“Let’s just delete all of that and start over again,” Terry Winters said to me, laughing, mid-way through our conversation. He insisted he would rather hear what I have to say, rather than explain the work himself, as he served me lunch: split-pea soup and sandwiches; a Mast brothers chocolate bar covered in almonds; clementines; and green tea. His painting studio was, actually, silence-inducing: a glass-walled, loft-like space, set in the middle of a snow-covered field near the Taconic Mountains in Columbia County, New York. Every object was considered: a celadon bowl, African sculpture, and a carved wood folk art “crown of thorns.”
Winters was an incredibly convivial host, making his reluctance to over-analyze the work all the more poignant. His attitude, and his work, shows a faith in the language of painting to imagine worlds otherwise impossible to envisage. Winters has always worked at the intersection between abstraction and ecologically inspired representation. Like his studio, where workshop-like areas flow and open out into more expansive spaces, his paintings show morphing and expanding forms, permeating, pulsating matrixes and skins.
Winters was born in Brooklyn in 1949 and received his BFA from Pratt Institute in 1971. He divides his time between upstate New York and Manhattan. He was the subject of retrospective exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of Art in 1992, and the Addison Gallery of Art, Andover, Massachusetts, in 2004. A retrospective of his prints was held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2001. Additional solo exhibitions have been held at the Tate Gallery, London, 1986; Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, 1999; the Kunsthalle Basel, 2000; the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, 2009; and Staatliche Graphische Sammlung at the Pinakothek der Moderne, 2014. His work is represented by Matthew Marks Gallery, where he has shown since 1997.
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Jennifer Samet: You grew up in New York and went to the High School of Art and Design. Did your family encourage your interest in art-making?
Terry Winters: I have a cousin who had studied painting at The Brooklyn Museum School. She was encouraging, and gave my family some notion about the possibility. My parents were extremely supportive under the circumstances and given their background.
I grew up in Brooklyn, so basically I lived in the New York City museums. Also, Art and Design was on 57th Street and close to the midtown galleries. At that time, the late 1960s, there were many exciting shows — at Castelli, Janis, Bykert, and Dwan. I saw and felt that energy, and was formed by those exhibitions. The art world was small enough that you could see everything. The scene had a special quality; it was basically marginal within the larger culture. Now there’s a much wider audience and interest for contemporary art.
I went to Pratt, but was living on Crosby Street. Since I already had a studio, I thought I should study something other than painting, or in addition to painting. I was interested in architecture and design, so I tried things out and changed departments a few times. In that way, Pratt was great for me. Also, the school had a “Foundation Year” — a mandatory grounding in Bauhaus principles. It seemed like a good approach, a way to think visually. It was useful — even as something to react against.
I had an almost classical art education: I did figure drawing; I worked from the model; that was my way in. But when I discovered the New York art world, that type of representational painting fell away. I became interested in Rauschenberg and Johns, Cy Twombly and Minimalism. I was taken with work that challenged what an art object could be. For myself, that meant trying to push and test painting traditions.
JS: Your early paintings incorporated planes receding into space, then it morphed into organic forms that looked like seeds, shells, and plants, and shapes called “morulas.” How did this work develop?
TW: I thought I had moved to a minimal, process-driven painting, but I became dissatisfied after awhile. I missed drawing. Drawing was my connection to making art from the beginning, from when I was a kid. Those early paintings were an attempt to bring drawing back into my work. I became curious about how to include imagery, how to build a picture through drawing. I wanted to move the abstraction that attracted me in architecture to the center of my work. Those subjects and concerns had been sidelined.
My approach was structural. I was intrigued by forms that looked “real,” but were difficult to identify or whose identity was linked directly to their structure: crystals, shells, honeycombs. There was an architecture to the “morula” forms, in terms of the cell development.
I was collecting books — natural history, science and technology, any subject really — picture books. There were secondhand stores on Fourth Avenue where you could find cheap books printed in extraordinary ways, like chromolithography, photogravure, and wood engraving. I was interested in graphic presentation, the document-like quality of that material.
JS: Does that generally describe your process: using these kinds of mediated images as source material?
TW: Yes, found images as raw material. Obviously a number of things come into play — the specifics of each medium, the combination of forms, and my own sensibility. All contribute towards the expression. It’s like inventing a game or a language. In any case, all that energy is directed into the painting.
The pictures are painted through call-and-response — a series of spontaneous interactions. I’m finding images and making drawings. I’m working from that material. That activity of making the paintings is what the paintings are. Hopefully when finished they suggest a larger, unforeseen view.
I don’t want to explain myself or blow things out of proportion, but there are connections and subjects. It’s not abstract to me. The paintings are very specific and emotionally driven. I see the painting here, “Section” (2015) as a figure embedded in a torqued network — the geometries morph inside that delineated character.
My interest is to construct an animated object. I want the pictures to have an associative power, a sense of life. Entities, events, and scenes are depicted, but I’m reluctant to give them over-determined titles. I like the range of ambiguity that paintings can contain. They have a hypothetical narrative.
JS: Some of your paintings do have interesting and evocative titles, like the painting owned by the Whitney Museum: “Good Government” (1984).
TW: I was going to call it “Still life with Apples,” but no one would have believed me! The title is taken from Lorenzetti’s Allegory of Good and Bad Government. But “Good Government” was also a poster in my elementary school: a chart picturing everybody doing their daily chores and being good citizens. It was also a joke about a painting “working”—the delusion of a painting’s functional formal completion.
JS: You work across the media of drawing, painting, and printmaking. Do you work on all of this simultaneously?
TW: There are concentrated periods for different projects. But generally yes, I have my hand in all of them in one way or another. Right now, there’s a focus on painting, and drawing has been difficult and slow. The paintings, however, are happening faster. It usually takes two or three sessions until something feels right. Now I’m accepting many of the first images. That’s new. But every painting is singular and follows a different path. When you’re walking in the woods, the shortest distance between two points isn’t always a straight line.
This situation here in the country has been productive. I’m seeing the entire studio operation as one ongoing proposition with multiple painting projects all on their own schedules.
JS: In 2001, you collaborated on a site-specific installation with the architect Rem Koolhaas for Lehman Maupin Gallery. How did that project come about?
TW: At the time, Koolhaas was designing the gallery and it was suggested that we work together. So we met and discussed the treatment of the space and the possibilities of a painting project. Basically, the space was completely covered in plywood—floor to ceiling, including the reception desk.
I decided to make 100 paintings — each one yard by one meter. All the paintings were hung on one side of the gallery except for a few on the ceiling. I appropriated that idea from a photograph of a Pollock exhibition from the 1950s. I had also seen something similar at the Eames house. That confluence of art and architecture, between the Pollocks’ and the Eames’ — including Lee Krasner and Ray Eames — is an interest of mine: their shared approach, formal aesthetics, and their midcentury link to technology and science.
JS: Do you see an ongoing relationship between art and science in contemporary art?
TW: There is always leakage. In some sense I think of my paintings as ecological — a reflective and speculative picturing of “nature.” That’s Cézanne’s job description — make a new optic of nature. Painting provides images and views that are not available to us in other ways. If you consider a Cézanne landscape, it’s showing a dynamic, fractured animism. It was a perceptive vision of that time and place. It parallels Bergson’s philosophy and Einstein’s physics. Not in any conscious or deliberate way —“somebody got lucky, but it was an accident.”
Unless you’re making Pop Art, you’re working out of that tradition. But even that distinction doesn’t really hold. The difference between nature and culture is difficult to locate. “Art is the imitation of nature in her manner of operation.” That’s Coomaraswamy’s formulation.
There’s a particular kind of experience that is available in painting and looking at painting. A variety of imaginary subjects and dimensions can be accessed. If you’re into it, you can go really deep. Mondrian, for instance, describes an enormous resonating universe. But if you’re not interested, it could seem like some bad idea about good design.
JS: I wonder if you are influenced by the kinds of space and patterns that are more prevalent in Non-Western art traditions, like Islamic art.
TW: Pattern-making systems are a preoccupation — how they play out across different cultures. Those patterns somehow describe forces specific to historical contexts. The question becomes how to locate those forces here and now. For myself, I’m taking pieces of existing data and combining them into new patterns.
JS: In the 1990s, there was a shift in your work toward paintings utilizing overall matrixes of lines. These series are titled “Set Diagram” and “Turbulence Skins.” How did this work come about?
TW: By the early ‘90s, I began to see the total surface as a kind of phase space—an accumulation of actions and information. The resulting pictorial space contains the subject or somehow holds the meaning.
JS: When you describe your process, it seems to involve spontaneity and chance, or the unconscious. Do you think of it this way?
TW: Yes, all of that — design plus chance. That combination and the “differential unconscious” Deleuze describes: a mechanism of flows and codes and the need to get out of the way.
There are instances of discovery and surprise that come while working. That’s what I find most pleasurable, not just in my work, but also seeing that quality in other people’s work. In Picasso’s paintings, I love the invention that’s happening right before your eyes — all the time and everywhere on the surface. Many of those late paintings were done in one session. Or they look that way even when painted over extended periods of time. They have that same immediacy of touch at every stage. He takes Cubism and propels it into a remarkably direct, scaled-up and alive image. The late etchings are also phenomenal: crazy organizations of twisting forms and behaviors.
It’s important to reach a place where you don’t know what you’re doing. Painting is a combination of carpentry and catastrophe. There are parts of the painting process that are civilized: a deliberate application of procedures. I take pleasure in that — the tools, the materials, the efficiently run studio, etcetera. But then, at a certain point, the carpentry needs to hit the catastrophe. That instability allows for significant or surprising things to happen, or at least the possibility.