip to the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, PA to see its newest installation by Pat Steir titled Silent Secret Waterfalls: The Barnes Series.

The installation resides in the Annenberg Court, a bright modern hall usually reserved for receptions and events. Upon entering the space on their way to the galleries, visitors are immediately presented with  Pat Steir’s large-scale oil paintings running along two walls of the hall. Slightly recessed into the textured stone walls, the paintings create a long black band that looks as if it is a natural part of the building’s architecture. These paintings—eleven total, all of different widths but of the same seven-foot height—exhibit plays of white paint drips, splatters, stamps, and smears on a dark background, creating the sense that one is looking into a dark, stormy abyss through water-splashed, water-streaked windows. Despite the evocations of rain and the hum of water rushing and falling, there is an unmistakable serenity to these paintings. Suddenly, one understands why these waterfalls are Silent, why they are Secret. Nothing interrupts them other than the viewer’s gaze. Even with the murmur of visitors entering the museum, the paintings draw the viewer into their dark, quiet worlds where all that occurs is “water” slowly trickling down the canvas. Perhaps what makes the paintings especially Silent is that the waterfalls, though suggesting movement, remain frozen. They are forever suspended in the present moment. The entire essence of a waterfall is its constant movement, so the freezing of the white “water” in the paintings suddenly silences that movement and sound. The large scale of the paintings and their placement—with their bottom edges at eye level—encourage the viewer to look dramatically upward. This creates the illusion that the viewer hovers right where the water threatens to continue falling, promising to shower and immerse the viewer in its mist.

Pat Steir has had a long and successful career, and is arguably most famous for her “waterfall” paintings, created through a process in which she paints from a ladder onto canvases draped on her studio walls. According to The New York Times, she sticks to this process today. Lévy Gorvy, the gallery that represents the artist here in New York, writes that her paintings, though somewhat spontaneous in appearance, are actually created with careful calculation. The result? Beautiful, balanced, ethereal paintings.

The Barnes Foundation asked Steir to specifically create the Silent Secret Waterfalls series for the museum. As the accompanying label for the installation expresses, Pat Steir’s site-specific installation is the first since Henri Matisse drew and painted The Dance for the ceiling arches of the museum’s largest gallery in 1930. Not only is Steir’s the first installation commission for the Barnes Foundation in over eighty years, but she holds that special honor as a contemporary, innovative woman artist. Pat Steir’s installation is a testament to the important role she plays in the forward movement of art history.

Pat Steir’s presence at the Barnes Foundation falls in line with the museum’s recent focus on highlighting women artists. Steir’s installation follows the museum’s major exhibition Berthe Morisot: Woman Impressionist, which celebrated the life and work of the prolific Impressionist painter. Steir’s work also brings a contemporary edge to the artwork featured in the museum, which includes a fascinating and extensive mix of Modern European and American Art, American folk furniture, African Art, Asian Art, ancient Egyptian Art, Renaissance painting, Medieval sculpture, and Medieval door decorations: all intermingled in their display.  

I highly recommend to anyone planning on visiting Philadelphia to see Pat Steir’s installation at the Barnes Foundation (on view until November 17, 2019), and to seek out her work here in New York City.

In the Trailer for  Pat Steir: Artist by Veronica Gonzalez Peña, the artist declares, “I don’t want to be a famous artist, I want to be a great artist.” She has certainly achieved that greatness.

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