She pours and splashes paint on giant canvases. Sound familiar? A close look makes clear that unlike the action paintings of Jackson Pollock, Pat Steir is no Jack the Dripper.

Steir’s version is less all-over Abstract Expressionist than Pollock’s and more focused on nature. Her new show of recent work at the Gagosian Gallery in Rome makes the point with pictures like “Roman Rainbow” – a torrent of rushing bands of layered color.

Some 20 years ago, I talked to Steir by phone from her studio in New York about her work at the time called the Waterfall series.

She told me that her approach to painting favored the 2500-year-old Chinese philosophy of Tao, which holds: "In the rain, we do not distinguish between heaven and earth.''

Letting it all hang out

Of course, as with any Tao artist, not everything is wholly accidental. In Steir’s case, she sets the intervals of the paint's application, as well as the scale and mood of the painting. After that is when she lets nature take its course.

In that spirit of cooperating with nature rather than forcing one's will on it, Steir told me how she worked – loading a wide brush with thin oil paint, placing the brush at the top of an upright canvas, and letting gravity pull the paint down like water at Niagara Falls.

All of which offers a vague suggestion of a landscape of mountains, cascades, and mist.

Getting off the ground

And therein lies the essential difference between Steir and Pollock.

While he set his canvas on the floor to paint and then physically chart the course of his picture without the help of gravity, she works on canvases set up vertically like Chinese scrolls fully benefiting from gravity.

One may ask how American-born Steir trained at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, ended up following a Chinese system of painting. "There was no moment of `Aha! now I'm going to do this,” she said. "I love books. I could have been an academic. I like to study art history.''

But wait, as spontaneous as Steir is in her painting, that's how exacting she was in our interview about her need to be clear: "I just want to be careful to say exactly what I mean.'' She said this repeatedly: "I just want to know we both think I said the same thing.''

It looks easy, but it’s not

Although a celebrated painter today, Steir said it's hard to be an artist.

"Not so many people do it for a whole lifetime. Anyone who makes art for a living is my hero because it's a hard thing to keep your faith. Just the act, itself with or without success, that's heroic. It's just such a hard thing to keep your heart.''

There’s no need to think about her words when looking at her pictures. Nearly free of material context, they are transforming. You enter them beneath thought. You make friends with timelessness.