PRINT November 1984


. . . Thus one passed from the supposed smallest unit to a still smaller one; one was driven to separate the elementary into its elements . . .

. . . For the molecule was composed of atoms, and the atom was . . . so small, such a tiny, early, transitional mass, a coagulation of the unsubstantial, of the not-yet-substantial and yet substance-like, of energy, that it was scarcely possible . . . to think of it as material, but rather as mean and border-line between material and immaterial . . . [A]nd the step to the atom proved to be without exaggeration portentous in the highest degree. For at the very moment when one had assisted at the final division of matter, when one had divided it into the impossibly small, at that moment there suddenly appeared upon the horizon the astronomical cosmos!

—Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain

Men can do nothing without the make-believe of a beginning. Even Science, the strict measurer, is obliged to start with a make-believe unit . . . [yet] Science reckons backwards as well as forwards, divides his unit into billions, and with his clock-finger at Nought really sets off in medias res. No retrospect will take us to the true beginning; and whether our prologue be in heaven or on earth, it is but a fraction of that all-presupposing fact with which our story sets out.

—George Eliot, Daniel Deronda

SCIENCE, IN BOTH ITS NATURALIST and its more speculative branches, has always been understood to possess an affinity with art. Since science is not precisely that one locus of absolute truth that art has been called upon, time out of mind, to minutely observe and to “mirror,” then its connection with art lies elsewhere: lies in the fact that science, like poetry or music or painting, is predicated upon the existence of form. Both science and art are, at bottom, engaged in unraveling and articulating some “grand” but inconclusive design: a design that is apprehensible only in the sample, the specific case, the individual specimen, in impure matter and materials. The structures or systems projected by science and by works of art have a stupendous capacity for admitting change, for absorbing sports and sharp ironies and as-yet-unknown future qualifications. These systems’ very accuracy and integrity of form are grounded in open-endedness.

Awareness of the overlap between science and art—an awareness that pervades Terry Winters’ painting—is as ancient as Aristotle, as ancient as the easy compatibility of an Empiricism with a Poetics. Aristotle’s follower, Theophrastus (after whom Winters titled his 1982 “Theophrastus’ Garden” paintings), was also able to cull from science—from exacting botanical studies—the clue to a lyrical formulation of the purpose as well as organizing principle of the universe. Two millennia later, monks mewed up in quiet kemp! gardens, and whose occupation was the tending of plants. rediscovered an outward-turned way of seeing; their newfound curiosity not only abetted the styIistic thaw of High Gothic art, but also prepared the ground for modern genetic theory. Mendel’s peas—the ghosts of which lurk in the gummily evolving forms of Winters’ latest paintings—elicited from their observer a painstaking, loving objectivity, and they repaid that objectivity by disclosing continuity to be a miracle not of accidents or divine interference, but of system. Or, in the realm of astronomy—into which some of Winters’ works, with their indeterminate space and “nebulas” of floating circles, have ventured—Kepler’s Harmonice Mundi (1619) offered the first accurate mathematical formulas for calculating the motions of planetary bodies; yet, for the germ of his theories, Kepler was indebted to a “mad” poet-astrologer, Robert Fludd, who had dreamt of an innate harmony or music of the spheres.

In a sense, Winters’ work is involved in an empirical—a relentlessly interrogatory—stripping away of the skins of sheer appearance in order to come at some essential structure or some irreducible element of form. Most of his newest paintings both posit and lay bare one or another simple, primary device: a circle suggestive of a cellular or celestial body, the honeycomb’s basic hexagonal “box,” a regularly branching plant stalk, a spiral generated by a swift cursive line, a round pod synonymous with a single lick of paint. These devices are themselves again and again broken down to the raw fact of pigment, to instances of skirmish or sudden felicity on Winters’ part with his materials. As such, they become building blocks—at once figurative, formal, and physical units—from which the entire, wildly mutable and almost always mesmerizing universe of his paintings is made. His choice of naturalist imagery is thus in no way haphazard or coy, but profoundly bound up with the way all his works, new and old, are meditations on the very act of painting, and on the problematic nature of painted images and of image-making. Frequently pushed to extremes of visual ambiguity and caused to wobble between material chaos, abstract pattern (or structure), and identifiable form, Winters’ images address the same concerns as does the art of Philip Guston, Cy Twombly, or Jasper Johns.

What’s at first most blatant and seductive about Winters’ works is their adept paint-handling. His versatility in the possible ways of simply laying down pigment looks back to the formal licenses of Abstract Expressionism and, like it, calls attention to paintings as tangible, “real-world” objects. Yet his works take care to sidestep mere objecthood; and, touched by a certain ironic reserve, they also put little credence in subjective expression. Technique for Winters serves as the immediate vehicle of an esthetic self-analysis and of a considered—and moving—reconstruction of meaning within painting’s own terms. (It is fascinating, here, to think of the contentual difference between Abstract Expressionist painting and the work of Winters or Johns or even David Salle as reflecting a huge epistemic shift of the last thirty years. This shift is no less than the exchange of a world still anchored in Freudian subjectivity, in Romanticism’s hallowed notions of the individual and in existentialist “reality,” for a world suspended in all its fragmented parts within the web of a Structuralist system.)

The inexpressiveness of the damped-down, almost quietistic character of Winters’ work hinges largely upon the choice of imagery. In all the earlier and perhaps half of the newest paintings, Winters’ images—rootless plant forms, parts of dismembered flowers, crowds of mushrooms or mollusk shells, schematic crystals—are derived from small, mostly handsized, commonplace natural things. Lifted from their native settings, enlarged manyfold, and subjected to an abstracting process superficially imitative of anatomical (i.e. empirical) study, these forms have been rendered vacant, inert, emphatically impersonal. They have been pared of their contextual husk, emptied of all allusion—including even reference to themselves as innocent natural phenomena—and returned to some ideal state of perfect potentiality and blankness. When these images’ potentiality is drawn out, it is done so guardedly and only at the artist’s whim; as their cut-up, repetitive, desiccated forms are once again quickened, this vitality has no figurative suggestiveness and only carries the eye back to Winters’ sinuous paint-handling. The images are inhibited by Winters’ pose of scientific objectivity from acquiring an independent pictorial or symbolic life.

In a number of the latest paintings, the abstracting process has been carried out a step further. The activity of “dissection” begun in earlier works has now been ingeniously capitalized on, and pushed to—even beyond—its logical extreme. Where, for instance, in the small 1980–82 works Iike pages from a naturalist’s sketchbook, Winters’ plant forms had been merely anatomized—had been broken down to their component and still uniquely identifiable parts—there is now a restless probing after some ultrasimple unit or pattern common to the organization of all natural and all imaged things. The isolate flower corollas or mushroom caps that populated the works of two years ago have been replaced by far more rudimentary forms. These forms, unlike their predecessors, are wildly interactive, resonate with all sorts of vague allusions, but remain anonymous, unnameable. Here are blastulalike clusters of tightly packed “globes,” or strange glove-shaped “membranes” made from a mesh of continous brushstrokes. In one 1982–83 painting (Honeycomb), countless identical, contiguous, hexagonal “chambers” map a surface resembling a cross-section of honeycomb; in Pavement,1983, the imagery is both supramundane and equivocal: it alternately lies flush—is at one—with the heavy paint “paved” surface, or it is coaxed into a lattice of schematic, space-projecting cubes. (Pavement is doubly odd in that its “cubes” have the mechanical and almost Pop art appearance of loosely stacked appliances.)

On closer scrutiny, Winters’ new images resolve into still simpler pictorial entities: circles, up- or down-sweeping spirals, loose triangles, squares, chalky hexagons. On the purely literal level, these further reduced “images” have interior spaces that are often nothing more than single dabs of paint, and contours that are nothing more than solitary headlong lines-lines dragged out with one movement of the brush (or brush-handle), or impetuously fingerpainted. These figures’ physical rudimentariness—which, in a painting like Fertile Region, 1983, can verge on an exuberant graffitolike crudeness—is tied to the way they, too, much like Winters’ naturalist subjects, have been rendered metaphorically inert or neutral. Rough, freehand, seemingly unthinking approximations of simple geometric devices—devices at once ideal and two-dimensional—these figures have no real-world counterpart, no ready reverberation in experience. The allusiveness they borrow from their geometric types (circle, spiral, polygon) is both so universal and so primary that it tends to give up the ghost of all meaning; this allusiveness seems to serve only as a check upon the figures’ unraveling into aimless concatenations of line and pigment.

The structural unit that paintings like Pavement, Honeycomb, Colony, 1983, and Morula I, 1983, postulate—or rather pretend, quite unpremeditatively, to discover—is the perfect pictorial analogue and twin of Winters’ brushwork. As image this unit, however, ordinarily exists outside the realm of the visible. Although writ large, and insistently repeated and fused to the palpable reality of the painted surface, it shows an eerie facility for slipping free of the physical and formal. It takes on the character of an archetype: it veers, although measuredly, toward myth. Hovering between the organic and geometric, occupying some half-imagined point at the beginning—or, equally, at the anatomized end—of material being, this unit is made to seem absolutely necessary and sufficient, as well as timeless. It is as highly distilled and potentially all-inclusive, as magically pregnant and, finally, as improbable as any symbol.

As if in proof of anyone image’s capacity to generate and sustain a “world,” form is run through many changes. Suspended in paint handling that has grown increasingly more mobile, Winters’ forms and new structural units are swiveled, enlarged or diminished, continuously superimposed and woven in and out of sight, or definition, across the field of a canvas. In the 1980–82 anatomy studies and “Theophrastus’ Garden” paintings, his flowers, fungi, or mollusk shells vary markedly in the degree of their realization, with some full-blown and others still sketchily inchoate, or even partly effaced and spectral, but otherwise they preserve a fairly uniform size and orientation. These somewhat static, haltingly self-conscious earlier works remain descriptions. By contrast, Winters’ recent paintings have become rapt demonstrations of the presence of a kind of vital figurative substratum in even the muddiest, most helter-skelter, most incoherent brushwork. They exhibit the way paint or, in the language of science, “undifferentiated matter” both fluidly and tenuously gives way to imaging, to endless chains of mutually complicating and obliterating forms. Winters’ works have always, in fact, proceeded by a dual process of simultaneous evocation and cancellation—a process that, more clearly in his latest paintings than ever before, duplicates not only the life history of natural things but also the unquiet and incessant flux of thought itself. The import, finally, of his newfound structural units lies in the fact that they are tracings of the most fundamental, self-defining movements of a mind.

Winters’ art thus evokes a certain temporal duration. The “time,” though, of all his works is as much metaphorical as real; more than simply the measure of process, it is evolutionary and open-ended. The space, too, of his paintings is strangely unstable: it warps back from the skin of surface paint through untold strata of revisionary images and markings. Winters’ earlier plant forms occasionally, when flocked together, project a basically traditional pictorial space—a landscape space hauntingly akin to that actual, earthly one from which these images,as natural things, were taken. Yet in most of the new paintings his “cells,” circles, or structural units tumble back and forth, viscously ascend and descend, in a space at once more intimate and more vast—this space is simultaneously “microscopic” and “astronomical,” airlessly close and suggestively boundless.

Winters’ recent, almost outrageous play with scale enables him to do more than introduce a realm beyond the visible. In many 1983–84 paintings, his images not only are hugely blown up for purposes of analysis, but also are subjected to wildly differing degrees of magnification. The surfaces of these paintings shift between smaller and larger, tighter and looser, more discrete and more generously sloppy variants of the same form; as they do so, they seem to swim in and out of focus, in and out of the murkiness of imperfectly resolved paint handling, just as if Winters were repeatedly adjusting and readjust ing some mechanism for seeing or viewing. There are wonderful passages in Free Union, 1983, and Pavement where a “membrane” or box shape envelops an entire quadrant of the canvas’ field, or where the forms subsist merely as encrustations in, and are coloristically indistinguishable from, the sheet of surrounding pigment—where they are like fossilized or rawly nascent things. Winters’ paint work seems, at last, not so much to engender as to be wholly composed of images: Red Leaves, 1983, Honeycomb, Free Union, and Pavement present surfaces teeming or tiled over, edge to edge, with his forms. These works have the dispersed, naturalistically nonhierarchical and visually fluctuating character of “allover” painting.

The scale changes that Winters’ forms undergo, their habit of slowly rotating, their queer and almost ponderous buoyancy, plus the fact that the “space” they inhabit is all substance—all fluid shapes and structures—can make his works dizzying. No wonder that (as the titles Marine, 1982–83, Fertile Region, or Pavement point up) the alien new medium in which Winters’ paintings “live,” half-submerged, resembles sea, protoplasmic slime, or quicklime. This medium—thicker, more organic, and more intractable than empty air—becomes a metaphor for the very stuff from which it is pictured, i.e., for paint itself. That Winters’ works have traveled so far from a conventional naturalism, from even his own 1980–82 renderings of plants or “gardens,” shows just how much freer a rein he has given both wrist and imagination. So free, that he can now permit himself awkwardness, fortunate gaucheries—as in Colony, where one lumpy, soccerball-like assembly of “cells” has taken itself off in a comic launch toward pictorial autonomy.

Accompanying Winters’ change in imagery has been a subtle deviation in his palette away from the “natural,” resolutely nonexpressive colors of the plant studies and “Theophrastus’ Garden” paintings. The earthen browns and blacks, slate blues, raw calcium whites, characterless clay and sand colors of those earlier works still dominate and define a color scheme that, despite its many delicate gradations, remains both very restricted and subdued. Yet, here and there, along the boundary of a “cell” or in the small, concentric “eye” of a pod shape, Winters has ventured a freak color, a fantastical pigmentation—a color like acid mucous green or junket pink or crepe blue. From a distance, the quiet coloration reinforces Winters’ pose of objectivity; it helps lull that disbelief we have been conditioned to bring to painting as an engine of image- or of fiction-making, but also prepares us to accept as plausible a strangeness and otherworldliness which slowly accrue from the brief instances of exotic color. It is in these instances or details that Winters’ paint work pushes through with its own colors, as well as its own structures. His palette has now begun to point through nature, through impersonal science, not only back to a work’s physical (and, in spots, vividly painted) surface, but also to forms that are ideal, elementary, and conceptual. Winters has given Colony, Free Union, Pavement and the four “Rosaceae” paintings (1983) overall washes, or grounds, of a color—silvery blue, magma red, pine green, soiled fleshy pink—of much higher temperature, urgency, and irreality than any allowed in his previous works. These colors belong to a nature transfigured, and, like the artist’s simple new structural units, drift toward symbolism.

Compositionally speaking, Winters’ early, small plant studies offered images that, arising impromptu out of the artist’s paint handling, were left in a kind of haphazard and disconnected free-float within the field of each canvas. For his “Theophrastus’ Garden” paintings—big vertical “landscapes” with wattle-fence lower borders and uptilted grounds vaunting patternings of one recurrent, silhouettelike flower—Winters devised a compositional scheme overly dependent upon the decorative and the pictorial. (This scheme robbed his images of freshness, of their potential slipperiness as fragile deposits of pigment; it set up an opposition between figure and ground, created an uncomplex space, and cried “Picture” with its framelike border.) For his new works, Winters has attempted to walk a line between the lack and the artificial intrusion of composition, between a swimming extemporaneity and a structured coherence.

The space containing anyone painting is now never evoked pictorially (as with a “fence” backed by a far-stretching “ground”), but is suggested with layerings of images and differing densities of paint. The cohesiveness of very complicated works like Pavement and those of the “Rosaceae” series is further insured by a simple abstract sectioning of the canvas into separate, usually roughly quadri lateral zones. Defined by a drawn line or by the edge between two colors, these zones tend to carry discrepant versions of a work’s main image. In Rosaceae 3, four renderings of a branch form, from a childlike diagram to a full-bodied succulent depiction, make an ironical set of interlocking pictures within a “picture.” Or in Rosaceae 1, the salient division—a buckling “horizon line”—causes the painting to read both as a flat, banded flag and as a vast, apocalyptically drear scape. Above all, though, the compositional strength of Colony, Honeycomb, Braid, 1983, and a number of the untitleds derives from these works’ images evolving not only up from, but also steadily across, the canvas. Composition here becomes a record of Winters’ effort to systematically, as well as organically, colonize a field; and it has at last been trusted to grow—no different from a form, an image—straight out of the uneasy progress of the artist’s thought.

There’s one last curious aspect to Winters’ art. This is its clear philosophic thrust, and stems from that driving absorption with the line, both literal and metaphorical, that separates legible form from raw garbled material. As an aid in questioning this line, Winters upsets the boundaries between positive and negative space. In the new paintings, the contours of his images are often described by wide, hollow, semitransparent lines that recall both vessels and child’s fingerpainting. Or, even more simply, these contours exist as the blank spaces, as intermissions, between distinct interior areas made of thick daubs of pigment. Conversely, within the same painting the images may be indicated only in outline: i.e., as loose collections of lines, which, to the eye, can be easily disassembled and which stand as purely conditional, substanceless, abstract notations of form. Colony’s cell-clusters are riddled with triangular cavities—connective negative spaces—that have been here and there rendered as solid as any positive image. Honeycomb is a compendium of confusing reversals, offering first, a clear line-schematization of the comb’s volume, second, a flat “cross-sectional” pattern of adjoining hexagons, and third, a paint-dappled area of canvas, where the comb’s interior spaces alone survive as rough patches of pigment. Here, as in other works, when Winters’ images are carefully articulated, they are also bodiless, space-entrapping, conceptual; when, on the other hand, they remain unrealized, they are surface-bound and substantial. The relative “reality” of his various takes on a given form is thus constantly thrown into doubt.

This uncertainty is Winters’ way of finally undoing that ancient antithesis of solid and void, substance and essence, material form, phenomenon and noumenon. Guided, in part, by the skepticism of his generation, Winters has located “reality” not in an image—his forms, in and of themselves, are vacant—nor even in the artist’s materials, in his psyche, in the nature of perception, or in process. Winters’ plant forms, mollusk shells, crystals, cells, and chambers are all nothing but revisions, successive adaptations and tentative sorties into the realm of the concrete and sensory (i.e., into painting). And the reality of his art cannot be pinpointed or neatly comprehended, if only because it is suggested to unfold into future as well as past time, and far beyond the scope of anyone or any number of works. Slowly, cumulatively through the paintings, reality is instead referred back to a sort of highly flexible and ongoing “syntax”—an incessantly permutating, oddly indifferent, all-ingesting structure. Like the systems of empirical science, this structure discovers its shape only in the individual specimen, in the graspable form of one small flower part, in the momentary image of a “cell” or “cell colony,” or in a particular painting. Yet, it is also felt to be everywhere operative, if everywhere differently, and to betray a supralogical consistency. This structure, which is none other than that of the artist’s thought. has an archetypal character: it owns at last no specific or personal or worldly content, but lives in the shifting relationships of things, in the changes from one form, one marking, one line, one idea, one dream, one picture, to the next. Winters’ interest in the positive role of negative spaces is only one of many twists urged by an awareness that meaning resides, if not in any fixed form, then in the fluid intervals—in the degree and quality of difference—between two or more images. Finally, that these paintings are so caught up with objective truth-telling links Winters’ work to more than science. For the impulse to snare some unshakeable reality, however it may be defined, underlies almost all Modernist art.

Prudence Carlson is a freelance writer.