New York

Terry Winters

Sonnabend Gallery

Terry Winters’ organic forms are wanderers across and within the picture planes. They stop short only at moments of realization. The twenty or so works here, the produce of the last six months, reveal a diarist’s frame of mind, and Winters’ entries on botanical and mineral subjects, if indifferent from the naturalist’s point of view, make a beautiful, studied account of the biology of painting.

In the small- and middle-sized paintings Winters presents his specimens in varied aspects, at various stages of maturation and dissection, in unpatterned groupings, on subtle but heavily worked grounds. His colors—the muddy pinks, clay and slate tones, dark umbers, and soft blacks of the earth—immediately dispel any suggestion of the laboratory microscope and root these subjects in their fields of association: not color fields, but landscape. The paintings, in other words, are pastorals, and these relics of nature are led to pictoral place according to the uneven richness of a painted loam.

Winters’ very visible process is terrier-like. He digs for forms, worries them, hides them, pulls them out. His canvases are full of inchoate vegetation, of flowers partially or almost completely erased, scratched out, painted over, of plants slightly rendered and given half-life. The “unfinished” elements, though self-conscious, animate the work, while the fully realized shapes, in the foreground and in focus, give it substance. Certitude is set off against the traces of all manner of altered or dangling decisions; a staunch corporeality pulls against the twitches of magnified nerve endings.

Though Winters’ work seems hermetic, it is not without its apparent influences, or at least correlations. Winters is a more convincing naturalist than Susan Rothenberg, but like her he uses recognizable, reiterated forms as catalysts to procedure. More interesting because more dilute is the influence of Anselm Kiefer. Winters has been thickening, confounding, and giving increasing texture to his painted fields, for instance, and seems for the moment to have shifted toward darker, Kiefer-ish color schemes. In the four largest paintings, a series entitled “Theophrastus’ Garden,” Winters adopts and reformulates the swooping, topographical vista so thoroughly identified with Kiefer. The reformulation suggests both admiration and resistance. The field flowers in two of the paintings, for instance, are positioned like Kiefer’s memorial slashes and flames of resurrection, only these hover serenely, almost childishly, above ground; the flowers in one piece are reduced to lollipop state, and the marsh plants in two of the others are virtual orientalisms. All four paintings allude to decoration and to the spirit of cultivation; they are indeed gardens, not landscapes. In these variations, Winters plays Thoreau to Kiefer’s Nietzsche.

Despite their size, their implied strategy, and their placement in the gallery’s sanctuary area, these paintings were the most frivolous shown. As their title denotes they have a peripatetic quality, and considerable grace, but finally their effect is more aimless than philosophical. The rest of the paintings are grittier, forthright, and dogged. Winters is a reticulated, complex artist whose poetic language tends to be self-conscious and a little rarefied—there is a vague hint of complacency in his work. Nonetheless, his first New York exhibition was impressive.

Lisa Liebmann