Let’s begin by dropping some stock material. Abandoning, for a moment, dystopia, information theory, or recalling Piranesi’s prison etchings for the umpteenth time, along with metastasizing mutatis mutandis and all of the Popular Science pseudo-scientific (scientistic really) rhetoric that sticks so easily to the toothy surfaces of Terry Winters’ work. Winters is an important artist. His paintings have proven relevant because they reveal the often invisible operations of the wilder, real and artless avant-gardes informing every aspect of our culture now. Clearly, few artists, let alone an abstract painter, can ever honestly make such a sweeping claim.
The painter’s last grand painting show, entitled Graphic Primitives from 1999—another era altogether—looms large in memory. Graphic Primitives successfully explored the complex intersection between biology (once considered a “lower” science subordinate to the more calculable charms of chemistry and physics) and woefully omnipresent digital technology. Graphic Primitives presented Winters in mature phase pushing past his personal limits at full force. This show was a huge achievement by all accounts. The paintings were enormous in size, ambitious in scope, and absolutely overloaded with all manner of distressed, overlaid marks. Every component was raging flame-on. Each painting was like an individual breeder reactor bristling with febrile energy—supersaturated in both color and content. Like a beetle or one of Philip Guston’s best paintings, they were wondrously beautiful and horrifying to behold. The Graphic Primitives marked the zenith of an explosive period of creative growth that began shortly after Winters’ mid-career survey at the Whitney Museum in 1992. I wish I were as excited about Winters’ current show at Matthew Marks 22nd St. garage/showroom, but this body of work feels lank and recessionary in comparison—perhaps a predictable and necessary retrenchment.
However, this 2003 show should only reinforce, rather than diminish, the painter’s esteemed reputation. A traveling exhibition covering the last decade of Winters’ painting is slated for three institutions next year, and it’s difficult to imagine that this work will do much more than provide a strong supporting role for the previous series. The new paintings have the signature, but neither the punch nor physical integrity of the last batch. Film strips with notched edges float freely through some, while others are adorned with oceanic novelties—some graphic patterns resembling the underbelly of a whale or the dingle-dangle drift of some jellyfish’s stinging tentacles.
One recurring problem with many of the painting exhibitions that plagues this particular space is the tired dominant hue-based hanging of works on the gallery’s eastern wall. The left wall is repeatedly reserved for the predictable display of a red painting, placed next to a green one, next to a blue one, yellow one, purple one, etc., that only serves to reinforce the atmosphere of a boutique and cheapens the character of the individual works. Is this the genuine exploration of color or merely the filling out of some purchase order? I thought the whole point of luxury trade retail was to extinguish any whiff of merchandising whatsoever. Like so many paintings one sees in Chelsea, this row is colorful but it’s not really about color.
The current show also includes several works on paper. Winters is a master draftsman who uses an intentionally crude and quick line to render otherwise elegant drawings that are typically extrapolated from technical charts and diagrams. Although, I’m not entirely convinced that high-minded resources necessarily make for meaningful drawings, Winters suite of 42 drawings called Turbulence Skins makes a compelling and seductive argument. Winters is truly a graphic sophisticate, and his works on paper often easily allude to such ungraspable topics as velocity or hemispherical neural networks. Everything this artist renders becomes structurally organic and acquires the almost universal appeal of something not unlike a Karl Blossfeldt photograph.
Winters owns this approach to drawing and it should never be confused with the style often adopted by younger artists after having just come across a copy of Edward Tufte’s The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. Winters still weighs considerable influence upon art students everywhere, in part because his work illuminates a path between and past the influential modernist extremes of Cy Twombly and Brice Marden. His former practice of using botanical forms lifted from textbooks and hyper-magnified cross-sections is continuously rediscovered by younger artists seeking a vehicle to unite subject with image, form, and surface. It’s still a potent and viable mode that attracts a certain sensibility. Also, Winters’ main themes are constantly trafficked in innumerable group shows centered on morphology or digitization, just to name a few. Perhaps only surveillance has been a more popular topic in recent years.
The most consistent feature of Winters’ painting is its typically rough and fulsome surface. More than anything else, I think that it’s his tactile handling and purposeful pushing of paint that lends his work the aura of authenticity. He also always successfully avoids ever settling for any kind of easy beauty. His pictures remain beautiful in a distinctly earthy way, but they’re seldom pretty and often contemptuous of cleaner “good taste”. There is a sense of discovery that manifests itself in Winters search through the paint that’s endlessly appealing, and there’s a level of confidence on hand in the works on paper that’s beginning to rival the great and titanic modern masters of the past century. The new show at Matthew Marks is fine, but, having already ventured towards his outer limits, I’m resolved to wait for the regathering of Winters’ storm.
Michael Brennan is a New York painter who writes on art.