New York

Terry Winters

Whitney Museum of American Art

Terry Winters’ recent retrospective presents an alternative to most Whitney Museum mid-career retrospectives, which tend to focus on artists with more cultural/critical urgency, as opposed to painters, such as Winters, who pursue a relatively personal and neutral expression of sensibility and technical finesse. Winters’ exhibition treats the viewer to a panoply of visual delights: thick and washy surfaces; fluid, broken, and scratchy brushwork; and a palette that leans toward moody earth tones but also includes bright primaries, sometimes within the limits of a single painting.

Winters (along with Elizabeth Murray and Carroll Dunham) was one of the few painters to gain prominence in the ’80s for whom drawing constituted a separate and important activity and not merely one reserved for notation and study. Like that of Murray and Dunham, Winters’ work is characterized by vague references to the body and a fetishization of craft not witnessed in the more explicitly imagistic work of David Salle and Julian Schnabel. For this latter pair, the intimacy of drawing could never compete with the bombastic theatricality of their paintings.

The most impressive drawings in the exhibition are 12 charcoal works from 1989 in which thick fluid lines define womblike frontal forms over a smudged ground. The forms are biomorphically abstract and resemble faces and bodies. These drawings correspond to a similar tendency, in Winters’ recent paintings, such as Cast, 1989, and The Psychological Corporation, 1990, away from diagrammatic dispersions of small organic forms and toward large pelvic forms.

What becomes apparent in this survey of Winters’ work is the ambivalence of his imagery. In the early three-panel painting Plane of Incidence, 1980, which owes a large debt to Cy Twombly (Winters returns to Twombly frequently and sometimes too directly, as in a folio of 11 lithographs from 1985–86), we can see that, for Winters, the image is only the hook on which to hang the paint, and is thus mute as a formal structure.

The appeal of microscopic enlargements, X rays, diagrams of invisible units (the atom), and images of fractals is that they all constitute abstractions of nature. Arthur Dove and Georgia O’Keeffe (two artists Winters’ work recalls) abstracted nature by focusing in on it so closely that individual elements were no longer nameable. Scientific technologies involved in representing the invisible do much the same thing but to a greater degree, exceeding entirely the powers of the naked eye. The images thus produced tend to look like outtakes from the history of abstraction, and pleasingly, as found images, they signify virtually nothing.

The attraction these images hold for Winters is obvious. He is neither critic, provocateur, nor ironist, but, rather, 100 percent painter. His work has been called regressive by those who conflate notions of progress and art and for whom a quiet pursuit of painterly style around a field of culturally neutral images is too close to the methodologies of Twombly, Joan Miró, and Philip Guston to be truly innovative. Well, Winters may not be innovative, but he has a gift for laying down paint and lending his forms a spectacular organic vitality, tactility, and visceral appeal.

Matthew Weinstein