Always innovative, often interesting, Steg show at NOMA well worth seeing

Amanda Winstead Fine Art
Oct 17, 2017 9:21PM

John D'Addario's exhibition review featured in the New Orleans Advocate

Jim Steg at NOMA -- "Figures at the Seashore," 1967, CONTRIBUTED PHOTO FROM ROMAN ALOKHIN

When “Jim Steg: New Work”  opened at the New Orleans Museum of Art a few weeks ago, viewers were treated to the odd sight of an inflatable camouflaged tank in the austere setting of the museum’s neoclassical Great Hall.

The tank was meant to remind viewers that Steg (1922-2001), was part of the U.S. “Ghost Army” during World War II, which was set up to confuse enemy forces through tactical trickery including fake radio transmissions and … yes, inflatable tanks.

In that spirit, “New Work” is a confusing title for a show in which the most recent work of art was created more than two decades ago. It’s apparently meant to evoke the fact that Steg was a relentless innovator in the field of printmaking over the course of his career both as an artist and a well-loved educator at Newcomb College.

The NOMA show also seeks to make the case that Steg was something of an unfairly overlooked master, or in the words of its press materials “both an innovator in the field of printmaking, and an artist at the forefront of several major twentieth-century movements.”

It generally succeeds at the former. In fact, there are so many different printmaking styles in “New Work” that it can sometimes be hard to believe that all the works are by the same artist.

In attempting to make the case that Steg deserves to be recognized as a major figure in modern art, the show is less successful. But it still serves as an engaging introduction to an artist who at least deserves to be much better known outside of New Orleans.

Arranged chronologically, “New Work” begins with a selection of academic figure studies which would serve as a springboard to Steg’s more innovative and experimental works in years to come.

They soon give way to the moody and expressionistic works in the “American Culture” series Steg made while in graduate school after war. Nearby, the rowdy composition of his “Bacchanalian Group after Mantegna” (1948) seems to owe as much to Picasso’s “Guernica”  as it does to the Italian Renaissance master who inspired it.

Steg started teaching in New Orleans in the 1950s, during which time he began experimenting with a wide range of printmaking techniques and media. His “Factory Series” of lithographs are richly atmospheric, almost resembling stage sets in their looming sense of scale. It’s in these works that the case for strengthening Steg’s artistic reputation may be the strongest.

By the time the 1960s roll around, however, Steg seems to have become mainly influenced by the prevailing currents of late Abstract Expressionism and Pop art that characterized most art of the period.

Lighter abstract pieces like “Thought” and “Elation” (both 1968) see Steg continuing to experiment with original forms and technique. But works from the same period like “The Prescription” (1966) and “Red Field” (1968) show an artist who was paying close attention to work by artists like James Rosenquist and Barnett Newman, respectively — to the point where some of Steg’s work can seem derivative.

To the show’s credit, it does provide ample evidence that Steg indeed “expanded the arsenal of printmaking techniques.” (A smaller grouping of Steg’s work that contains half a dozen examples of these techniques is unfortunately tucked away in a separate gallery on the other side of the museum, making it difficult to study these techniques more closely within the context of the main show. But it’s well worth seeking out.)

As an artist who resisted developing a signature style, Steg wasn’t easy to categorize or get a firm handle on. And the NOMA show only partially succeeds in putting his work in a larger art historical context.

That said, works like 1971’s “In the Land of the Blind …" and 1993’s creepy “Beach Scene” are distinctive and haunting — and are likely to be the ones you remember most from this occasionally uneven but worthwhile show.

Click Here to Read the Full Article by John D'Addario | Special to The Advocate

Amanda Winstead Fine Art