Brian Dupont: Artist's Texts

An artist's writings on art.

Posts Tagged ‘contemporary art

Terry Winters: Material and Mapping.

I find it continually surprising how much the art we respond to most, either as makers or viewers, is deeply connected to what we are exposed to in their formative years. The sympathies and rebellions we cultivate when we first plunge into art have lasting consequences that run biologically deep. I can only imagine the excitement of young modernists turning the academies upside down, spilling out to work in the capitals of Europe, forming groups and “isms” ever faster, blinking in and out of existence like quantum particles. As art schools became more professionalized[1], the sense of needing to advance a shared style or aesthetic concern seems to have diminished in favor of collectives with looser aesthetic dogmas.[2] Whether this is a cause or result of the rise of Post-modernism is an open question[3], but just as it would be foolish to dismiss the influence of pedagogy on the course of art, so it would be equally foolish to accord it as much scope when so much energy is directed toward revising the narratives of contemporary art.

As an undergraduate committed to painting, I was initially interested in figuration and narrative, but I quickly turned to abstraction as I worked through basic forms reduced to diagrams. I wasn’t interested in history painting or in the interaction of figures in actual space[4], but I was also not interested in the abstraction of material for its own sake.[5] My initial points of reference were Pop or neo-imagist artists, but I didn’t make a personal connection to the work, which led to my feeling a little lost. Then my teacher[6] took the time to drive me and a few other students out to see an exhibition of Terry Winters’s paintings.

It was a distillation of his Whitney retrospective, showing mostly large-scale paintings. They immediately grabbed me for their combination of scientific reference, painterly process and the integration of abstraction with a sense of space rooted in figure-ground relationships. His botanical forms were built out of impasto that sometimes seemed to be inches thick.[7] They floated in the diagrammatic space of the canvas or materialized out of scratching in the paint like corrections in a scientist’s field journal, and I was blown away. The work seemed to be speaking directly to me, a sensation that was enhanced as I digested Lisa Phillips and Klaus Kertess’s retrospective catalog. The influence went very deep and affected a great deal of how I made art, from an interest in every technical component of painting to building a studio practice that included continuous drawing.[8]

Other influences came and went, but I continued to follow Winters’s work, though mostly at a distance from New York, and so mostly through reproduction. Not knowing the difference between the real painting and the image as his work changed lead to a curious case of mis-translation. The final works in the Kansas exhibition showed him moving closer to his spores and blastula, magnifying them to fill the canvas and melding them with the painted ground. The paint was thick and luscious, like the wet-into-wet impasto of late Guston. Winters had not yet transitioned fully into the networks and fields that occupy him now, and when I first saw reproductions of the new paintings, I assumed they had the same surface topologies because I did not consider how much of his work comes from an interaction with the natural world.[9] Plants and fungi can be collected as specimens and held in the hand. Moving one’s point of view to the inside of a cell requires examination beyond the naked eye; the experience is at a remove, the material weight of handling glass slides under a microscope has given way to computer imaging on screens and the surface of the work shows the new source. Where I imagined near reliefs of painted networks, Winters was actually working much more simply and directly, with the linear structures graphed in translucent skeins.

Winters’s exhibition “Facts and Fictions” at the Drawing Center shows the transition clearly. As one starts clockwise around the gallery one can see how drawing led the way. The earliest works, on the south wall, are thick charcoal, chalk, and sometimes crayon and graphite; the images emerge out of a velvety density embedded in the paper. To anyone familiar with his paintings, the facture is instantly recognizable, although the paper’s existence as exposed ground stands as in stark contrast to the refusal to let primed canvas enjoy a similar spotlight. The back wall contains five works on large paper that shift quickly from drawing and mixed media to paintings on paper. The choppy structure and palette of “Animation” is echoed in the painting “Parallel Rendering 2” of a year later; the off-white of the paper is a similar value to the painting’s tan ground, and the traces of yellow behind the network adding traces of luminosity.[10] The north wall marks the transition to the exploration of the entire surface as a shifting and tessellating plane. Winters has moved through layers of magnification to spaces and fields described by complicated mathematics that are graphed on computer screens, and the drawings’ surfaces have shifted to precise skins rendered in shiny graphite with additions of charcoal or ink that are screen-thin.[11] Depth is created by the spatial alignment of the structure rather than the layers of material articulating relationships between figure and ground.[12]

This is primarily evident in the comparison of selections from the Schema series from 1985–86 to the to the 48 drawings in cases on the floor from 2006–16 (with different cycles emerging from the overall series). Both are comprised of letter format paper[13] that offer an encyclopedic view of Winters’s visual preoccupations at the time. In the Schema drawings there is a wider variety of material exploration, from pencil and charcoal to watercolor, gouache, and even oil stick. The botanical forms and cellular accumulations are laid out off-handedly; stacked, layered, and nested in scratched marks and jottings. Their placement responds as much to the improvisations in the painted field of space they inhabit as to mere representation. The heavy paper buckles with layers of wet media, giving a palpable linkage of biological and creative process. By contrast, the later series is dry, the paper retains its plane and the spatial graphing and forms tend to be centrally organized and often the deckle edge is delineated with a hard pencil edge. These images read as a mapping of the paper’s space. There is still space for improvisation, but the forms are ultimately more descriptive than their predecessors, even as they are more difficult for the layman to understand and identify.

Earlier in the summer, “Facts and Fictions” could be contrasted with Winters’s exhibition “12twelvepaintings” at Matthew Marks Gallery. One could examine how the spaces in the drawings projected to six and a half by five feet.[14] Color and texture articulate the surface, and the scale and painting process allows for more complex interactions between different descriptive systems. The paint surface did not grab me the way the earlier works did, but I appreciated their cartographer’s directness. As I left I found a small monoprint from 2004 in the back of the gallery entrance, under the stairs. The pale colors alternated between atmospheric space and border, reversing their functions as they interacted with other elements. A strip of copper rectangles along the top implied a sheet torn from spiral bound pad. The structure seemed to rise up off of the paper in embossed relief, delineating a twisting spiral space and an enclosing frame, and then pushing beyond the artificial border. Perhaps it was an experiment for the artist, but it struck me that I couldn’t help but see in it the physicality I’d always imagined in Winters’s large paintings. This avenue may not be important to the artist, after all many artists explore directions that are not important to their practice, but it was important for me to find.

“Terry Winters: Facts and Fictions” continues at the Drawing Center until August 12.


[1] Yale’s MFA program sending Richard Serra, Brice Marden, Chuck Close, Nancy Graves, and others right into SoHo seems like a turning point for the professional connections between graduate programs and the New York gallery scene.

[2] Consider the YBA generation that came out of Goldsmith’s; their work is really only connected by being collected by Charles Saatchi, rather than any shared aesthetic concerns.

[3] Although to be fair, the social snobbery and cliquishness of some strains of modernism would put many present-day teenagers to shame.

[4] Photography seemed to have secured this ground and rendering tableau in paint seemed to only be adding expressionist flourishes that confused the relationships of the figures to themselves and the space they inhabited.

[5] Yet.

[6] Sharon Louden, in what must have been one of her first jobs, and who has proceeded to do a great work on what it means to be a working artist in today’s culture.

[7] The phallic forms of “Pitch Lake” particularly stand out in this regard.

[8] It also led me to make a great many very derivative paintings, as is a common reaction for most art students.

[9] This really shouldn’t have come as a surprise, given how much the early naturalists figure in literature of Winters’s early works.

[10] The painting is more resolved, but where its yellow structure describes a source of flight behind the primary structure, the streaks of color in the drawing add to the sense of directness in the artist recording his intent.

[11] This is especially evident in the “7-Fold Sequence” works.

[12] This approach to the space of the artwork is evident in Winters’s prints, where an a priori articulation of the image is dictated by serial nature of the printing process.

[13] Artists’ approach to paper is always fascinating. Many process-based artists experiment with a broad variety of paper (Brice Marden and his use of Asian as well as European watercolor papers comes to mind), but Winters’s focus is on capturing the image, and his paper doesn’t call attention to itself as a unique material.

[14] Although the exact dimensions of the 2006–16 works are not provided, note that a letter size of eleven to twelve by eight and a half to nine inches keeps the proportions nearly identical. The use of framing devices within the paintings serves to further tighten the proportions.


Written by Brian Dupont

August 8, 2018 at 12:58 pm