In Conversation

Terry Winters with Phong Bui, David Levi Strauss, and Peter Lamborn Wilson

On the occasion of Terry Winters’ new exhibit Knotted Graphs, which comprises two new series of paintings and fourteen graphite drawings and will be on view at Matthew Marks Gallery on West 22nd street until January 24, 2009, the painter welcomed Rail publisher Phong Bui and consulting editors David Levi Strauss and Peter Lamborn Wilson (who are both currently writing essays on Winters’ work for a book the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin will publish next year) on-site to talk about the new body of work.

Illustrated Set/10 (2008). Oil on linen. 66 × 51 inches. 168 × 130 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery.

Phong Bui: I first saw your paintings at Sonnabend Gallery in 1982 when I was an art student. I believe it was your first one-person exhibit, and you were 33 years old, which was considered a late start compared to the rest of the artists of the ’80s, and even today when the pressure of showing works right after graduate school is so great. In any case, from the very beginning, the physical act of making, whether it manifests in painting, drawing, or printmaking, seems to provide a strong framework that allows you to evolve as a painter. I feel the change in each phase in the last three decades is a natural progression, therefore creating a legible continuity. Have you ever thought of the evolution of your paintings in such a manner?

Terry Winters: I could construct a logic in retrospect but the evolution of the work has been necessarily intuitive and incremental. Regarding my first exhibition, I had been in a couple of group shows before but generally I made a conscious decision not to show until I felt I was ready, and then at a certain point I realized that I would never be ready!

Actually, I had a small drawing in a benefit exhibition for the Trisha Brown Dance Company at Leo Castelli’s gallery. Ileana Sonnabend saw the work and called to visit the studio. During that first visit, she offered me a show and it just seemed like an incredible opportunity that coincided with my own sense that it was time to start exhibiting publicly.

But as far as the work’s development, it would be nearly impossible to predict how things evolved. For me, painting’s capacity to make images through the manipulation of materials seems to be its most powerful and magical quality. How a painting is built is a big part of what it means. Mark-making, gesture and touch—those are the key components as to how to generate images through painting. I just hope that each painting is an extension or an expansion of previous work.

In terms of the early work, I wanted to move away from the reductive reading botanical and biological imagery encouraged. I wanted, from that point on, to emphasize what I thought were my own concerns and connections with material, process and architecture. I was interested in developing a vitalized geometry, an abstract force that the paintings could embody.

Peter Lamborn Wilson: Quite recently, we were talking about Ireland where we both have been and became obsessed with the stones. Does that kind of monumental abstraction of the stones as they survive, not as we might hypothesize them originally being, like the reconstruction of Newgrange, which neither you nor I seem to care for, but the way they look, denuded of the earth and in ruins, inspire your work in any specific way?

Winters: Not in any way that I would want to claim for myself, but I feel a tremendous attraction to the development of that kind of abstract language. A geometry that is rooted to its location as well as its relationship to the given geology.

Wilson: It struck me that you could look on those stone structures in the way they tie themselves into the landscape, which at times appear like a topological puzzle.

Winters: Well, that reading of pattern making, which is tied to notions of surveying both of the landscape as well as the cosmological movements of planets and constellations, develops a structure that goes beyond formalism. I think that’s been a challenge that I’ve applied to my own work, that the work would become what Wallace Stevens called a ‘necessary fiction’. That the paintings would be a product of exploration, an excavation of factual material to reveal other levels of, I don’t want to say reality—other possibilities.

David Levi Strauss: As Peter said, we are seeing these ancient Celtic forms in ruins and it is this kind of deformation that I think is applicable to some things that are happening in these new paintings.

Wilson: How so?

Levi Strauss: How forms once made and put in play break down over time. Certainly, in the paintings in the front room that we were just looking at, we’re seeing forms break, not necessarily into their constituent parts, but to make new forms possible.

Bui: And the fact that how the intervals are operated, how edges are negotiated. In other words, the disintegration of forms is necessary in order to create new ones, as you (Levi) had just mentioned. The forms are never filled in.

Winters: There’s definitely no filling-in. [Laughs]

Bui: Yeah. It’s like a new kind of typology where lines don’t intersect like they did in the work of the ’90s. This also applies to the changes in the use of repetition.

Winters: That’s true.

Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Levi Strauss: They begin to break down in a way that is analogous to what happens in sight—the way things break down before the eye. As Godard said, “We’re given the positive; our job is to make the negative.”

Winters: I don’t see them as breaking down so much as they’re somehow the consequence of function, of being used over time. The paintings are a track of the time that it took to paint them—what’s left after the activity of having painted them. On some level, they’re a temporal architecture or cross-section. In a way, I want the opposite of a breakdown. My approach uses construction to provoke unpredictable, surprising images that emerge and become recognizable.

Bui: Are you saying that time can be condensed in the physical act of painting could have a pictorial equivalence of objects being eroded by real time?

Winters: Yes, in that every construction is a destruction. The paintings are a consequence of both of those activities and it’s through the unpredictable and uncontrollable nature of that activity that the pictures emerge. In a way, I’m trying to move forward and to work quickly and proactively. And the destruction that happens in the course of that is what allows the images to develop.

Wilson: It’s a quicker tempo.

Winters: The deliberate and purposeful nature of the activity is more extreme. There’s a higher degree of intent now. I’m trying to work as quickly as possible but each painting still takes the amount of time it needs to take. I don’t really have any control over that.

Levi Strauss: Looking at these paintings, one sees into a very complicated space, initially created by the transparency of the paint against the urgency of the grid. You have the knots, that are made from squares and rectangles painted so as to evoke spheres that are then set in motion, and these knots are suspended in a grid, with another grid behind, which is also in motion and bent or warped by radiating lines. Out of all this movement, the eye and mind create what can be a quite vertiginous space. I’m curious about how that space operates when you’re making the painting. Are you painting inside that space, or do you only go into it afterward, in viewing it?

Winters: No, I’m in the space. I mean, I’m not trying to manipulate it in a conscious way. I’m trying to feel my way through the process. It’s haptic. I’m building it right on the surface and the optical consequences are somehow woven into the surprise of the image itself. In some way, all the meaning is tied up in that space. It’s that Joycean condition about the organized chaos, the “chaosmos”. The painting is a product of all the conscious decisions that I have made but the result is something unforeseeable. It’s a paradoxical object.

Bui: Which also requires the changes of medium. For instance, throughout the decade of the ’80s you were working primarily with oil, then by the early ’90s you shifted it to the combination of oil and alkyd resin, which made great sense for its increased and tessellated patterns of stretched oval forms against the grids and edges of the canvas. It was only in the last few years that the alchemy of paint has changed again in favor of adding lake pigment.

Winters: Every painting is a consequence of the materials that it’s made from. For this group of paintings, the lake pigments were one of the limiting devices that I established. I was following my own curiosity and desire to figure out how these pigments operate. Although I try to work laterally and as fast as I can, oil paint tends to take longer in its drying time, so this mixture of oil, lake pigments, and cobalt, which dries quickly, suited my working pace while allowing me to get into a rhythm.

Bui: A subsidiary rhythm that accommodates the pictorial rhythm that’s happening in the painting.

Winters: There’s a cognitive frame that I’m trying to work inside of, and that frame is always shifting and hopefully evolving in order to create new situations within which to improvise, experiment, and play. And it’s really about testing and playing within a framework that I feel has some sort of conceptual traction. Once the parameters are established, either about the medium, size, support, or reference materials, I feel free to paint.

Wilson: We talked before about concepts of space and topology, going back even to ancient models but certainly up into the Romantic period, from Chladni diagrams to Goethian morphology and then moving up into modern times, with cymatics and chaos theories. I know you resonate with all of these changes and continuity, but could you call that a subject matter of your work in any sense, perhaps not in any particular measurable sense but in physical plane or energy structures?

Winters: That’s the Pollock subject—energy made visible. And I think that is the exciting component of painting right now, that painting does have the capacity to make those energies visible in a way that’s still very pragmatic and tied to the way the world actually works. Those energies are a component part of picture making, or what it means to read an image. I’m not only trying to illustrate those subjects you mentioned. I’m trying to build a painting that functions as an image within that world.

Wilson: You are creating your own science in this respect.

Winters: A fictive science. That’s what Cézanne’s job description of painting was—to make a new optic of nature. I think that is still a viable subject for painting now. To develop an interpretation of the expanded Nature we now inhabit: an ecological view point.

Levi Strauss: When I went into the space of these paintings, I in fact did think of Cézanne’s late watercolors. Gret [the painter Sterrett Smith] and I once had an experience in front of one of these watercolors at the Cézanne exhibit in Philadelphia in 1996, which was transformative. It was just a little watercolor of foliage, leaves, but while looking at it we both became aware that he was actually seeing into matter, into the structure of matter. There is something terrifying about that space where, again, things start to break down and you actually see into these structures that are not normally visible.

Winters: Paul Klee said: “Art does not render the visible, it renders visible.” Whether it happens through painting, as an extension and exploration of those Modernist concerns or through scientific visualization or a conceptual, philosophical framework—that’s what interests me.

Levi Strauss: I’m sure Klee was consciously aware of the hermetic tradition when he said that.

Winters: That tradition feels true to me partly because of the way it used imagery to visualize or map different levels of nature and reality.

Wilson: We’re talking about nature in a hermetic sense!

Bui: Yeah. Terry’s early paintings began with natural forms that gradually became scientific form. There is no real separation.

Winters: “Earth is no escape from heaven,” as Meister Eckhart would say. There’s no escape from Nature­­—this is it. If painting is what Cézanne had said—making a new optic—then nature is all we have to describe.

Wilson: Do you have favorite science-fiction authors?

Winters: My interest in science fiction really comes through William Burroughs. He’s one writer who understood how to raid the reality studio. I tend to like the science-fiction authors who transcend the genre, like J.G. Ballard.

Wilson: That makes sense, especially in his breakthrough volume The Drowned World or the one where he reduces the future to a single crystal. Like most of his writing, the underlying theme is based on the idea that human beings construct their surroundings to reflect their unconscious drives.

Winters: Have you seen the giant crystal caves that they’ve discovered in Mexico? They’re incredible—the crystals themselves are over 30 feet long.

Wilson: Where?

Winters: In Chihuahua, Mexico. Back to that notion about fiction—I like the suspense of things that seem real but you’re not quite sure what they are. Abstraction can be used as a process to build those real-world pictures. I think that’s where it resonates with the notion about science fiction. Science is a quantifiable and verifiable measurement. It’s a factual subject and a good place to start. The imaginary dimensions of painting can be built on those facts. The imagination that I’m interested in is a manual imagination—something that comes out of handwork—gesture and touch.

7-Fold Sequence, Two 2008. Graphite on paper. 22 1/2 × 30 inches. 57 × 77 cm.

Bui: You mentioned energy made visible via Pollock, but whereas in his paintings the energy is carried beyond the boundary of the canvas, your energy is still bound to the rectangular format. We all know this is something that you very much deal with and are committed to. At the same time we also know that how the imagery appears is a matter of the rhythm and pattern making.

Winters: Rhythm and pattern are everything.

Bui: I thought so, but how about the matter of speed in painting wet on wet?

Winters: I’m just desperate. [Laughter]

Bui: You are obsessed with tonality. You probably don’t want to admit it.

Winters: Never. [Laughter]

Bui: Tonality is certainly more visible and detectable in the drawings than the paintings!

Winters: Yeah, drawing is all about tonal breath control.

Bui: That’s why you have such a deep appreciation for James Castle’s drawings!

Winters: Exactly, because there’s an amazing chromatic and tonal range that he was able to maximize out of soot, and every single drawing has a complete grayscale that could describe not only the details of various objects that appear in that given space but also the emotional presence of the whole picture.

Bui: You have spoken similarly in reference to Son House, Robert Johnson, Skip James, and a few other Blues legends who were able to connect and identify with the Mississippi Delta area and embody it with such a distinct sound. And of course sound contains rhythm, which, as you just said, along with pattern is everything, but is there a relationship to sound in your paintings?

Winters: I was just comparing the sound of those rural musicians and how they evoke the Delta landscape with Castle’s similar portrayal of Idaho. But, in terms of my own work, I’m interested in the multidimensional aspects of acoustic space—its territorial nature.

Levi Strauss: Another thing that I thought about while looking at these paintings was the nature of interference—the signal-to-noise ratio and digital-analog crossing. On the one hand, I guess you’d say there is not interference in painting, because every mark is intentional and there is no “outside” force, but one can represent or make an image of interference in painting.

Winters: In a way, I am trying to paint outside forces. I want the expression to be not one that’s only internal but one that is also external, so that both of those pressures once equalized become a representation—in an isomorphic sense. I’m trying to paint the world as well as myself on the painting so interference plays a part—it’s a record of those two frequencies. Interference patterns, phase diagrams, any kind of indicator that functions in a graphic way in order to leave its mark or trace. The rhythm is the periodicity of the painting.

Wilson: I forgot to mention René Thom’s catastrophe theory, which is a special branch of dynamical systems theory where phenomena are characterized by sudden shifts in behavior arising from a small change in circumstances.

Winters: I see every painting as a catastrophe! How that catastrophe can also take on a pictorial component is something of interest to me—there are faces in the clouds or bodies in the rolling hills. What I’m trying to do is engineer the pictures to the point where those figural components are there, but not quite there. A tension develops between them becoming legible and illegible, or drifting off from one thing to the next. That, for me, is part of what keeps them moving.

Wilson: That’s what gives me a sense of things about to happen. You’re maximizing the conditions for the emergence of something. What would you call that new form of matter?

Winters: How about non-organic life forces, which can suggest other potentials, other beings.

Bui: Does that come from cyberspace?

Winters: No, I think it comes from hexagrams, vegetables, and death, that’s what Bob Dylan would say. [Laughter] It’s a folk remedy. Painting is a form of folk art in this culture. So much imagery is built from pixilated, non-corporeal events. Painting articulates its own position through material, through transformation.

Wilson: You mean hermetic alchemy of the unknown forces as we had just mentioned?

Winters: Maybe, but Duchamp said the only way to practice alchemy now would be unconsciously.

Levi Strauss: Have you read Adorno’s essay on Beethoven, in which he proclaimed, “In the history of art, late works are the catastrophes?”

Winters: I haven’t read it but that’s definitely true of the late quartets. I felt the same way with the Turner exhibit this past summer at the Metropolitan, especially with the late paintings and watercolors. He’s not just depicting a romanticized idea about a disaster but he’s in fact enacting it.

Levi Strauss: I definitely think about those late Cézannes in that way. Absolutely.

Winters: Well, it’s too late to stop now! [Laughter]

Bui: Believe it or not, Terry, you’re not qualified since you’re still a young/middle-aged man. [Laughter]

Winters: Maybe I’m making the early late work?

Levi Strauss: Or the late early work. [Laughter] What came right before the first painting in Knotted Graphs? The Illustrated Set series?

Winters: I was working on them all at the same time but it was really the first painting of the Knotted Graphs group that took on a point of view that I felt the other pictures could begin to explore.

Levi Strauss: You’ve got the knot forms, which come from knot theory, in topology, where there are these closed curves in space whose lines do not touch or intersect, and then there are these other forms constructed out of Lissajous curves. Looking at them reminds me of the “Chinese handcuffs” we had when we were kids.

Winters: Definitely. But the paintings are not intended for use as restraining devices! [Laughter]

Levi Strauss: You’d put a finger in each end of these braided cylinders and the more you struggled to free yourself, the tighter they’d get.

Winters: Yeah, those were horrifying.

Wilson: I still have nightmares from those experiences.

Winters: That’s exactly the painting process. [Laughter] That’s when you know the painting is done, when you can get your hands out.

Levi Strauss: Because these knots are arranged in graphs, they also evoke writing, or at least a nascent language of forms. Are you interested in that point at which abstract form becomes language?

Winters: I’m interested in how painting can be applied as a writing device—a non-linear thought process that would amplify multiplicity rather than having a one-to-one linguistic relationship. Looking at paintings is a kind of reading.

Levi Strauss: The knots or particles in these paintings may be intended to represent a natural process, but they are man-made. And the grid is completely inorganic. I tend to agree with Giedion, who said that art began with abstraction and abstraction began with the grid.

Wilson: Suppose you have two wave patterns going over sand and they both leave a series of lines that criss-cross each other. Is that a grid?

Levi Strauss: They’re not straight lines. They’re not considered part of geometric abstraction.

Bui: It’s like a man who swam to the shore of an island from a shipwreck and saw a geometric pattern drawn on the sand. He’d see it as a sign of culture. He’ll know that man has been there.

Levi Strauss: Exactly. It’s the same in cave painting, which is where it all started.

Winters: It begins and ends with cave art. It’s impossible to overestimate their significance or relevance. In terms of geometry, fractals describe vectors and fields in ways that more accurately reflect nature. Painting needs to engage new developments in media, the so-called post-photographic, digital technologies—so the language, the signatures need to change.

Levi Strauss: I’ve seen pages from your notebooks that contain many photographic images. How do these images work in your process?

Winters: Those are documents—source material or information that is used in developing the imagery.

Levi Strauss: In “Tangle,” which is painted in blue and white—I can’t help but think of Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue”— one of these cylinders, now more of a pillow shape, is thrown into a grid of morphing knot forms and an otherwise fairly regular arrangement of circular forms, creating a disturbance and interference. And in “In Blue”, the interference takes a different form, making the knot forms pool around a center and then dissolve into the spill. To me, that looks like a kind of interference coming in from somewhere else.

Winters: Well, it’s a mapping of disturbances, and changes of pressure as well as frequency and direction. Those variables end up creating a situation within which these images emerge, which I either allow to continue to exist in the painting, or which I continue to work on and alter. That’s just part of the process of me feeling my way through the material in order to allow these different changes of intensity to build into an image as a whole.

Levi Strauss: Can you tell us a bit more about the relation of the drawings to the paintings, which Phong mentioned briefly before?

Winters: Only that it’s a parallel process of taking existing material and trying to rearrange it into new patterns. I want the paintings to have a force that is somehow expressive or excessive. The paintings have a higher dimensionality, a greater degree of difficulty because of the color and the complex nature of paint itself.

Wilson: Certainly more elements to deal with in painting!

Winters: Yeah, there are more balls up in the air! Each medium and material has a capacity to describe a different view into the territory that interests me. Each one has a different aperture, or is a different “instrument,” as Barnett Newman once said. Similar to the way in which a string quartet describes a facet of reality different from, but no less significant than a symphony.

Levi Strauss: Do you work on the painting and drawing (“7-Fold Sequence” and “Viewing Notation 1-10”) simultaneously?

Winters: It all depends. Sometimes I’m very focused on one thing and not doing the other. Other times they’re all happening at once. There’s no rhyme or reason, no rules—the three “r”s of my work ethic. [Laughter]

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PETER LAMBORN WILSON's forthcoming book is Ec(o)logues, from Station Hill Press.