Terry Winters

Terry Winters’s achievement of the last ten years feels heroic in the old-fashioned sense of the word. His commitment to a grand tradition of painting superimposes a value on his work that accretes history as if its challenges demanded that a position be taken and held, whatever the cost. Yet there is also something terribly poignant about his project, as evidenced in “Terry Winters: Paintings, Drawings, Prints 1994–2004,” a survey of 160 works curated by Adam Weinberg. This poignancy has to do with the self-conscious meeting of painting and cognition. For many today it is a trope to think of these two terms as complementary, but after painting’s putative toppling by more conceptual strategies, the terms might also seem opposed. In either case, complement or contradiction is dependent on the degree to which history informs or even haunts the making of pictures. History, however, can be hard to gauge when divorced from narrative, which Winters’s images seem to refuse. They appear to be less “about” something than simply and rigorously “of” it.

Refusal of narrative, even implied, leaves the viewer situated but hardly contained by the work. And it is here that the poignant rears its head most insistently. Paintings such as Standardgraph/3, 2003, have the quality of a muffled echo, since the foremost plane of the picture appears like a vibration cast forward from the receding field behind the grid. (In fact, these images can seem more auditory than visual.) This echo acts like a repository of the past (painting’s recent past, for instance) that is simultaneously hollow and dense, apparent and occluded. Thus it perhaps relates to Winters’s recent interest in cyberspace, which like an echo seems simultaneously real and virtual, momentarily present yet not quite there. “Painting is a circuit, a feedback loop,” Winters maintains, something like a hollow conduit, repeating, repeating.

Accordingly, the viewer looks constantly in Winters’s paintings for that moment or passage that holds his place in what Rosalind Krauss has called the etiology of abstract painting. History becomes a kind of buffer zone between the real and the virtual, the computer generated and the hand drawn or marked. To continue to paint, Winters suggests, one can’t simply intimate narrative in the way that it remains immanent in the work of Pollock, de Kooning, or even Johns. The story is now scrambled and can only appear so, if it can exist at all. And yet, countless moments of manual imagination—given form as brushstroke, bitten line, and smeared graphite on vellum—emerge as the shards of painting’s once-sturdy theoretical armature and monumental tradition. Perhaps the most conspicuous of these fragments is Winters’s insistence on the grid as an inescapable structuring principle of the visual field. This is not, however, the grid born of flatness, which throughout modernism’s history famously asserted the tyranny or promise of the picture plane. Instead, the grid for Winters is space itself, constantly permeable while implying the accumulation of—or passage through—all matter. Winters’s grid is part of a larger three-dimensional turning in space, cyber or otherwise, that is at once a denial of modernism’s privileged forms and a tacit acceptance of them.

The artist’s recent interest in theoretical constructions such as Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus speaks to such conditions. Still, Winters derives his formal-as-theoretical convictions as much from early-twentieth-century Constructivism as he does from 1980s theoretical discourse. What is contemporary about his Constructivism is his abdication of the ruler, the straight edge that so sharply evinced ideological (and historical) control for a Lissitzky or a Malevich. Not that I want to imply that Winters leaves us with the organic, as opposed to the political or collective. History’s road map to such positions—the possibility of Winters’s politics, or of politics at all—is simply more elusive at the moment.

Winters’s project assembles the component parts of a ruin; call it the mapping of the modernist cognitive in the face of its putative dissolution, the myth and reality of painting as thinking. He works with what remains of a history of painting and abstraction, and, importantly, what does not. Untitled, 1999, puts the point nicely. An image is graphed onto and pushed into a surface while the stroke, drag, and punch of the brush assert a life for pigment irrespective of this system. The fiction of unity is rent asunder by an aesthetic that is only possible independent of plan, model, and diagram. A productive disconnect is evident between schema and material, between the virtual and the manmade. Nowhere is this more intensely felt than in Graphics Tablet, 1998. Here the vortex coughs up endless formal repetitions, almost the repetition compulsion of a traumatic cognitive state. What else might the meeting of painting and technology have produced in the last ten years if not materiality’s willful refusal of the void, as well as an almost paradoxical encounter with the abyss by dint of its refusal? Perhaps, as Richard Shiff so ably argues in the exhibition’s catalogue essay, we need Deleuze, cognitive science, and the computer to understand all of this, but it sounds like part of the longer history of modernism to me.

“Terry Winters: Paintings, Drawings, Prints 1994–2004” travels to the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, Jan. 23–Apr. 17; Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, Apr. 30–July 10.

Eric Rosenberg is associate professor of art history at Tufts University.