Pat Steir

The Wave - From the Sea - After Leonardo, Hokusai and Courbet


In Tate Modern

Pat Steir born 1940
Drypoint and aquatint on paper
Image: 895 × 1137 mm
frame: 1114 × 1372 × 23 mm
Purchased 1987

Catalogue entry

P77193 The Wave - From the Sea - After Leonardo, Hokusai and Courbet 1985

Drypoint, hard-ground, aquatint, spitbite and soap-ground 895 × 1137 (35 1/4 × 44 3/4) on Somerset Satin Roll paper 1069 × 1330 (42 1/8 × 52 3/8); printed by Hidekatsu Takada at Crown Point Press, Oakland, California, in an edition of 50 with 10 artist's proofs
Inscribed ‘47/50 Pat Steir Dec 85’ below image b.r.
Purchased from Crown Point Press, New York (Grant-in-Aid) 1987
Exh: Pat Steir: Gravures. Prints 1976–88, Musée d'art et d'histoire, Geneva, June–Sept. 1988, Tate Gallery, Nov. 1988–Feb. 1989 (29, repr. in col., different impression)
Lit: Pat Steir, ‘So To Speak about Prints’, in Pat Steir: Gravures. Prints, exh. cat., Musée d'art et d'histoire, Geneva 1988, pp.9, 11, and Juliane Willi, ‘Like a Rainbow’, pp.81, 83, repr. p.71 (col.). Also repr: Private view card for Pat Steir - Prints 1976–88, Tate Gallery, Nov. 1988–Feb. 1989 (col.)

In this large etching, which is printed in blue, red, yellow and silver, Pat Steir has juxtaposed her own linear representations of three famous images of water by other artists, in three horizontal bands, one above the other. The uppermost image is based on Leonardo da Vinci's pen and ink drawing of a whirlpool (1507–9, 290 × 202 mm, Royal Library, Windsor, repr. Geneva exh. cat., 1988, p.82). The central image is derived from Hokusai's woodcut, ‘Beneath the Wave off Kanagawa’, also known as ‘The Great Wave’ (early 1830s, from the famous series, ‘Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji’, repr. ibid., p.82 and Richard Lane, Hokusai: Life and Works, 1989, pl.247 in col.). In 1869, while staying at Etretat in Normandy, Courbet made a group of paintings with waves as central motifs, and the lower image in P77193 is based upon one of these.

In conversation on 1 May 1987 Steir said that the Courbet painting she had used for P77193 was in a French private collection and that another version was in Dallas. In a letter to the compiler dated 22 June 1994 she confirmed that although she had seen photographs of both paintings, she had only seen one in person, and could not remember which one because they were so similar. In Tout l'oeuvre peint de Gustave Courbet, Paris 1987, Pierre Courthion illustrates twenty-eight paintings with ‘La Vague’ (The Wave) as all or part of the title. Of these, the one most likely to have been seen by Steir is no.655 (private collection, Paris) or possibly no.654 (private collection, USA). However, the lower section of P77193 also resembles closely no. 539 (listed in the 1988 Geneva catalogue, p.82, as private collection but in Courthion as whereabouts unknown), no.679, and (Robert Schmit, Paris), no.738 (listed in Courthion as whereabouts unknown), and no.742 (Oskar Reinhardt Collection, Winterthur).

Discussing P77193 on 1 May 1987, the artist observed:

I wanted to make an image on a single piece of paper, because ‘The Wave’ is more about art than about waves. I didn't want to make a triptych, on three pieces of paper because the prints keep getting separated. I didn't want it to read like a book. I wanted it to be a small drawing lesson. I never draw as exploration, I always draw as a finished work. I go to Crown Point Press for a month [each year] to make prints. I experiment in the prints for form and image. I use an image in a print first before I use it in a painting, partly because I think in a layered way and the process is so layered. I want to show people ways of seeing, not only [how] artists see, but [how] artists see through time and place. It is a style of seeing-a twentieth-century way of seeing previous art. Through doing this I'm giving myself a classical art education. I never realised it was a post-modern practice. I was questioning modernism at the time (all my generation were minimalists and I was painting). In resisting them, I became a natural part of the next generation.

The artist constantly refers to photographs and transparencies when she works and confirmed that she worked from reproductions of the works by Leonardo da Vinci, Hokusai and Courbet. Regarding these three artists Steir said:

Leonardo knew something about growth and movement without really looking. I found the three artists to be more alike than you would guess. What Courbet sees is not so grand as what the others see. He does not see the grandeur. His fear is of the wave. I think that Courbet saw the Hokusai print of the wave before painting it. Courbet is ... not as great a painter as the other two.

Steir also remarked that when she copied the Leonardo drawing she realised that ‘he didn't look at water either, even though it looks like water. He has found the rhythm of water in himself, that's how he knew it so well. This is the key of dancing and drawing: to know how it is in yourself’. Steir sees a link between Japanese Zen philosophy and the rhythmic spiral forms in the Leonardo drawing. Regarding P 77193 she has referred to the ‘overlap between Europe and the Orient’ (Steir 1988, p.11). Of interest to her is the fact that the sea images of the three masters, Leonardo da Vinci, Hokusai and Courbet, not only look similar but also ‘carry the same feeling’. Elsewhere, however, she has expressed interest in the differences between the images (see press release, Crown Point Press, Oakland, California 1985). Steir has also mentioned that art historians think that Courbet saw Hokusai's wave images (see Steir 1988, p.11). In a recent exhibition catalogue Ann Dumas discussed the possible influence of Hokusai's albums of prints on Courbet's wave paintings (Courbet Reconsidered, exh. cat., Brooklyn Museum 1988, no.76).

Steir often adopts the styles and iconography of other artists and incorporates them into her work. She has described her work as ‘quotation art’. She does not regard her method of working as merely copying, and has said the ‘quotation lets me have a living relationship with art history’ (press release, Crown Point Press 1985). In the mid-1970s she began to undertake a study of the similarities and differences in styles of art from all periods of history, saying that ‘history was now her subject’ (Willi 1988, pp.82–3). In a multi-panelled painting titled ‘The Brueghel Series (A Vanitas of Style)’, 1982–4 (repr. Paul Gardiner, ‘Pat Steir: Seeing through the Eyes of Others’, Artnews, vol.84, no.9, Nov. 1985, pp.82–4 in col.), for example, she made sixty-four versions of a sixteenth-century still-life of a vase of flowers (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) by Jan Breughel the Elder (1568–1625), each panel re-painted in the style of a different famous artist or school, ranging from Byzantine painting to the art of the present day.

Steir has observed that the idea of translating the work of other artists has numerous historical precedents. In conversation on 1 May 1987 she likened her approach to that of a musician playing and reinterpreting the work of the composer; she later added

I feel that what I do is my own work more than interpreting... I feel that I am not interpreting the work of art ... I am taking several works of art and comparing them and that makes them be a new thing ... I am a translator, an appreciator, because I'm using the paintings as a still life, as a model in a way ... More than that, it is an opening of myself because it is also about my relation to - I won't say history, but time. Hokusai was 1700, Courbet was early modern. Hokusai's little print and the Courbets that are so small still carry tremendous emotional terror. How uncoincidental it is that feelings haven't changed so much!

(Steir 1988, p.11)

Steir observed that P77193 has more to do with ‘fear and death, terror of death, than image’, and commented that it probably had a similar significance for Hokusai and Courbet. Her mother had died the previous year and the artist noted that ‘since it was a difficult relationship ... it was a difficult growth’. A painting contemporary with P77193, ‘Autumn-The Wave after Courbet, As Though Painted by Turner Influenced by the Chinese’ (repr. Pat Steir, exh. cat., Musée d'art contemporain, Lyons 1990, p.4, in col.), was also associated with the death of her mother. The artist described it as ‘a wave of death’ (see Herbert Muschamp, ‘Oil and Water’, Vogue, New York, vol.180, no.7, July 1990, p.226). This is one of a series of wave paintings that the artist described in her letter to the compiler as related to P77193. Several are illustrated in colour in the 1990 Lyons catalogue: ‘Autumn - The Wave after Courbet As Though Painted by Turner, Influenced by the Chinese’, 1985, p.4; ‘Winter - The Wave after Courbet As Though Painted by an Italian Baroque Painter’, 1985, p.5; ‘The Wave after Courbet As Though Painted by Turner’, 1986, p.6; Spring - The Wave after Courbet As Though Painted by Ensor', 1986, p.7. Other paintings from the same series, mentioned by Steir in her letter but not illustrated, are: ‘The Wave after Courbet As Though Painted by Pollock’, 1986; ‘The Wave after Courbet (Eye of the Storm)’, 1986; ‘First Wave after Hokusai’, 1986; ‘Summer - The Wave after Courbet As Though Painted by Monet’, 1986; ‘Blue Wave after Hokusai’, 1986; and ‘White Wave after Hokusai’, 1986.

Steir studied etching and lithography at art school (Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, 1956–8). After finishing her formal training, she did not make prints again for some years, concentrating, instead, on drawing and painting. In 1973, following an approach by Jack Lemon of the Landfall Press in Chicago, she went on to make her first etchings with the Landfall Press. In 1976 she started to work with Crown Point Press, in Oakland, California, where P77193 was later printed.

Steir particularly likes etching, because it involves the layering of imagery and because she enjoys working with the copper plates. All her etchings involve drypoint, where the plate is directly engraved with a steel needle to create a deeper, richer line. She observed:

I've used the etching like paint. I paint with the acid ... I put an aquatint resin on the plate and melt it and then I paint on it with acid. After the acid has bitten into it I can use other techniques to paint into it. Sometimes I paint with soap and acid. The aquatint and the copper is so sensitive you can really manipulate it.

Steir has also written:

I like the way the ink hangs in the beard of the drypoint, how it cuts into the paper, how it sticks up on the paper. I like making the mark. Almost every way of making a mark because it's separate - I personally separate each way on a different plate-for me it is a way of thinking. Etching for me is half-way between sculpture and drawing rather than between painting and drawing. The hard ground is the grid the idea is formed on. I think of it almost as tridimensional. It starts flat maybe, not like a sculpture but like a relief, and every color comes on it, close in a way from the wall, and a lot of them, especially the last etching, ‘The Waterfall’ [repr. Geneva exh. cat., 1988, no.32], well ‘The Wave’ [P 77193] too, in some of it, have this deep watery space like swimming space

(Steir 1988, p.9)

Juliane Willi (1988, p.82) discussed Steir's exploration in the early 1970s of different print media and concluded ‘it is with the copper plate, both an object of resistance and a mirror, that Pat Steir has the most privileged relationship’.

Steir has used printmaking, especially etching, as a way of testing ideas for her paintings, sometimes breaking off from a painting to work out in an etching how the painting might eventually proceed. This print was made while she was engaged on the wave paintings discussed above. She said she subsequently made a group of paintings based on circles:

I saw a group of Momoyama period paintings of waves in Nishi-Hongan Ji temple in Kyoto. There are seventy-two of them. Each one depicts the moon crossing the wave in different directions. The roundness seemed to me to be Leonardo. Strangely, they were contemporary with him. First, I filtered them through Leonardo, then Courbet, and then Turner. What I'm doing is making non-modernist paintings. I'm trying not to express myself. All art is self-expression, you can't help it. I'm making investigations. What can art do but show you another way to see?

Steir said P77193 was made over a period of two to three weeks and that she was involved in every aspect of its production. She used red, yellow, blue and silver inks. ‘I didn't want to paint white because it deadens it. The silver pushes light out’. The final version of P77193 evolved through five proof states. The five working proofs (repr. Pat Steir: Gravures. Prints, exh. cat., Musée d'art et d'histoire, Geneva 1988, nos.23–8 in col.) range in colour from monochrome to brilliant yellow before arriving at the final, predominantly red, blue and turquoise image. An impression of P 77193 belonging to the Musée d'art et d'histoire, Geneva, and six proof states, were included in Steir's exhibition at Geneva and the Tate Gallery in 1988.

Juliane Willi (1988, p.83) writes that Steir's working proofs provide evidence of the artist's creative processes:

[they] follow a rhythm that is both unpredictable and logical, bearing witness to the hesitations, the certitudes, the dismay and the victories experienced by the artist in her confrontation with the copper plate, as well as the great ease in her concise, abrupt and vigorous interventions in drypoint... Along with the delicate etching, there is the gentle and undulating line of the yielding varnish, the streams of aquatint flood the plate with interweavings of color from which bursts forth the bright and solar light of California. Suddenly filtered as if to give us access to the hushed and subtle world of the irrational

The artist has approved this entry.

Published in:
Tate Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, London 1996

You might like