Brian Dupont: Artist's Texts

An artist's writings on art.

Posts Tagged ‘Terry Winters

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

On Lower Manhattan’s Memory Lane

Walking into Cheim and Read feels like visiting a gathering of old friends. Raphael Rubinstein has laid out a thesis for an alternate narrative of painting in the 1980’s that is not unknown, but is still not as recognized as it could (or should) be.[i] The artists he has pulled together all sought a way forward for the medium once the project of modernism collapsed into the late Sixties singularity of Minimalism and Conceptualism and threatened to obliterate it.[ii] The primary historical narrative has painting starting to find its way back with the new image painters, but only managing to reclaim the stage with the emergence of the bad boy neo-expressionists, who seemed to get by on brash youth and an injection of wall street capital that also (not coincidentally) supercharged the market.[iii] But to a man[iv] they were ultimately much less influential to the practice of painters going forward; if there is a hopeful lesson to be found here, it may point to the superficiality of immediate market success, so frustrating to watch from the outside, may ultimately be very limited in its long term historical affect. By contrast the painters of Reinventing Abstraction have had a much deeper and far reaching influence. They were known as painters’ painters[v] even as they were emerging, and as Postmodernism became less of novelty and was assimilated into historical perspective they had more influence as younger artists who found the personal language they employed provided a much more expansive arena in which to operate and find their own way forward.[vi] A certain part of this may lie in the versatility and depth of abstraction as a new[vii] visual idiom, or it may be as simple as the right group of artists intersecting in the right time and place and they just happened to embrace the currents of recent practice. That critical discourse or the market did not immediately embrace them should not disguise the breadth of their accomplishments.

Rubenstein sees a precedent for Reinventing Abstraction and its careful (re)examination of history in the Whitney Museum’s exhibition High Times, Hard Times: New York Painting 1967 — 1975. A show for which David Reed served as an advisor[viii], it showed the breadth of painting practice that flourished in the lofts of lower Manhattan in the wake of minimalism and the ascendance of conceptual art. The artists in lower Manhattan continued to paint and explore ideas opened up by the color field and minimalist painters that were their neighbors, spraying the paint or starting to take its material supports apart to explore the underlying sense of shape. What was conspicuously absent from High Times, Hard Times was an integration drawing as method of creating a subjective psychological space within the painted field. Where the artists of High Times, Hard Times experimented with the possibilities inherent in the varied syntax of the painting as an object[ix], the artists of Reinventing Abstraction let individual facture of the hand reintroduce drawing into their work.[x] Any two marks set beside each other begin to create space and therefore a degree of illusionism and reference; from there it is a short step to the reintroduction of personal forms and subjective symbolism within painting, and the complete rejection of the purity that seemed to be the endgame of modernism. Stuff was back in advanced abstract painting in a way it hadn’t been since the heydays of de Kooning and Guston.

The entire first, smaller room at Cheim and Read brings the reliance on drawing inherent within each work into sharp focus. The works of Terry Winters, Carroll Dunham and Bill Jensen of the time all made use of biomorphic and natural forms[xi] that emerged from a seeming collision scientific imagery with a rediscovery of the pleasures of paint. The combination of painterly process and forms derived from a subtle examination of nature became something of a trend itself within the early Eighties; these three works form a starting point to trends that branch out and carry through the exhibition as a whole.

Winters’ project has always relied very heavily on drawing, and the composition of Point is recognizable as a single piece of paper that fits multiple studies writ large. The scale of his paintings sometimes disguise the affinities they share with the scientist’s notebook.[xii] Leonardo left codices filled with similar drawings that mapped his thought process across the paper, and a number of more recent examples of such studies are currently on view in the WMAA’s show of Edward Hopper’s drawings. The primary forms are not rendered so much as built out of strokes of paint. In some areas Winters employs a heavy black line that reads almost as charcoal drawn over the paint; other areas are scrubbed and washed away in a veil of pale color; it is a testament to his technical understanding of the complexities of his material that the picture is in such immaculate condition after more than 30 years, with little cracking or unintended surface incident that usually comes with pushing the limits of paint to such extremes. Winters’ building up of his forms echoes Stanley Whitney’s gestural brush marks of paint weaving into shapes that oscillate across the surface. It is tempting to see these loose knit forms as being slowly subjected to increasing gravity and further coalescing and refining themselves into the careful grids of colored blocks he is now known for.

Dunham’s composition is roughly determined by his plywood support. The disparate elements are connected and reconciled through a sort of doodling exquisite corpse; tubers and root forms extend from knots and shift in volumetric space as they cross flat bands of color dictated by the veneer grain. The flat demarcations of color carry through in the next room in David Reed’s transparent overlays across enlargements of swirling gesture. The precision of design via demarcation carries through in Jonathon Lasker’s deadpan arrangement of shapes and Jack Whitten’s inscribed geometry and flat rectangles of color.

In The Tempest Jensen’s spore like form floats in a similar space to Winters’ but he takes the primacy of his material further, troweling his paint onto the canvas and unifying the surface under a heavy impasto. Where Winters’ orchestration of surface variation plays to an analytic construction of the image’s components and mostly respects the distinction between figure and ground, the directness of Jensen’s masonry approach reveals a greater emotional subjectivity. Drawing from earlier symbolist artists such as Ryder, Hartley, and Dove, Jensen builds a space that not only holds the form, but shifts around it and seemingly moves through it; figure and ground oscillate according to shifting perceptions with only the drawing of the erstwhile subject to keep the delineation in check.

This tension between material process and drawn subject continues through Reinventing Abstraction: Joan Snyder both renders a landscape and builds it out of furrows of paint. In Beanfield with Music the landscape imagery reinforces the physical sensation conveyed by material presence. Whitten juxtaposes a painterly field of tar-thick acrylic combed through to expose underlying areas of electric hue.[xiii]  His frenetic scribbling, scratching marks stand in sharp contrast to the precision of his geometric constructs. The emotional resonance of his subject grows out of the tension between the opposing aesthetic modes in his employ. Louise Fishman’s calligraphic swirl is as concrete as anything in the exhibition; her glyph-like form loops around and against the limits of her canvas, positive and negative space laboring against mutual gravity. Where Fishman concentrates her material into a small tightly controlled space, Pat Steir thins and spreads hers in liquid loops of expansive gesture across the largest canvas in the exhibition. Her color is tough and solid, reminiscent of stone and rust, but her thinned pigment sprays from her brush in layers according to the force and direction of her whole body. In all of these works the artist’s gesture is yoked to description of a form or shape that sits within a specific space.

When Rubinstein investigates abstraction, it is inevitable that the discussion will turn to the current trend he named as Provisional Painting, but this is not an exhibition dedicated to genealogy. Despite the reach of his idea, either to young artists working today, or much further back through historical precedent, the artists in this show would almost unilaterally disavow that their work aimed to be anything less than a complete, coherent statement.[xiv] In parsing abstraction’s contribution to painting one finds the roots of Provisionalism run deep, but that depends on how much mark making and material, brush stroke and painterly gesture read as specifically “provisional” rather than inherent elements of the medium that a particular painter may choose to employ. Does the exposed support or thin materiality of color field painting (or before that Rothko and Newman) mark their work as provisional?[xv] Likewise de Kooning’s avoidance of resolution?[xvi]

Gary Stephan’s painting employs one of his signature template forms, but sets it hovering in a nocturnal, sfumato atmosphere. The template itself is built out of thickly glazed layers of paint, and merges with a deep space rendered in transparent washes. The surface eschews excessive brush strokes in favor of a straightforward approach that is nothing if not traditionally finished. Nozokowski’s forms are reminiscent of Stephan’s (so much so that I was momentarily confused that this might be Stephan’s contribution), but again the forms have crisp edges and the layers of shape and color attest to a complete and contained pictorial logic. David Reed takes the limiting of facture even further; his painting evidences the meticulous and labor intensive process his work is known for, with layers of paint repeatedly sanded smooth as the image of a gestural Rococo brushstroke is transformed and reinterpreted in a manner such that the artist’s hand is turned into a method of mechanical reproduction. The surface of the painting is a tromp l’oeil simulacrum of its source material; the subject of the act of painting is set at a reserved original distance.

Elizabeth Murray and Lasker both provide paintings that might appear provisional, but require a greater amount of planning than such a label suggests. Both work from a plan and preparatory drawings rather than just recklessly diving into a painting. Despite the cartoonish simplicity of Murray’s composition in Sentimental Education, her shaped supports require precise and labor intensive construction. With the foundation of her picture being so specific idiosyncratic shape it is a testament to her skill as a painter that the work appears so fresh; the scumbled surface, hazy light, high-key colors and jigsaw shapes could easily come off as the mere scaled up production of smaller statement, but instead read as an improvisation of the highest order. On the other hand, that Lasker’s Double Play looks like a production diagram executed deadpan is precisely the point. Every element is as carefully orchestrated as politician’s speech, with even the thick, expressively painted shape coming off as rehearsed instead of spontaneous. His practice casts a critical eye on the work of his peers, but such assessment indicates careful consideration, not any sort of “lack of finish,” “self-defeating strategies,” or “dandyish nonchalance.”[xvii]

On the other hand Stephen Mueller and Mary Heilmann both engaged with concerns we now call “provisional.” In Delphic Hymn Mueller arrays each element casually across the canvas; where Lasker follows a strict design, Mueller gives the impression of arranging things he just happened to stumble across. Drips, overspray and tossed off daubs commingle with areas of hard edge geometry. However his work continued to evolve, and Delphic Hymn now looks like a transitional painting to his mature work. It points to how he would continue to approach the organization his compositions, but doesn’t give away how his forms would tighten into striated symmetry and his paint would combine hard edges and electric atmosphere. Heilmann’s Rio Nido certainly seems more provisional than the other fourteen paintings in the show, yet the label is hardly a slight. There is a playful simplicity in the painting that is emblematic of her mature practice. Blocks of bright, brushy color are overlaid with a dynamic black shape that is “punched” through with holes so that the original colors shine through. Whatever polemic it might subsequently be tied to does not alter its status as a strong statement by individual artist pursuing her own concerns first and foremost. The same can ultimately be said for each painting on view.

The exhibition itself strains at the limits of a single work per artist and the confines of the gallery. There is enough depth to the subject for a deeper museum survey, but that would require a different venue; as one moves through the spacious hanging in the front galleries, the large paintings by Whitney, Whitten, and Snyder feel constricted in the rear spaces. It is hard not to see the art world’s hierarchies coming into play, with the bigger names associated with prestigious retrospectives accorded more breathing room. At the same time I wouldn’t want to see a single painting cut, and the pairings and unexpected sightlines of the hanging serve to reveal unexpected relations between works. These are paintings that I’ve (and I suspect many others) have spent years looking at, and if they don’t all quite fit quietly and seamlessly together, that only makes the party that much warmer and more inviting.

[i] As stated in the catalog essay The Lure of the Impure.

[ii] But not really; artists never stopped painting so the various recurrences of “the death of painting” are always more a matter of critical or theoretical contrivance than artistic practice. This is certainly held up by the perverse practice on the part of artists to find any small corner of art history that has been debased or ignored and start gleefully playing around with supposed retrograde concepts.

[iii] Rubenstein’s historical discourse includes some frank discussion on the influence of the market in shaping critical reception.

[iv] And they do seem to be entirely men. Their seems to be much more diversity among groups of artists and movements not awash in money.

[v] I don’t think anyone every looked to Schnable or Salle for virtuoso performances in pigment, and the critical discourse that surrounded their work seemed to focus on pastiche and theory rather than formal analysis (the deficiencies of which needed to be explained away more than anything).

[vi] My experience was that as I became committed to abstraction, painters like Winters and Jensen provided touchstones that applied to my own sensibility and interests where people interested in employing figuration found deeper sources from which to work. The repercussions of such influence is that it spawns legions of pale imitations, and I certainly made my own fair share of watered-down Terry Winters paintings. Artists can’t be blamed for this aspect of success, but the hope must be that eventually that influence grows farther from the source to become its own thing, a different practice. The lessons of the Neo-Expressionists don’t run nearly as deep, and little wears thin more quickly than an art school enfant terrible.

[vii] At least relatively speaking when compared to the vast history of representation in western art.

[viii] The cross-pollination between High Times, Hard Times and Reinventing Abstraction is extensive; aside from Reed, Fishman, Heilman, Murray, Snyder, Whitten, and Steir were included in Katy Siegel’s exhibition. This is probably another point of evidence to just how much smaller the art world in New York was three decades ago. My own suspicion is that the amount of money circulating through art world helps determine its size, and before the wall street boom of the 1980s resources were much more scant.

[ix] Robert Ryman turned such experiments into the subject of his entire practice, but the artists focused on in High Times, Hard Times were not nearly so programmatic.

[x] Walking through the exhibition, I kept thinking back to Bernice Rose’s group exhibitions that focused on drawing, Drawing Now and Allegories of Modernism. I was very surprised to learn that only Winters and Steir were included in the later show; it goes to show that no matter how obvious Rubinstein’s thesis may seem now, the attention paid these artists has changed substantially in the intervening decades.

[xi] The introduction of this subject matter brought “nature” back into the discourse of painting without succumbing to either the saccharine conventions of Sunday plein air painting or any need to resort to ironic reserve in order to be taken seriously. It continued the trend where serious art needed to evidence a “rigor” of approach while opening up the possibilities of what might be deemed “appropriate” subject matter by maintaining a universal scope of subject.

[xii] These similarities are more evident in his drawings and prints, which are much closer in scale to such sources.

[xiii] These subtleties are difficult to capture up in reproduction; they barely register in the catalog illustration where they read as the white of the canvas priming. That photographs only provide close approximations of a painting’s surface reality is a problem that afflicts many of the works in Reinventing Abstraction. I am beginning to suspect that this is a trait shared by most of the more interesting paintings that are made where the medium is so important to the formation of the image and the varied possibilities of paint are fully exploited.

[xiv] Rubinstein admits as much, declaring that the stated (and decidedly non-provisional) intentions of the artists shaped his approach to the exhibition.

[xv] One could see the potential for a division between the otherwise very similar art of East Coast abstractionists and the “Finish Fetish” artists of the West Coast.

[xvi] He famously struggled with any resolution to a picture, and the spaces his women inhabit after the late ‘40s are largely indeterminate vehicles for painterly gesture as much as descriptions of place.

[xvii] As described in The Lure of the Impure.