Pat Steir has put the cynics to shame. While lesser artists have reproduced existing images from history and pop culture--claiming that there's nothing new to be done or that there are already too many images in the world--she has renewed art history by grasping the whole of it and infusing herself into other artists' spirits.
Her tour de force transformed a Breughel floral study into a massive summary of the history of painting. Composed of 64 28-by-23-inch canvases--each an homage to an artist or a school--this bouquet (painted from 1982 to 1984) established Steir as an eminent student of style who has taken art as her subject.
Once a professor at CalArts and now a resident of New York and Amsterdam, Steir now returns to Los Angeles with three 14-foot-wide oils and one large drawing of waves, plus some paired self-portraits and small drawings called "Elke's Series." This isn't enough to convey the full impact of her wisely radical stance, but it's a start--and we're grateful for it.
To get the idea, you have only to read the paintings' titles: "The Wave After Hiroshige," "After Courbet--Eye of the Storm or Sunlight (Venetian Turner)" and " 'Autumn' The Wave After Courbet as Though Painted by Turner (Influenced by the Chinese)." It's the continuity of art history that has impressed Steir and she pulls together its disparate styles in roiling, crashing, foam-spraying waves that are absolutely her own. The first two paintings portray waves as tumultuous coils in cool pastel and white oil. The "Chinese" wave is a wicked red funnel with Oriental character-like brush strokes dancing in its wake.
If you are allergic to titles and theories, you can enjoy these paintings for their beauty alone. You'd have to go a long way to find more lushly painted, vigorously drawn images. (Kuhlenschmidt/Simon Gallery, 9000 Melrose Ave., to June 21.)