After Decades of Slow and Steady, Pat Steir’s Market Is Now Moving at a Breakneck Pace
The painter has broken her auction record three times this year.
Over the course of her 77 years, Pat Steir has veered between conceptual art, Minimalism, and figuration before finally settling to become one of the leading Abstract Expressionists of our time, embracing a style that combines deliberate handwork with random pours, splashes, and drips. She is best known today for her “Waterfall” paintings, which she began in the late 1980s, and has more recently been creating large lush canvases that look as though light is breaking though from behind.
Now, after decades of steady output and acclaimed exhibitions, the first half of 2017 finally saw the artist’s market begin to pick up, reaching prices more in line with her critical renown. This past March, Steir’s auction record more than doubled when Four Yellow Red Negative Waterfall (1993) sold at Sotheby’s London for £680,750 ($827,156), more than triple its high £200,000 estimate.
Steir’s next two highest auction results were achieved this past spring at Sotheby’s New York. The Brussels Group: Misty Mountain Waterfall (1991) sold for $396,500, doubling its high $150,000 estimate, and Gold and Silver Moon Beam (2006), which fetched the exact same price on the same estimate at a day sale in May.
The Magic Touch?
Part of this uptick may be attributable to Steir’s new dealers, Dominique Lévy and Brett Gorvy, who have raised her international profile significantly. (Lévy signed Steir in early 2016 and Lévy Gorvy was formed at the start of 2017.) Lévy says she had followed Steir’s work and market for the past six years and was introduced to the artist by the late writer Ingrid Sischy at a party. An invitation to the artist’s studio was “a revelation,” Lévy told artnet News in a phone interview. “Standing in front of these paintings I realized their incredible complexity. Her paintings have a very strong performative and conceptual aspect by the fact that she leaves a lot of the path of the paint independent and without her touch.”
“We took a great painting to Art Basel last year and we placed it immediately with someone who had never heard of her,” Lévy says. “We could have sold it three times.” The gallery also sold two other Steir paintings there to collectors who were regular booth visitors, but also previously unfamiliar with the artist’s work.
While there was always a devoted, if concentrated, group of buyers in both the US and Europe, Lévy says that introducing Steir’s work to the gallery’s regular collectors “immediately expanded her market to a wider audience. We saw the difference first at auction and then at the gallery.”
The artist was previously represented for several decades by Cheim & Read. A representative of the gallery declined to be interviewed for this story.
At the just-wrapped EXPO Chicago (September 13–17), Lévy Gorvy sold Untitled (2004), a large canvas with inky blots of bright red and cascading drips of paint, for an asking price of $550,000—a level not seen for Steir’s work at auction prior to 2017.
The price surge is also happening at lower levels. Phillips’s “New Now” sale on September 19 included an earlier work by Steir, Blue (1971), that more than tripled the high end of its $20,000 estimate to sell for $68,750 with premium. Meanwhile, an 84-by-84 inch painting conceived in 2009 was priced at $175,000 in 2010; today, Lévy Gorvy is asking $425,000 for a picture the same size that was conceived in 2016-2017.
The Right Moment
In the first week of September, Lévy Gorvy opened “Pat Steir: Kairos” (through October 21), the title of which fortuitously refers to “seizing the right moment,” as Steir explained to a group of reporters at a pre-opening press conference. The show features five 11-foot-tall oil paintings—Steir’s largest works to date—and eight smaller-scale works, with buyers already lined up for seven of the paintings when we last checked in. Prices range from about $400,000 to $600,000.
“My work is about fluidity, gravity and timing… the timing of the pour,” Steir said during the preview. Although she has experimented with various styles over the years, her best known and most in-demand works remain the “Waterfall” series.
While interest in Steir’s work has grown “considerably” overall, collectors have gravitated to these drip works more than any of her other paintings, says Courtney Kremers, head of contemporary art day sales at Sotheby’s. “I think for collectors this series checks two important boxes,” she says. “The ‘Waterfalls’ are both conceptually rigorous and breathtakingly beautiful. Steir incorporates Eastern philosophy and poetry, but also the sense of chaos and chance celebrated by her friend John Cage. Her technique, pouring and splashing paint, relinquishing and harnessing control, results in paintings that inspire the same awe and reverence you might feel encountering a waterfall in nature.”
To date, Four Yellow Red Negative Waterfall is Steir’s only work to appear in a major evening contemporary sale. Most of the others have turned up in the lower-priced daytime auctions.
A Gender Correction
“Steir’s DNA lies in Abstract Expressionism,” says art adviser Kim Heirston, who has been following the artist’s work since the mid-1980s. “I was working at the Robert Miller Gallery back then, which focused on strong women artists—Bourgeois, Mitchell, Krasner, and Hesse. In fact, one of the first paintings I placed as an art advisor was an early 1991 “Waterfall” by Steir, for which we paid $31,000.” Heirston says that the painting, Small Interior Waterfall, “still proudly resides in a private collection room on Park Avenue, along with Rauschenberg and Ruscha.”
As with many women of the period, the pricing for Steir’s work is “considerably more in-reach compared to that of major Ab Ex figureheads,” Heirston says. “As you well know, there is also a major market revision at play with regard to women artists. Pat is clearly benefiting from this overall market reassessment. Pat’s brand of energized zen resonates, particularly in these turbulent times.”
The secondary market “has been very consistent and we generally have success with her paintings and a decent amount of competitive bidding,” says Rebekah Bowling, a Phillips specialist and head of the “New Now” sale. “But certainly there’s no doubt that we’ve really seen demand pick up since the beginning of the year,” she added.
Phillips sold Ice #2 (2002) for $274,500 (estimate: $100,000–150,000) at its contemporary day sale this past May.
The artnet Price Database lists 369 auction results for Steir, with about 130, or roughly a third of those lots, unsold. Approximately 60 lesser works, including lithographs and woodcuts, sold for prices between a few hundred dollars and $1,000. Another 100 lots fetched prices between $1,000 and $5,000.
Until now, Lévy says there was a disconnect between activity in Steir’s primary market and what was happening at auction. “Works were always selling cheaper at auction than on the primary market,” she says. “This is because the collectors who really love her work” bought it from the gallery, while auction buyers didn’t really know her. As a result, there were two markets, Lévy says.
Bowling also points to a broader flight to quality and an emphasis on blue-chip artists in recent years. “I think more and more collectors are looking to these established, historically important figures who perhaps haven’t had the biggest secondary market prices,” she says. Enterprising collectors believe these works, and those of fellow mature artists Carmen Herrera and Mira Schendel, have a significant potential upside—and staying power.
“They’re looking to these artists as opposed to less established, younger, trendy artists,” she says. “There seems to be this sort of movement away from, and a fear of, trends. The movement is toward more established overlooked artists.”
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