Terry Winters: Facts and Fictions at The Drawing Center

Above: Terry Winters, Untitled (Page), 2011, Graphite on paper, 11 x 8 1/2 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery, New York.

By Jonathan Goodman

Terry Winters, one of our very best abstract artists, quietly achieves a genuine difference in effect in his works on paper, beautifully on show now at The Drawing Center. It is quite difficult to characterize this bit of originality available in the works, which manage to be both geometric and organic at the same time. Perhaps it has to do with an organizing intellectual principle that shows up regularly in the the body of work. This has been remarked upon before; the design, then, of the images tends to read rationally even more than we see the pattern as an intuitive construction. Working like this, generally within the idiom of the New York School, makes Winters look analytically perceptive in a field that doesn’t always take such a point of view to heart. At the same time, this body of work brings up conceptual notions of pattern and organization that we don’t associate at all with the expressive abstraction that has come, more or less, to take over much of the recognized image-making available in New York. Indeed, it is best to understate the long arm of the New York School, which, tentacle-like, has established a domain that many may feel constrained by. This has nothing to do with the genuine achievements of the style, but its current ubiquity has a lot to say about the vagaries of the market, which everyone downplays but no one can afford to ignore.

But, even so, even if we acknowledge the unusually strong achievement by an artist like Winters–and we should do so–we also need to recognize the need for a new idiom, one that would neither supplant nor replace what we already have, but would rather add to the tightening conditions that have resulted from the obligation to promote sales and maintain the market. What the details of this new style might be seems impossible to imagine ahead of its time; one might argue for a hybrid recognition of figuration and abstract insight. But this is only a guess, and our chief focus here is the very good work of Winters, whose combinations of styles and patterned phenomena begin an argument for difference–even when we acknowledge his late stage of lyric abstraction. This kind of work, like all the abstraction we see today, has its origins in the consequences of modernism and its investigations into a language that would resist realism yet be visually stimulating within the innate paradigms of the genre: color, shape, line. Winters’ work is so very good it can be thoroughly enjoyed even though it is not committed, on a conscious level, to a visual idiom that repeats thinking in love with the past, nor does it demand social equity, the major focus of much art today.

The task facing the New York art community–artists, curators, gallerists, and viewers–is to engender a language that will not plummet in the face of already established visual vernaculars. The same is true in poetry–which offers a sorely needed expressiveness that is ignored because of its inability to generate assets that could yield profits greater than the high two figures! We are all more or less in a standstill in the arts, but that doesn’t mean imagery and language can’t continue to develop. Still, it is extremely hard to cut a path out of so deep, and so monetarily oriented, a forest. Some work making use of comic-book imagery, as happens in the art of Robert Williams, offers an alternative to the stranglehold of gestural abstraction, and it is also true that ambitious artists such as Nicole Eisenman and Dana Schutz are establishing a striking, if also highly idiosyncratic, style whose rawness rejects almost all historically established approaches in realism. In counterpoint, Winters clearly seems content to work out a point of view that is both intuitive and analytic, with a conceptual edge directing the overarching design he submits his individual elements to. It is the conceptual edge–a form of analytic intelligence–that saves Winters from the vapid repetition characterizing so much contemporary abstraction. It is clear he is smart, and it is clear that his intelligence saves him from a romantic emotionalism–now, sadly, keyed to the bank.

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Terry Winters, Untitled (Page), 2011, Graphite on paper, 11 x 8 1/2 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery, New York.

In one 2011 work, Untitled (Page), consisting of graphite on paper, the patterns are particularly evident. Looking overall like a flower, the image is composed of small diamond-shaped forms arranged in slightly curving rows. They elaborate an image of true elegance and vibrancy; the center of the bloom bulges slightly, giving the image its three-dimensional cast. This kind of drawing is deliberately arranged, so that its composition relates to systems theory as well as natural phenomena, like a beehive, that present an ordered facade. Images such as this one play with differing means of organization, both tight and free. In many of these drawings, Winters does lean toward imagistic cohesion resulting from an organized architecture. Usually, we think of lyric abstraction as something intended to be emotionally free–even liberating for a studious audience. But good art can also belong to rational procedure, which can stabilize emotion so that it does not turn wild. Perhaps we can build a point of view that serves as an opposition to the supposed liberation of feelings focused on alone. In this case, the imagery would be influenced by moderation and restraint–virtues that are suggested, if not overly weighted, in Winters’ art.

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Terry Winters, Schema (57), 1985–86. Graphite and watercolor on paper, 12 x 8 1/2 inches. Private collection.

But the argument for a rational outlook can only be taken so far. It is as much a wish as it is a perception; the extravagance of feeling often seen in art of the New York School cannot be evaded in the way Winters works. In one recent drawing, Schema 57 (1985-86), we see a dark sphere whose surface is covered with equally spaced, darker holes. Above it is a quincunx of sorts–five dots, each a different color, surround an outline of a circle. There is little overarching organization–merely a suite of dots just above a rough ball of an image. We are hesitant to openly determine meaning in this case, or in the rest of works on paper. Visual abstraction, fervent or muted, cannot have its message unpacked like a symbolist poem. It exists on its own terms, without a visible social reality accompanying it. Critics can try to socialize the conditions of formalism, but it looks like this movement is best considered on its own terms, rather than being politically contextualized.

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Terry Winters, Untitled (2), 1999, Gouache on paper, 44 1/4 x 30 1/2 inches. Private collection.

The last image to be discussed in this review is Untitled (2) (1999), a stack of four horizontally oriented lozenges, outlined and partially filled with thin lines that are drawn on a monotone ground. It is a fine, resolutely nonabstract image–one that asserts the primacy of esthetic independence. Maybe Winters’ autonomy underlies the strength of his art; he is not easily joined to other artists’ styles. The best art both reflects and transcends the Zeitgeist, and perhaps this is the case with regard to the work we see here. To summarize, Winters is important to contemporary art, but his competence–indeed, his excellence–also indicates how stuck we have become in the protracted pursuit of a style that, like all styles, is constrained by a limited trajectory. If this point has been repeated a bit too often, it is because the need to move on is reflected in the history of the New York School–Sean Scully’s merger of abstract expressionism and minimalism is a good example of a painter’s refusal to walk the same terrain. So it can be done. Winters looks original still, but within a history we know exceedingly well. We may have had too long a romance with newness for its own sake, but this is the demand we currently place on the imagination. Winters’ very fine show demonstrates the real need to make use of a language that not only looks backward but ahead.

View Terry Winters: Facts and Fictions at The Drawing Center through August 12, 2018.

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Jonathan Goodman is an art writer based in New York. For more than thirty years he has written about contemporary art for such publications as Art in America, Sculpture, and fronterad (an Internet publication based in Madrid). His special interests have been the new art of Mainland China and sculpture. He currently teaches contemporary art writing and thesis essay writing at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.

 

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Louise Bourgeois’ Legacy: Four Living Women Rocking Surrealism

Above: Installation View, “Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait” At MoMA. Image © Artifactoid. 

I love artwork by Louise Bourgeois. Her recent show at the MoMA was beautiful and you can see her sculptures in the permanent collection  at Dia: Beacon. Up to and following her death in 2010, her dark, sensuous surrealism (consciously or not) continues to influence a new generation of artists. While not always as heavy nor activist as Bourgeois in their subject matter, these artists each reference certain elements of her style in original ways. Here are four that are remarkable.

1. Rita Ponce de Leon (80m2 Livia Benavides)

Rita Ponce de Leon, image from the drawings on paper series, “Nuestros, Nosotros,” 2015. 25 x 25 cm each. Image © Rita Ponce de Leon courtesy 80m2 Livia Benavides.

Rita Ponce de Leon‘s  (b. Lima, 1982) work comprises surreal drawings and sculptures that gain power from their delicate intimacy. She works with pen on ink, clay, and Papier-mâché among other media. Last year I saw her beautiful installation at Proyecto AMIL in Lima that showcased many of her techniques, including heated sculptures to hold in your hands and drawings directly on the wall that scaled from floor to ceiling in the ample exhibition salon. Ponce de Leon is represented by Galeria 80m2 Livia Benavides based in Lima, Peru.

2. Geng Xue (Klein Sun Gallery)

Geng Xue, “Oceans Roar,” 2016. Porcelain and sound installation. 39 3/8 x 13 3/4 x 7 7/8 in. Image © Geng Xue, courtesy Klein Sun Gallery.

Geng Xue‘s (b. China, 1983) visceral ceramics captivate the imagination and bring us closer to our humanness. Attuned to sensory experience, Geng Xue often incorporates elements such as sound into the works, as in the above pictured piece, “Oceans Roar.” Geng Xue also creates animations that bring the pieces to life.

3. C.J. Chueca (Y Gallery)

Ceramic,  9 1/4 × 3 1/2 × 2 in, 23.5 × 8.9 × 5.1 cm, Unique. Image © C.J. Chueca and Artsy.

C.J. Chueca (b. Lima, 1977) grew up moving nomadically between Perú and México, where she frequently came into contact with homeless people, nursing home residents, and psychiatric patients. According to a 2016 exhibition essay on her work authored by critic Eleanor Heartney, these experiences “stoked a deep sympathy for the dispossessed” in Chueca. Chueca’s porcelain wall reliefs are portraits of homeless men and women from her memory, modeled after assemblages of found objects.

4. Jasmine Little (Johannes Vogt Gallery)

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Installation view, “Hoodoos,” at Johannes Vogt Gallery. Image © Johannes Vogt Gallery.

Jasmine Little (b. Virginia, 1984) is a technically gifted surrealist painter and sculptor whose works draw from emotion, memory and nostalgia rather than physicality. While most often related to Chagall or Matisse, there is something about the visual style and sensitivity of the pieces that recalls Bourgeois for me. Little is currently having a solo show, Hoodoos, at Johannes Vogt Gallery on the Lower East Side through April 28th, 2018.

Jack Pierson, Cheim & Read

Cheim & Read’s installation of Jack Pierson’s “onthisisland,” a collection of 150 small watercolor and graphite works on paper, was curated excellently.

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I stepped into the gallery and wanted to stay there longer just because of how well the presentation and the work amplified each other in such a satisfying way. In the front room of the exhibition, the paintings and drawings were so clean, simple, elegant and fresh, that they required a display that echoed those elements throughout the room.

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Mounted on “boxes” stretched tightly with natural-tone linen, the paintings and sketches were given the opportunity to invite viewers to contemplate their simplicity, and possibly even turn it on its head.

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This sensation continued into the back room of the installation, where Pierson’s larger graphite drawings were on display.

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These dark, striking, doodle-like drawings with seemingly surrealist and op-art influences commanded me to recognize their complexity. The below piece is one I’d like to spotlight in this post:

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I’m a fan of this piece in particular because it brought a flood of questions to my head that I am grateful to have circulating in there, including:

  • Why do I look at something like this and think that there is more depth to it than a child’s doodle? Or is there not?
  • Or, does a child’s doodle have the potential to be deep, so there isn’t even a conflict with that comparison?
  • Also, am I thinking there’s something to this only because it’s galleried artwork? How much is the gallery’s affirmation of the art affecting my overall perception of it?
  • Was the placement, shape and size of the forms in the piece spontaneous or premeditated?
  • Does each have a meaning, meant to be decoded? Or do they each mean nothing?
  • It looks like the artist has disregarded many conventional rules of composition and drawing technique. To what extent is that true, and what does that mean?
  • Is this piece irreverent, or is it genius? Or both? Or neither?

I think that in conversations about art, works like this are generally controversial, because people really do wonder, why is this in a gallery or museum? Why or how does this piece display talent or have value? So, since I am fascinated and looking for more understanding, I’m looking forward to hopefully receiving some comments about this piece and this concept as a whole.

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