Wednesday, March 14th, 2012

Winters Lakes: Terry Winters at Matthew Marks

Terry Winters: Cricket Music, Tessellation Figures, & Notebook at Matthew Marks Gallery

February 4 to April 14, 2012
522 West 22nd Street and 502 West 22nd Street
between 10th and 11th avenues
New York City, 212-243-0200

Terry Winters, Cricket Music, 2010. Oil on linen, 88 x 112 inches. Courtesy of Matthew Marks Gallery

Terry Winters, Cricket Music, 2010. Oil on linen, 88 x 112 inches. Courtesy of Matthew Marks Gallery

For Terry Winters to be the great painter implied by euphoric reviewers of his recent work, including his current exhibition at Matthew Marks, worthy indeed of comparison with Matisse and Picasso, de Kooning and Johns (immortals invoked by no means merely as influences), then he would have to have a profound way with materials, specifically with color.  He certainly brings a strong graphic intelligence to bear, making the most of near monochrome palettes, notably earth browns and blacks with acid orange overtones at the beginning of his career.  A characteristically dynamic engagement with printmaking seems to have taught Winters how to work layers of contrasting oil colors additively.  The resulting informational overload can be arresting, intensified by the besmirched hues that ripple where wet corrupts wet.  Restricting the palette has been good for Winters.

In his current body of work, Winters uses only the pigments traditionally known as lakes –– fixed dyes, which are luminous, oily, and transparent.  This particular palette constraint began with the Knotted Graphs (2008), part of a methodology that also involves the direct tracing, evidently, of superimposed topology diagrams.  Winters has said that the choice of transparent colors is intended to reveal the layers of his process –– though process has always been Winters’s primary declaration of strength; and in any case, liberal admixtures of opaque white in these works tend, just as much, to cover things up.  What is revealed by the lakes, given that Winters has access to a full turn of the color wheel is –– all too plainly –– lackluster chromatic sensibility.

One might well be reminded of Matisse by Winters’s topological still life, Tessellation Figures (4) (2011) in which toothed disks, presumably of higher-math pedigree but resembling flowers, hover in puffy, sensuous bursts of blue-tinted white over crisscrossing patterns of watery blues and greens. In the 1910s, Matisse would set greenery against blue-white tablecloths with similar intent.  But that palette served merely as theme, allowing Matisse to weave a set of variations in which, for example, virile blacks, luscious roses, and wounding slashes of red and green might elaborate a creamy illogic of light that burns as it caresses.  When Winters, by contrast, tries to expand the blue-to-yellow color space of this work with washes of red, he creates gormless dead spots.  Where he sticks with his home colors, he runs out of ideas: whole quadrants of the canvas feel abruptly colored-in –– and not with the panache of Alex Katz, nor the deliberately less than ingratiating haste of Martin Kippenberger.

Cricket Music (2010) is even more stagnant.  The painting clings to blue, gray, and white after forays into a wider palette –– so the translucent process reveals –– attaining the sickly, over lit pallor that recalls black-and-white video played on a maladjusted color TV.  If only Winters had gone all the way!  Instead, the light is generically dappled.  The title apparently refers to a sound composition by Walter De Maria, but seems to gesture also at the synesthetic moonlight chorusings of Charles Burchfield.  Either way, the painting’s interfering knots and pentagram fragments, which should vibrate and dance with Winters’s big ideas about nature, information, and the cosmic manifold, are stuck in one-dimensional color space, all dressed up with no place to go.

Terry Winters, Tessellation Figures (4), 2011. Oil on linen, 80 x 76 inches. Courtesy of Matthew Marks Gallery

Terry Winters, Tessellation Figures (4), 2011. Oil on linen, 80 x 76 inches. Courtesy of Matthew Marks Gallery

When Winters brings chromatic contrast into play the effect is no more musical.  A smattering of blue tiles detaches and pops from the torquing chain-link of orange and white diamonds that prevails in Tessellation Figures (11) (2011), while, reciprocally, orange diamonds intrude on the blue and green carapace of Tessellation Figures (6) (2011).  These lunges of blue/orange opposition issue muddy skid marks, but no secondary tonalities to sustain the drama, to give it heft and suspense.  Nor does Winters seem to grasp how an acute, further dissonance can thrust a simple antagonism into visionary, perhaps psychedelic keys –– the sort of lateral move that is second nature to color voyagers like Phillip Taaffe or Dana Schutz.  A richer palette does build up in Tessellation Figures (9) (2011), which shows Winters plunging into the interstices of his overlaid patterns of whited purples and yellows, oranges and blues, but there is little sense of color architecture beyond layers of binary opposition, and the result is a kind of Monet lite.

If, in his prints and drawings, and indeed in his more urgently graphic paintings, that strategy of color-as-information can often hit, it consistently misses when Winters has to lean on deep color thoughts to create breathing room, which is what he has had to do since domesticating his diligently tangled brushwork within traced topological patterns.  For all their spatial signifying and handwringing, these Lissajous curves, knot states, and sunflower spirals arrive flat on the canvas and tend to stay that way.  We can view, down the block in an ancillary Marks space, Winters at work surfing, grabbing, and printing similar images as transparencies suitable for overhead projection –– except that here they are laminated into witty collages and presented as a suite called Notebook (2003-11).

The gee-whiz science porn that has long caught Winters’ eye collides in Notebook with other found imagery and text, in ways that often bristle with dada absurdity, caustic observation, and sheer silliness.  Could this be the rebirth of a buoyant self-critique distinctly lacking in Winters’s work since the cannily constipated husks and pods of the 1980s?  In one of the Notebook pages, an oil color chart is overlaid with text purporting to graph “skill level” against “challenge level.”  Where challenge is moderate and skill low, we get “worry”; adjust the skill variable to high and we get, with flawless logic, “control.”  The full diagram comprises four pin-wheeling oppositions of attribute, as if to decode the gridded march of purple and gold paint chips beneath –– though one can’t help speculating as to the artist’s broader interest in a skill/challenge paradigm.

We don’t normally associate the prodigious Winters with “apathy,” “boredom,” and “relaxation” –– qualities resulting, according to the graph’s diagnostic wisdom, from a low challenge level as plotted against ascending degrees of skill.  But neither do his current paintings come close to the high-challenge states of “anxiety,” “arousal,” and “flow,” those usually reliable attributes of the Winters expressionist juggernaut, varying according to the flux of his proficiency.

Terry Winters, Notebook 17, 2003-2011. Collage, 11 x 8-1/2 inches. Courtesy of Matthew Marks Gallery

click to enlarge

Terry Winters, Tessellation Figures (9), 2011. Oil on linen, 80 x 76 inches. Courtesy of Matthew Marks Gallery

click to enlarge

  • CAP

    I think the preoccupation with color here somewhat misleads Brody. Notice that, of the canonical figures cited, only Matisse grants special prominence to color. Picasso, de Kooning and Johns are more notable for matters of facture and drawing. It may be enough for the critic to acknowledge ‘graphic intelligence’ (and this qualified as merely working with low-key or tertiary color) but it entirely misses the point. It is the status of fundamentals of volume, tone and shape, their adherence or recognition, their context and relevance that provide valuable models for Winters.

    The uncertain distinction between two and three-dimensional entities, between the abstract and figurative, between presentation and representation, set a powerful project for painting across most of the twentieth century and Winters’ turn to scientific models, diagram and illustration of botanical and various statistical details offers more rarefied subject matter certainly, but if anything underlines the essential issues of knowledge and realism, pictorial convention and invention. We work these things out, we test them, but even where there are rules, it gets messy. Ask a scientist. To swipe at such inspiration as ‘gee-whiz science porn’ is no more than a petulant refusal to fully engage with the work.

    The role of color here is therefore schematic before ’musical’ and if musical, surely serial. If Winters’ work loses some of this friction with scientific modeling in recent years (and I agree with Brody on this) it is because the sources have become more abstracted, compound and obscure. We are left with rough patterns, but with no real measure for the roughness. All the superimposition and overhead projection cannot really deliver the kind of working out that painting requires, that the sources deserve. As it is, what we often end up with is a vigorous ‘fill’ or coloring-in session that indeed has gravely relaxed ‘challenge level’ for artist and critic. Then again, after thirty years or so, any project is going to show signs of wear.

  • David Brody

    Winters’s thirty-year engagement with painting deserves respect. If “gee-whiz science porn” goes a bit over the line, it is aimed at the worshipful tones with which Winters’s topological subject matter tends to be discussed. The shape of space is inherently fascinating stuff. It’s also, literally, empty. For me, the weakness of Winters’s current work– not only its color, but as I discussed, its light, its ideas, and, of all things, its space — should at least give pause to the widely held notion of Winters as a contemporary superhero of sincere painterliness. I miss the crippling doubt of the early work, which, paradoxically, felt more genuinely heroic, and more sincere, with an undeniable impact on the times.

  • Ann Knickerbocker

    I love that you “miss the crippling doubt of the early work” by Winters. This was an excellent, felt review. I came here because Sharon Butler recommended this essay, and I am very glad she did. Thank you.