Pat Steir. Circadia. 1973. Oil paint, oil crayon, and pencil on canvas, 84 x 84 in., The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchase with exchange funds from Gift of Emil J. Arnold; Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Sidney M. Feldman; Gift of the Hutzler Brothers Company and the Italian Benefit Fund; and Gift of David Kluger, BMA 1989.67. © Pat Steir


You know how sometimes during summer stillness there appears to be hardly a spit of difference between, say, the faraway sun you can’t touch or hear and the mirroring reflection of it that you can? This is how peaceful it was that clear morning walking amidst Léhon’s stone walls and trees bordering northwestern France’s Rance River.         

The Baltimore Museum of Art’s Circadia by Pat Steir is not that, despite it vividly recalling the ten-year-old memory for what happened next. This powerful painting is a 2-D torrent, a land mine of weather, a 1973 redacted document of choices and chance. It’s about being okay with flat-out not knowing or of accepting what might be, darkly, even with its two suns. 

In Léhon, scents of water whetted my senses. Distant rumbling picked up its hailstones-as-big-as-cobblestones-type downpour, turned up its tempo and timbre, and stormed upriver. Banks overflowing. Two once-silent oak trees crashing. Nature’s voice deafening.        

I always thought rain was all middle. I could often smell it coming but never knew it had a starting line. Foolishly, I thought of outrunning the scudding, but stood my quickly squishy ground and got soaked. Pummeled, really. I became Circadia’s tremulous crow, now an older, but no less mucky, version.


Pat Steir, detail of Circadia


Pat Steir, detail of Circadia

Circadia’s shadowy square within a square eclipses most of its gridded calls and responses. Two include the pencil-lined soto voce à la Agnes Martin and Sol LeWitt, Steir’s longtime friends. Other “responses”: whispers and screams, perched chirps and cloudbursts. 

At the top left, there are three tiered tones. Then there’s that lone, feathered creature from a soggy flock — a hood ornament of a black bird facing jittery geometry. Is the geometry jittery because it’s targeted? X-ed? Is the big redaction — Circadia’s bullying bullseye — crowing that, unlike most “dead centers,” this square is not a circle? Is this right-angled “cloud” crowing that of all daytime skies, it’s the blackest? 

Steir’s redaction could’ve spoiled my reading of Circadia but, by offering toughness and mystery, adds to it instead. Relatedly, Léhon’s onslaught could’ve ended my walk along the Rance River, but did not. Close call though.

Mirroring grays from dawn and dusk bookend days. Is Circadia’s reductive, seductive shape exiting or entering nighttime? I’m okay with not knowing. Below the witching-hour square, there’s a primary-colored triad of sweet, yet weather-beaten streaks in this primarily uncolored, unsweet tease.         

Circadia’s color-blind crow seems to see what the storm does to these barraged survivors. The bird can’t tell colors apart but is there to observe how much the painting’s nothing-special, yet mightily disparate signs and symbols have to whisper and scream about together. Camaraderie within disparity — a good reason to embrace a good rainfall: it makes things better by joining them. Doesn’t just make them wet.


Pat Steir, Circadia

Pat Steir, Roman Rainbow, 2022, oil on canvas, 108 x 108 inches


In Steir’s Roman Rainbow, three powerhouse pours harmonize. Red sings lead. But it’s the trio’s harmony that stars in this euphonic work. Compare it to the visual soundtrack of the cacophonic Circadia. About-facing time and size, the “rainbow-ed” drips arrive almost 50 years after the faint sound of Circadia’s colored echo.  

Related, the two paintings boast very different songs, singings, flingings, falls, scales, rhythms, spatters, spacings, formats, overlaps, contexts, climates, palettes, brushstrokes, intentions, spirits, personalities, intensities . . . and shout-outs to chance à la John Cage, another friend of Steir’s. Since the late ‘80s, the artist has been climbing ladders and dripping oil paint down upright, large-scale canvases. She calls gravity her collaborator. I get why, but mostly in the sense of ventriloquists “collaborating” with lifeless puppets.


Pat Steir, The Barnes Series III, 2018, Oil on canvas, 86 3/8 x 132 1/8 inches


Rainbow’s huge, vertical, lively threesome, along with Circadia’s tiny, horizontal, buried, primary-colored threesome recalls a Shakespearean twosome. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, glorified “extras” in Hamlet, assume leading roles in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, where Prince Hamlet gets minimal stage and camera time.


Pat Steir. Red from Black to White, 2022, Oil on canvas, 108 × 108 inches


Since the early ‘70s, Steir’s minor characters have taken turns occupying center stage. Such is the case for her consecutive two-part exhibits at Gagosian in Rome (March 10th-August 31, 2022). There, as independent, gestural abstractions, Steir’s “Rosencrantzs and Guildensterns” were created this year but were born half a century ago. What started, for example, in 1973 near Circadia‘s top left border as a tonal bump changes to a tonal mountain in 2022, “calling the shots” from front and center of Red from Black to White.     

Paintings change. Because we do. Tomorrow, I might reinterpret Steir’s 1973 composition, replacing its sound and story with a different sound and fury. Although Circadia calls to mind the Léhon storm, it doesn’t trigger what the storm almost x-ed that day, perhaps because the painting is such a dreary, treeless image, and trees are anything but dreary for me!  

You see, the uprooted pair of oaks, which the rain, winds, and flooding caused, landed at my feet. The ground vibrated through me. The trees’ cries did too. Turns out, those beautiful trunks were as harmless as Hamlet was not. Momentarily, two oaks were stars of the show. Then they became nature’s rotting Rosencrantzs and Guildensterns.

At first, between the silent sun floating above the Rance River and its subtle gurgling reflected below, there was hardly a spit of difference between them. Likewise, the tumultuous surprises of the storm and the tumult of Pat Steir’s visual surprises are a lot alike. Circadia‘s collision of black and white with color recalls Léhon’s suns and its downpour; an artists’ early and mature work; the space between a whisper and a scream.                 


Barry Nemett, Stone Walls, Trees, and Clouds Along the Rance River, Léhon, 2012/2022, Gouache on paper, 72 x 120 inches


Barry Nemett, who has taught full-time at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) since 1971, has exhibited his artwork throughout the United States, Europe, Asia, and Africa. Since receiving his MFA degree from Yale University and receiving a Fulbright/ITT International Travel Fellowship to Spain, he has lectured worldwide, curated numerous traveling exhibitions, and has been a recipient of resident artist grants in the United States, Italy, Spain, France, Scotland, Ireland, Africa, China, and Japan.