“Sumptuous” is one of the first words that comes to mind when looking at the drawings of Terry Winters. His drawings bring together two divergent aesthetic possibilities — material sensuality and structural restraint — to attain a form that never devolves into mere visual effects. This is because he uses topological models and diagrams as a starting point for his work. Often consisting of many small abstract sections, which add up to a pattern, a multifaceted shape, or a glyph-like linear structure, these forms limit the ways the artist can manipulate them, which is clearly his intention.
This method of drawing connects Winters to Jasper Johns, who was limited by the American flag; Brice Marden, who worked with a grid or the surface of a rectangle; and Sol LeWitt, whose sets of self-devised rules determined the placement of a line in advance. The shift from being inventive — after decades of Picasso’s wild inventiveness left many artists at a dead end — to using a readymade form is particularly crucial in the work of Johns, and his work inspired many young artists, including Marden and Winters. It gave them a way to begin. (Philip Guston and Richard Artschwager provided different possibilities, but that is the subject of another essay.)
Topology is the study of the properties of space that can be preserved when a form, such as a möbius strip or a trefoil knot, is stretched, twisted, crumpled, or bent, but not collaged or cut apart. It became a major branch of mathematics in the middle of the 20th century. For Winters, the use of topological forms enables him to resist the tyranny of the plane without resorting to well-trod means such as perspectival space or collage. His drawings of topological forms relate to the relationship between surface and space, part and whole — between things in themselves and the sets they belong to. In contrast with many of his peers, for whom drawing has been a means of expression or a type of production rather than a form of investigation, for Winters, drawing is the driving force of all his art.
The opportunity to delight in the meeting of sumptuousness and rigor — a meeting we often associate with music — is more than enough reason to see the beautifully presented exhibition, Terry Winters: Facts and Fictions at The Drawing Center, thoughtfully organized by Chief Curator Claire Gilman.
The exhibition begins with “Dark Plant 11” (1982) a deep black drawing in crayon and charcoal. Like other botanical drawings from the 1980s, the drawing is smudged, smoky and sensual. The exhibition also includes several sets of drawings on 8 ½ by 11-inch and 11 by 14-inch paper, displayed in vitrines, as well as works on paper as large as 44 1/4 by 30 1/2 inches, rendered in graphite, gouache, watercolor, ink, and colored pencil. It seems to me a shift took place when, toward the end of the 1990s, Winters moved away from botanical forms and toward topological diagrams. Linear structures and perforated shapes replaced solid forms. In a sense, the drawings became more abstract — more about line and shape than about the thing, whether plant or seed pod. This change took him into new territory and, to his credit, the work became less materially luxurious.
Winters often places forms in the center of the composition and composes them of units dispersed more or less evenly across the paper’s field. Attention shifts between the overall form and the individual units, or moves between the formal and the scale shifts of the units, which conveys an internal movement within an otherwise static form.
He is always attentive to the smallest mark, no matter how many of them are needed to arrive at the final shape or field. There is something deliberate and meditative about his process, his willingness to move slowly as he fills the paper. The narrow crevices between the colored areas become languid, sensuous lines, so that the composition cannot be separated into sections of fullness and emptiness. Some drawings consist of a cluster of similar shapes in one area, with other areas left blank. The relationship between difference and similarity is minute and distinct. In his best drawings, everything is keyed to the way that Winters attains difference while doing the same thing over and over. It reminds this viewer, at least, that every one of our signatures is unique.
Winters’s source for his forms is irrelevant because he makes them into something else: shapes to ponder and reflect upon. His sensitivity to materials is extraordinary in that we see what the marks are made of; each line and facet is both a thing unto itself and part of something larger. I found myself returning to the drawings in which one pattern or diagram was overlaid on another, compelling me to untangle them, which generally proved nearly impossible. I liked that they prompted me to actively engage with their compression and density in this way, which is not a common feature of drawings. They reminded me that we live among multiple, overlapping systems and networks without necessarily being conscious of them.
If I have one quibble — and it is a small one — it is that Winters does not seem particularly interested in composition. In some drawings the form is centered and takes up a large part of the picture plane while other surfaces are saturated with all-over activity. However, neither Johns nor Marden were concerned with composition earlier in their careers. That came later, as I think it will for Winters. He strikes me as artist who is simultaneously patient and restless, not content to stay where he is. It also strikes me that drawing is his way of being in touch with his imagination, with dreaming up a possibility. It is a means of moving forward, and of bringing his painting with him.
In his early drawings of plants, mushrooms, and other organic forms, Winters was incredibly seductive. He could have stayed there, but he didn’t. He did not settle for what he had mastered and instead pushed himself to do something more complex — something that pushed him to tamp down the seductiveness of his forms in favor of a more rigorous practice. That is major achievement.
Terry Winters: Facts and Fictions continues at The Drawing Center (35 Wooster Street, Soho, Manhattan) through August 12.