In Conversation with Terry Winters
Peter Eleey (Rail):I was hoping that we could speak a bit about some of the collaborative projects you’ve been involved with recently. When did the Trisha Brown Dance Company piece “El Trilogy” go up?
Terry Winters: It had its New York premier in July, but it actually started a couple of years ago. It began as one piece that eventually grew to be three pieces, so there were three separate sets and costumes. At a certain point after the second piece, Trisha realized that she could also make this larger, complete evening, which is what premiered at Lincoln Center. So, there were the three separate pieces that I did the sets and costumes for, plus two intervals that Trisha had choreographed and for which I also did the sets. She had been invited by the Kennedy Center to do a dance piece that was related to jazz in some way because they were doing a jazz and modern dance millennial event. Trisha knew I had some involvement with jazz, and she asked me about who she might work with, and I suggested she do something with Dave Douglas, a trumpet player and composer whose work I’ve admired.
Rail: A lot of early abstract painters had connections and interests in music. Does your interest in jazz have a direct impact upon your practice in the studio?
Winters: I just listen to it a lot in the studio. I have a very eclectic obsession with music. I don’t think it impacts my work in any easily diagrammed way. But there is a way of thinking that goes into composing music, whether it’s improvised or scored, that is of interest to me in terms of how a picture is composed.
Rail: I was also curious about the work you did with Rem Koolhaas “Set Diagram” at Lehmann Maupin Gallery, and how that came about.
Winters: Rachel Lehmann and her partner David Maupin, whose gallery he had designed, had the idea that Rem and I should get together, so he came by the studio a couple of times. From those visits the notion developed about me doing a large group of paintings and him being involved in terms of their installation. And that was when they opened the gallery, which was actually about four or five years ago. It took me some time before I figured out the internal logic of the series, which is why the exhibition didn’t happen until now.
Rail: What did the discussions with him entail?
Winters: It was very informal. We talked about the work in the studio and our mutual interests—Constructivist installations, for instance. We both had an admiration for Malevich’s last Futurist exhibition, 0.10, and the idea of exhibitions involving many paintings, a kind of dynamic installation.
Rail: You mention the Constructivists. Do you think at all about the late Mondrian paintings and his extension of the picture plane beyond the frame?
Winters: Sure. The kind of inventions of the constructions of Mondrian, and the physical sensations he created for the viewer are really critical. Actually Rem came here when the Mondrian show was up at the Modern. That was a nice coincidence and I was very excited about that show. A lot of early twentieth-century abstraction is of interest to me.
Rail: Do you foresee collaborations in other media, like fashion or film, for example? I’ve always thought your work had a connection with some of Stan Brakhage’s films.
Winters: I’m a fan of those films. Brakhage, Harry Smith, that whole strain of American experimental film is something really exciting. But I don’t necessarily think about making collaborations, they just kind of happen.
Rail: Had you considered doing any work with architects before Rem was introduced as potential collaborator?
Winters: Only in the most vague way. I have an involvement in architecture, so when the opportunity of working with Rem presented itself, it seemed like a chance to actualize some of those interests.
Rail: How does your approach to pictorial space work with the more organic, fluid space of dancers?
Winters: I think they both involve a lot of the same issues. I’m interested in the pragmatic encounters that happen within the course of making a painting. There’s a dynamic—especially with someone like Trisha or Merce Cunningham, who I’m working with now—in the way they articulate movements across the stage. Their approach has a lot to do with Trisha and Dave Douglas. This is interesting because of the added temporal dimension.
Rail: Are there more specific similarities among you in your working processes, the development of pieces? Do you know, for example, that the way you work through a paining is similar to the way Trisha develops a dance piece?
Winters: There are similarities in a loose way. I think I had a chance to see more intimately how Trisha works by having done this collaboration, and I do think we both have a very intuitive way of working.
Rail: I remember seeing the show at Matthew Marks in 1997, being in the gallery and hearing the work described as “heroic” and “Ab-Ex alpha-male” because of their large scale and paint handling. The work that you’ve shown in New York in the last year—the smaller square paintings, the prints and drawings—are more intimate than the large canvases, and discard that historical baggage that you may or may not care about. Is that a purposeful shift?
Winters: I don’t particularly care about that historical baggage. I’m interested in trying to describe the widest field or territory of whatever issue seems relevant to me at the moment. The paintings in that show got bigger because they came out of a group of very small drawings. So what interested me were the extremes that the work could be pushed to, and the changes of rhythm. That type of reading seems tired to me. For me, it’s describing different physical states, without any sense of hierarchy, to see that each scale has the singular possibility and potential to describe a different event.
Rail: What are the limits on that? How big and how small are you willing to work?
Winters: There are no limits—physical phenomenon occurs at many levels. I’m interested in how those changes in scale, or material or procedure, can affect the developing subjects.
Rail: Your wok has always seemed nicely self-generating to me, self-sufficient. You move from a print to a drawing to a painting, to another drawing, etc. Can you speak a bit about this process? Is there a point at which you decide to inject outside material?
Winters: The back and forth between media you’re describing is part of what I was saying about changes in rhythm and shifts of scale. They are different ways that I can keep myself active and alert. The work has always been about the outside—it’s about pushing things outside and being open to outside possibilities.
Rail: Does that involve bringing in new processes or bringing in new subject matter?
Winters: Well, both. Certainly bringing in a wide range of reference materials along with other process, techniques and physical approaches to the way the paintings are constructed, are ways of expanding the work into new territories. I’m an image junky and just always looking for new ways into the painting.
Rail: When did the computer start entering into your work?
Winters: Some time ago, initially through my work in the print studios. It’s now one of the things I use, but not in any privileged way. I think computers fundamentally change the way people approach information and visualization. I’m interested in painting as a technology and a method of thinking. The way, for example, that space in generated through thought, and how that has some relationship to new technologies.
Rail: Most of your work sets up a dialogue between materiality and intangibility. The subject matter now seems very intangible, a technologically imagined space.
Winters: Technological and neurological. The intangibles and virtualities that exist in between materials.
Rail: The prints have a nice way of fixing that in a very physical manner—the process of the plate striking the paper, making the mark.
Winters: I do think that there is something about the impact of a single printing and how everything seems to happen at once. That’s very effective, the single imprint of all those marks are created over time in the same way that a painting is—the image in a painting or drawing has that same impact as that once impression in a print. But what are you describing about intangibles—for me, painting’s function is to harness those forces and make them visible.
Rail: That gets me thinking about those da Vinci drawings of water currents and storms. What contributed to the shift from the earlier work that seemed to be in part about picturing the world or making some of that world present, to harnessing the energies of that natural world?
Winters: Initially, I was drawn to the imagery in the earlier work out of curiosity. I wanted to explore my attraction to these things. Finding that out had to do with letting the images inhabit the paintings. That curiosity had to do with how those structures embodied moving forces, whether they were embryological, zoological or botanical in nature. They all tended to reference systems and growth, systems and folding, systems about multiplication. Those kinds of forms became much more part of my vocabulary in the same way my interest in materials became part of my vocabulary. At one point I felt that those two interests could be synthesized. It was about multiplying the possibilities and making the work less available to a reductive reading. I was more interested in how I could take existing information and recombine it into new configurations.
Rail: The earlier work employed some historical sources like natural histories. Can you continue to use historical source material within the context of a technologically determined space?
Winters: My interest in what you’re referring to as historical source material comes out of an ongoing interest in the presentation of information. Painting itself is a system of visualization that presents information, but of a more fictional and speculative kind. So whether you are looking at an eighteenth century botanical text or a twenty-first century visualization of an acoustic system, you are still dealing with how you make the world visible and presentable. That’s always been an attraction for me. That was happening in more elementary in the earlier work, and I think now it's gotten a bit more complicated.
Rail: You mean exploring the limits of what technology allows you to envision?
Winters: Ultimately the whole thrust and force of the paintings for me has to do with a sort of vitalism. I want the paintings to move, and to have a kind of life, a non-organic life. I want the work to refer to things outside of itself, including technology. That’s why I said before it’s about the outside. “The way out is the way in,” that’s the William Burroughs formula.
Rail: It seems like every day there’s news of another level of cellular deconstruction and a further cosmic expansion, usually with plentiful illustrations.
Winters: The contemporary world is driven by abstract forces, and people are comfortable with this imagery that has become incredibly legible.
Rail: What forces in particular? Market conditions, the chaos of traffic patterns?
Winters: Yes—those and others. There are incorporeal structures that are shaped by both tangibles and intangibles. In terms of our connections to day-to-day things, so much of what we do is much more virtual.
Rail: I think our current fascination with images of increasingly microscopic views and further-away galaxies is similar to how the eighteenth century bourgeois became fascinated with prints of medical illustration and images of the inside of the body.
Winters: It’s new territory. It’s new stuff about the world, and how we inhabit the world. That all seems positive. For me, just in my own project, I’m driven by a desire for new imagery and my way to that imagery is through the process of painting.
Rail: Seeing the James Ensor show recently at the Drawing Center got me thinking of your work in a different relationship to his, particularly how both of you manage to densely layer forms and space while oddly building a sort of lightness and transparency.
Winters: I think that is one of the flexibilities with painting—the groundless space. Through dense stratification you can paradoxically build clarity or transparency.
Rail: Do you ever think about approaching it the other way around, having as little as possible?
Winters: That’s definitely of interest to me. Different amounts of information convey different things. In that installation of the “Set Diagram” paintings, there were certainly some pictures that were not as heavily worked. It’s part of what I was talking about before, about describing as wide a territory as possible—some paintings will contain lots of information and some less.
Rail: But I don’t just mean in terms of information. I’m not suggesting that the information should change, or should become more limited in scope. I’m talking about the actual physical facts of the painting, the amount of paint on the surface.
Winters: That’s what I’m calling information. In some sense the pictures are about making information pictorial, or physical, and making an image that is constructed out of raw data. That raw data ends up being selected by me through a very intuitive process of assemblage. My approach is constructive—I’m trying to build a new image of information, and see what meanings are generated.
Rail: At what point do these images become too material? Does a depiction of the ephemeral forces you are trying to capture lose its currency when the image becomes too close to objecthood, too fleshed out?
Winters: That’s the edge I’m trying to ride. I want to direct the paintings to where they are suggestive more of events than of things, of events more than places. I try to engineer the images to the point where they are loaded with possibilities but they don’t land on any one thing. I’m interested in the moving multiplicity of images, rather that the kind of fixed reading of a subject.
Rail: Have you ever made any sculpture?
Winters: I’ve made some tests and some probes, and it’s something I think about. I started making some things several years ago that I haven’t realized yet. I’ve done some work at a glass research studio in Marseille, and I’m going back there this year to try to finish some of these things. But I felt like I needed to push the paintings someplace else before I went back to the sculptures.
Rail: Do you think there is some way of integrating a sculptural practice into the non-hierarchical method that allows you to move between media?
Winters: That’s certainly the hope. In a way, the paintings are sculptures—the eye-to-hand thing, and the fact that the space isn’t just optical, but haptic, the eye and the touch make this other kind of space.
Rail: Thinking of another painter who experimented in sculpture: did you see the Cy Twombly sculpture show?
Winters: Yes. It was fabulous. People like Twombly or Jasper Johns are the models to emulate because they’ve been able to sustain over such a long period of time a very essential connection to what it is they do. I think that is part of the project—how you continue to go deeper or further out with your initial undertaking.