Metaphorical Morphologies

Terry Winters: , 1985, oil on linen, 74 ½ inches by 132 ½ inches. Anderson Collection, Stanford University. Courtesy Sonnabend Gallery, New York.


Terry Winters: Facts and Fictions,” on view through August 12 at the Drawing Center in New York, collects seventy-eight explorative drawings and paintings, many based on analytical illustrations of organic specimens, a subject that increasingly fascinated the artist from the 1980s onwards. Here we look back in A.i.A’s archives to our September 1988 issue, in which painter and art critic Stephen Ellis, considering these morphologies, reflects on “Winters’s discovery of his unique subject matter.” Ellis argues that Winters turned toward formal drawing because he was dissatisfied with the austere blankness of Post-Minimalism, ascendant in the art world in the early ‘80s. He then engagingly discusses how Winters adapted “the elaborate descriptive language of classical Western painting” to an entirely new world of forms—new in the sense that “our awareness and structural understanding” of vascular systems, microscopic plant cells, and so forth depends entirely on scientific aids. “If Winters’s desire to draw (rather than to catalogue definitions of the medium) led him to his subject matter,” Ellis writes, “it is the virtuosity of his drawing that allows him to bring these subjects to vivid life.” —Eds.


For Terry Winters, even more than for most painters, drawing is the soil out of which his thinking has grown. Although his fluency as a draftsman is widely recognized, that same fluency has sometimes obscured the nature of his originality. Within the last year three shows (one consisting entirely of drawings, two of paintings paired with drawings) demonstrated the crucial role drawing has played in Winters’s discovery of his unique subject matter and in its subsequent development.

The largest of these shows was a survey covering the period between 1981 and 1987, organized by Phyllis Pious for the University Art Museum at Santa Barbara. It opened in July ’87 at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, traveled to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the List Visual Arts Center at MIT, before closing in February ’88 in Santa Barbara.

The group of twenty paintings and eight-five drawings in the survey gave an overview of Winters’s growth from the period of his first widespread recognition until very recently. Excellent though this selection proved to be, it’s unfortunate that some of the paintings from the late ’70s weren’t included, since they further clarify a thematic continuity that’s important to an understanding of Winters’s accomplishment. Winters’s work of the late ’70s was much influenced by the paintings of Twombly and Marden—specifically their variations on the Abstract Expressionist “field”—as is attested by a pair of 1977 canvases consisting of a loamy “scorched-earth” surface and bearing the respective inscriptions: “Pitch Lake, Trinidad” and “Dead Sea, Syria.” By referring with words as well as paint to real sites having an intense and highly specific physical character, Winters also alludes to the literal materiality of Process and Arte Povera practice as pursued by such artists as Serra, Giovanni Anselmo, and Mario Merz.

By the early ’80s Winters had become dissatisfied with these field paintings, feeling, as did a number of other artists at the time, that Post-Minimalist conventions had become a dead end. Winters found himself hungry for drawing—the kind of drawing that would, in contravention of the period’s self-absorbed modalities, explore the architecture of forms. Naturally the next question to arise was: what kind of forms?

The Santa Barbara show began with the artist’s first tentative answers to this question—small, rather frail drawings such as Botanical Subject (1981) and similarly inclined paintings, like Botanical Subject 4 (1982). Winters had long been interested in the architecture of natural forms and had, simply for pleasure, amassed a collection of texts illustrating them. Using these illustrations as a point of departure though not as a literal source, Winters creates his own lexicon of structures—what Klaus Kertess has called his personal “morphology.”

This lexicon is constructed from things that are relatively “new” in the sense of our awareness and structural understanding of them: vascular systems, microscopic plant and animal cells, mineral crystals and the molecular building blocks of nature like DNA strands. These are things, pace Johns, the mind does not already know. Yet known only indirectly, through scientific aids, they have become an essential part of our contemporary understanding of who and what we are. Winters’s introduction of this new world of forms into painting and his adaptation of the elaborate descriptive language of classical Western painting to render it has the simplicity—the retrospective obviousness—of a really good idea.


Looking over the work included in the Santa Barbara show, one senses both the artist’s increasing excitement as he realizes the potential of his lexicon, and his increasing confidence as he gradually develops a richer, more forceful way of representing it. After the initial, tentative works, Winters entered a period of consolidation, teaching himself through practice to speak his new language. The kind of “presentational” space he now began to perfect combines the surface richness of his “field” paintings with the neutral background plane of scientific illustration. The spatial conception is analogous to the classic tabletop of still-life painting, and indeed the rapt, languorous attention Winters lavishes on his chosen subjects is not essentially different in kind from that devoted to the cups or apples in a Chardin or Cézanne. Likewise reminiscent of still life is the way these bits of matter acquire semantic weight and metaphoric significance through a poetics of spatial relationships. For example, Dome, a drawing in black crayon, offers within its relatively small compass a monumental vision of two interconnected spheroids, each composed of a multitude of small round facets or cells (like those that form the eye of a fly). Here Winters is in full voice, his fascination with a single form raised to the level of rhapsody.

In the Santa Barbara exhibition, perhaps the best painting from this “consolidation” period was Lumen (1984), a large vertical canvas whose dark gray field is populated with repeated pinecone shapes in yellow, gray and red lead, hovering like balloons in the night sky. (The word “lumen” itself means both the cavity of a tubular organ and a unit of luminous flux.) As in other paintings from this period—for example, Colony and Soil Cap—a single repeated motif is analyzed in the process of painting: turned this way and that in space, shown in different lights, rendered here as silhouette, there as surface texture or architecture.

If Winters’s desire to draw forms (rather than to catalogue definitions of the medium) led him to his subject matter, it is the virtuosity of his drawing that allows him to bring these subjects to vivid life. That virtuosity doesn’t depend solely on his skill in creating luxurious, seductive surfaces, though he can do that effortlessly; its essence is his acute sense of physical structure—his capacity for imaginatively inhabiting his chosen forms. The purpose of analytical drawing, of course, is to convey information—which is why scientific texts use drawings and photographs in tandem: the photographs for verisimilitude, the drawings for structural explication. Winters simply extends this kind of highly articulated drawing from a purely descriptive to a metaphorical dimension.

He likewise employs a classical oil painting technique—glazing, scumbling, complex recipes of varnish, oils, etc.—to further the semantic and esthetic reach of his overall project. Such methods were originally invented to realize volume in space as concretely as possible, so that Winters’s resuscitation of them is both perfectly appropriate to his aims and in an odd way, witty.

Nonetheless, it ought to be pointed out that in this middle period a distracting handsomeness sometimes creeps into the paintings. Point (1985), for example, drenches the viewer with an almost suffocating lushness of color and surface. Certain of these high-calorie paintings approximate—and not felicitously—the effect of a fully turned out classic French meal: one finds oneself sated nearly to death.

But painting is a practice, an ongoing process of experiment, assessment and adjustment. The artist must see what his concerns look like pushed to their material extremes; in testing the outer limits of his sensual imagination, Winters was taking a necessary step toward the mastering of a big talent that, wrongly worked, could become dangerously seductive, even thwarted. Controlling that talent, putting his skill completely in the service of his ideas, has been central to his maturation. Contemporary painting would be better off if more artists had such problems.


Meanwhile, Winters’s show at Sonnabend in March ’87 was a watershed that proved he had outgrown earlier mannerisms. Titled “Schema,” the show was made up of 75 12-by-8 ½-inch drawings executed in various combinations of gouache, watercolor, graphite, charcoal and crayon. The works were hung in a single unbroken horizontal line running through the space of the gallery1 

Drawing is to painting as thought is to speech: there’s no inherent demand for it to aspire to more elaborate rhetoric than the moment requires. In the “Schema” series Winters exploited this flexibility to its fullest extent. The pieces range from quick line drawings to dense gouaches that are in effect small paintings. As in some of the earlier works, a few of the drawings offer only a single form. No. 33, for instance, focuses on a banded sphere austerely rendered in graphite and wash. This solitary ball of matter seems a grave and self-possessed object of meditation. Similarly, in No. 73, a matte black jigsaw-puzzle shape, possibly some flake of genetic coding, broods alone, sunk into an inky ground, its outline discernible only by the contrast of shiny and matte black areas.

Other drawings presented spores, strands, stamens and helix constellations—like the chain of Prussian blue bulbs floating in a creamy liquid space before distant webs in No. 6, or the dark gray spheres in No. 67, clustering about an isolated central sphere covered with bright yellow dots. In the latter, a network of lines radiating from the center suggest the petals of a flower, but the image flips back and forth between micro- and macrocosm, from cosmos to flower to atom, disallowing any single reading. As always with Winters, the exact identity of the subject is elusive and ultimately irrelevant; these are, after all, synthetic, invented organisms.

The strict linear installation of the drawings in the gallery insisted that the viewer read them as a single train of thought, or rather, as a double helix of two intertwined themes. As a unit, the series was both a summation of Winters’s previous concerns and an indication of where he might be going.

In formal terms these two themes manifested themselves as the relationship between the figure and the field. Most striking was the way the field reasserted itself as a more active force than it had previously seemed. The substance of the paint, elaborately layered in different consistencies from buttery gouache to the filmiest graphite wash, lapped at the forms, questioning their preeminence. Indeed, the last drawing in the series, No. 75, is nearly obliterated by a tide of vermilion paint spread across its lower two-thirds. A branch of thin red lines sticking up behind this curtain of pigment indicates the drowned images underneath. Moreover, the field of each drawing offers a much wider chromatic range than in Winters’s previous work, and the forms are more completely dissolved and incorporated into this environment.


Winters’s absorption in his morphological spectacle initially necessitated a departure from the exhausted “field” aspect of Abstract Expressionism. Now, reexamining the role of the field itself, he’s reaching for a synthesis between it and the complex means of spatial description and volumetric rendering for which oil painting was originally invented.

At the same time, the reassertion of the field indicates that Winters has internalized his imagery to the degree that he needn’t cherish it so, that he’s placing his cast of forms (and himself as their scenarist) in more difficult and complex spatial and psychological situations. This new freedom and confidence shows up powerfully in a painting made concurrently with the later “Schema” drawings and also the most recent painting included in the retrospective. Monkey Puzzle is a 9-by-12-foot theater of a picture in which two convoluted vascular figures confront each other as warily as a pair of prizefighters circling each other in the ring. This scene takes place in a different kind of space from the presentational plane of the earlier paintings, encompassing the action rather than serving as a backdrop. Winters achieves this opening up by means of both the oblique orientation of the figures relative to the picture plane, and the heavy painting in the negative space of the right-hand figure.

In Winters’s newest work, shown last June at Max Hetzler in Cologne, the bluntness of execution and spontaneity introduced in the “Schema” drawings is pushed still further. One of a group of 19 11-by-14-inch drawings, “a” is dominated by a scarlet shape like a halved brain growing out of the bottom of the page on the stem of its spinal cord. Superimposed over it is a heavy coiling black line that could be an enormous fingerprint. Better still is a second gouache, “b,” in which four fetuslike heads march from left to right across the top of the sheet. Because they increase in size as they move laterally, they seem as well to be marching out toward the viewer. Are these stages in a depicted growth process? Whatever they may be, it’s hard to stop looking at them. The drawing is mysteriously completed by two billowing circles formed of fingerprints pressed into the dense milky ground that covers the page.

Though aware of what’s interesting or useful in the passing scene, Winters has avoided the flea circus of “strategies” in favor of a concentrated growth that has taken him very far indeed. Winters has already achieved much, but the departure signaled by these drawings and the paintings he’s made along with them holds such promise that one can only hope he continues to ask himself the kind of questions his gift demands, that is, the most challenging ones. He has no excuse to do anything less.