Gagosian Quarterly

Summer 2022 Issue

Artist to Artist: Pat Steir and Sarah Sze

On the occasion of her exhibition of recent paintings, presented at Gagosian in Rome, Pat Steir met with fellow artist Sarah Sze for a wide-ranging discussion—from shared inspirations and influences to the role of chance, contingency, place, and time in painting.

Installation view, Pat Steir: Paintings, Gagosian, Rome, March 10–May 31, 2022. Artwork © Pat Steir. Photo: Matteo D’Eletto, M3 Studio

Installation view, Pat Steir: Paintings, Gagosian, Rome, March 10–May 31, 2022. Artwork © Pat Steir. Photo: Matteo D’Eletto, M3 Studio

Pat Steir

With a storied career spanning more than five decades, Pat Steir is a trailblazing presence in contemporary painting. She was one of the relatively few women who came to prominence in the New York art scene of the 1970s, initially pairing iconic images and texts to interrogate the nature of representation. In the mid-1980s, inspired by East Asian art and philosophy, she adopted a looser, more performative approach to painting. Harnessing the forces of gravity and gesture, she developed techniques of pouring, splashing, and brushing thinned paint onto canvas, often working at a monumental scale.

Sarah Sze

Sarah Sze’s art utilizes genres as generative frameworks, uniting intricate networks of objects and images across multiple dimensions in sculpture, painting, drawing, printmaking, and video installation. Her works prompt microscopic observation while evoking a macroscopic perspective on the infinite.

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Sarah SzePat, when I think about your work, my mind goes to Fan Kuan’s Travelers among Mountains and Streams [late tenth–early eleventh century], one of my all-time favorite paintings. Were works such as this important for your own work in any way?

Pat SteirIt’s a long journey! In 1978, I started a painting called The Brueghel Series (A Vanitas of Style). I took a vanitas flower painting from Brueghel and divided it into eighty-four sections. In each section, I utilized the style of a different artist. I addressed each work of art as a separate thought, and I painted each of the panels in the style of one of eighty-four artists. Through that, I discovered japonisme, and through japonisme, I got to Chinese painting. One thought led me to the next.

SSI grew up with my great-aunt Mai-mai Sze’s translation of the Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting [1679–1701], a classic guide to Chinese landscape painting, which I believe you read. Does the practice detailed in that book—for example, painting a certain rock over and over again or making a chrysanthemum with an exact brushstroke—have a relationship to your work?

PSWell, I got there a few ways. John Cage’s thinking, his system for making chaos, was a major influence on me: chance, meditation, and studying, if not the actual works, then reproductions of the works. And more than that, studying the philosophy that brought artists to their images.

SSAfter doing that, did you create a philosophy that brings you to your own images?

PSThat doesn’t have much to do with me, but it’s a good idea [laughs]. When I’m working, I actually don’t think about anything. Cage said, “When you start working, everybody is in your studio—the past, your friends, enemies, the art world, and above all, your own ideas—all are there. But as you continue painting, they start leaving one by one, and you are left completely alone. Then, if you’re lucky, even you leave.” So I don’t speak much about my work because there’s nothing to say. I make the work. I’m very influenced by the idea of chance, of accident, by the process of observing nature and by observing nature through art, and then letting my more or less random process make the thing itself. I try to make paintings without talking too much about them. They’re not abstract and they’re not theater. I think of them as both a picture of a waterfall and the waterfall itself because what the viewer sees is what gravity makes, what the weight of the paint makes, on the canvas itself. I like very much that the paintings make themselves.

Artist to Artist: Pat Steir and Sarah Sze

Pat Steir, Winter Daylight, 2021–22, oil on canvas, 108 × 108 inches (274.3 × 274.3 cm) © Pat Steir. Photo: Elisabeth Bernstein

SSWork makes work. I think of the letter Martha Graham wrote to Agnes de Mille about how instead of satisfaction artists are left only with “divine dissatisfaction.” It’s all about that moment when you come into the studio and find that the materials are the ones telling you what to do.

PSSometimes I work and then I come back the next day and marvel at what the paint did. The paint does its work during the night: the weight of the paint and the air in the room make the painting happen.

SSBut we know that the painting doesn’t always happen in the night, and that sometimes the next morning is very bleak. It seems like there’s a ritual you have to create that air in the room. Do you ever practice an emptying-out in the same way one might draw a rock over and over and over again?

PSYes, repetition is the main point here. When I started painting, I thought of painting as a research project, and I was looking for something that I could find in myself but that was more than me. So I started with research: first with small images on a big canvas and then with an image of a rose crossed out in the background, thinking that would make a white painting or a black painting if the image was there but crossed out thoroughly enough. So I worked very slowly up to what I’m doing now—for more than fifty years. When I got to where I am now, where the painting makes itself, I thought it was more than me because the painting wandered away: it spoke for itself. I didn’t want to express myself, which is what makes it different from poetry as a form of expression. I mean, of course there’s abstract poetry, but my favorites are [Rainer Maria] Rilke and [Constantine P.] Cavafy. They tell you something. Cavafy clearly tells you about his past and his thoughts about where he is from the past, and Rilke tells you the same in a different way. But I didn’t want to say anything [laughs]. So it took me all these years to get to say nothing. It’s like getting knock-knock jokes [laughs].

Artist to Artist: Pat Steir and Sarah Sze

Sarah Sze, Three Point Turn, 2020, oil paint, acrylic paint, acrylic polymers, ink, aluminum, archival paper, oil stick, level, canvas, diabond, and wood, 84 × 105 × 4 ¼ inches (213.4 × 266.7 × 10.8 cm) © Sarah Sze

SSOne of my favorite poems is kind of like a knock-knock joke and a love letter to painting all in one: Frank O’Hara’s “Why I Am Not a Painter.” Emily Dickinson will always be my touchstone. I’m drawn to her economy of words and space and, conversely, her immense scale of thought. You have a close relationship with Anne Waldman.

PSAnne is one of my closest friends and collaborators. We’ve worked together many times over the years. I’m close to and admire so many poets—Mei-mei Berssenbrugge is another. The American poets of the 1950s are among my favorites, as well as English Romantic poetry. I love reading poetry.

SSCan you talk about whether and how nature has impacted your work, given that you had a second studio in Vermont and now you have one on Long Island, overlooking the sea? Is there a difference between working in nature and working in your Chelsea studio, with its view of the Hudson River?

PSWorking in nature is relatively new to me. Before that, I always felt that I had to work in a city, in a place with no nature, that I couldn’t make paintings that imitated nature in nature because I’d always be outdone by nature. I’d have a sense of failure because nature itself is so breathtaking. But about fifteen years ago, I overcame that feeling in Vermont. When I was there, I would sit and sketch in the air the birch trees in the snow, all black and white. Winter paintings.

Artist to Artist: Pat Steir and Sarah Sze

Pat Steir, Roman Rainbow, 2021–22, oil on canvas, 108 × 108 inches (274.3 × 274.3 cm) © Pat Steir. Photo: Elisabeth Bernstein

SSI remember talking to you at the beginning of the pandemic, when you isolated in the country. I asked you how you were doing and if you were making work, and you said, “I’m a runner, so I have to run.” You told me you missed the studio. I was living right next to my paintings. I’d literally wake up in the middle of the night, get up, do a few things on a painting, and go back to sleep. I loved living in my studio and the flow of it becoming blurred into everyday life, having the option to make a move in a work of art at any point in the day or night. It’s a very different way of working, and it creates a different kind of work. You told me that when you were in Long Island, for example, you were working on small-format canvases—at least small for you. That was one change, obviously—the big canvases were by necessity relegated to the city studio because of the scale.

PSWhen I was in Long Island at the beginning of the pandemic, I just did drawings. I didn’t do paintings there. And I used to live in my studio, too, many years ago now. It was interesting, but I like having the studio separate. I like not having paint on everything. Although you’re right: waking up in the middle of the night and making a change on a painting can be very good and helpful. But changing my work never really leads to anything. I can add to it, but I can’t change it.

SSHas that always been the case?

PSNo, just for the last thirty years [laughs].

SSWhat happened thirty years ago that changed your work?

PSI discovered japonisme, and then I discovered Chinese literati paintings, and then I started to pour paint. When I started to pour paint, there was no return. You can’t unpour it; it’s there. I can start a new one, but I can’t change what I have. Like life.

Artist to Artist: Pat Steir and Sarah Sze

Pat Steir, Blue Pour, 2022, oil on canvas, 132 × 60 inches (335.3 × 152.4 cm) © Pat Steir. Photo: Elisabeth Bernstein

SSI always like those paintings best where the humans in them are doing exceedingly prosaic things, like walking a cow or carrying straw, hidden and tucked away in the majesty of painting—specifically that extreme shift in scale from the profound to the mundane, dizzying, with no middle ground.

PSIt’s the same in your paintings, where often all the action is happening on a very small scale.

SSIs there a particular literati painting that you are tied to, or was it more of a philosophy?

PSWell, let’s say I generalized the philosophy [laughs]. I like a lot of different theories, but I was first attracted to the literati paintings—which are not the most highly esteemed, but perhaps because I’m a Westerner, they were easier for me to understand. What I like about them is very simple. The painting is five feet tall and there are mountains and water and moon and trees, and then at the bottom, you see a monk looking at the moon, and he’s half an inch tall—and that’s the landscape. He is depicted in eternity in the landscape, like how we all fit in.

I want to disappear from my art, and I hope the viewer will become the monk looking at the moon—the quantum of life.

Pat Steir: Paintings, Gagosian, Rome, March 10–May 31, 2022

Shorter Than the Day

Shorter Than the Day

Sarah Sze writes on a recent collage.

Featuring Joan Jonas’s Mirror Piece 1 (1969) on its cover.

Now available
Gagosian Quarterly Summer 2020

The Summer 2020 issue of Gagosian Quarterly is now available, featuring Joan Jonas’s Mirror Piece 1 (1969) on its cover.

Detail of Sarah Sze's multimedia installation Plein Air.

Sarah Sze: Anything Times Zero Is Zero

Hear Sarah Sze speak about her most recent work, including the panel painting Picture Perfect (Times Zero) and the multimedia installation Plein Air (Times Zero) (both 2020). Discussing the relationship between painting and sculpture in her practice, she explains how she creates structure and its inverse, instability, in her layering of images, putting the viewer in the position of active discovery.

Still from La Jetée (1962), directed by Chris Marker.

Five Films: Sarah Sze

Sarah Sze writes about five films that live as richly evocative images in her visual memory.

Sarah Sze, Dews Drew (Half-life), 2018.

Sarah Sze: Infinite Generation

Louise Neri talks with Sarah Sze about the new primacy of the image in her explorations between and across mediums. They spoke on the occasion of an exhibition of Sze’s work at Gagosian, Rome, comprising collaged panel paintings, a large-scale video installation, and an outdoor sculpture fashioned from a natural boulder.

Video still of Sarah Sze speaking at a TED conference, Vancouver, BC, April 2019.

Sarah Sze: Art That Explores Time and Memory

Join Sarah Sze as she talks about the questions that drive her work. She describes creating immersive experiences that blur the lines between time, memory, and space—and between art and life.

Frieze Sculpture New York: An Interview with Brett Littman

Frieze Sculpture New York: An Interview with Brett Littman

The inaugural presentation of Frieze Sculpture New York at Rockefeller Center opened on April 25, 2019. Before the opening, Brett Littman, the director of the Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum and the curator of this exhibition, told Wyatt Allgeier about his vision for the project and detailed the artworks included.

Sarah Sze: In the Studio

Work in Progress
Sarah Sze: In the Studio

Join Sarah Sze in her studio as she prepares for an exhibition of new work in Rome.

Multiples dancers in bright costumes against a yellow backdrop. Five have their backs to the camera with their arms stretched out and two are sitting center stage.

Sasha Waltz: “In C”

Alice Godwin speaks with German choreographer Sasha Waltz about the evolution of her dance In C, the democratic nature of the piece, and its celebration of life and human connection. 

Portrait of Edward Enninful

Fashion and Art: Edward Enninful

Edward Enninful OBE has held the role of editor-in-chief of British Vogue since 2017. The magazine’s course under his direction has served as a model for what a fashion publication can do in the twenty-first century: in terms of creativity, authenticity, diversity, and engagement with social issues, Enninful has created a new mold. Here, Enninful meets with his longtime friend Derek Blasberg to discuss his recently published memoir, A Visible Man.

A still detail of Julianknxx’s artwork “encounter?flee (Jolly)” 2023

Rites of Passage

Rites of Passage, an exhibition at Gagosian, London, explored the concept of “liminal space,” a coinage of the anthropologist Arnold van Gennep, through the work of nineteen contemporary artists who share a history of migration. Here, Péjú Oshin, associate director at Gagosian, London, speaks with Phoebe Boswell, Adelaide Damoah, and Julianknxx about their participation in the exhibition and about the complexities of community, performance, truth, and identity.

Cristián Mohaded’s  "Apacheta" installation for Salone del Mobile Milano 2023

Cristián Mohaded: Apacheta

Argentinian designer and artist Cristián Mohaded has been collaborating with Loro Piana Interiors to produce an installation and collection of furniture pieces inspired by apachetas, piles of stones that mark paths and passes in the Andes. Debuting during Salone del Mobile Milano 2023 inside the Cortile della Seta, at Loro Piana’s Milanese headquarters—where it will be on view from April 20 to 23—the project will encourage visitors to reflect on travel, materiality, and the relationship between humans and the earth. Mohaded met with the Quarterly’s Wyatt Allgeier in the weeks leading up to the unveiling to discuss Apacheta.