Printed Works: Terry Winters at the Metropolitan Museum of New York

June 12, 2001 – January 6, 2002

After a dazzling spring show of his drawings at the Matthew Marks Gallery, a retrospective exhibition of Terry Winters’s printed works has been mounted at he Metropolitan Museum of Art. The strongest show of contemporary art at the Metropolitan Museum in recent memory, Terry Winters: Printed Works includes a generous selection of Winters’s formally ambitious and technically inventive lithographs, etchings, and relief prints from the early 1980s to the present. Even as a painter, Winters often builds thick, blazing surfaces out of lines, sometimes sensuously gestural, other times slashed with a controlled but ragged violence. Unlike many painters however, Winters regards drawing and printmaking as of equal importance, and this is reflected in the mastery and subtlety of the work currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum.

Winters’s early work is organic and coolly lyrical. In the lithograph “Morula I” (1983 – 1984), densely impacted, overlapping webs of cells form two globes afloat on a cloudy, scuffed gray ground. In “Morula III” (1983 – 1984), the fertile, multiplying webs of cells are more open and porous, light washing through them, one of the globes rendered in an eerily subdued, chalky blue. The small, iterated lines in Winters’s cells are nuanced and personal, and the perspectives they intimate suggest the introspective, biomorphic abstractions of André Masson and Roberto Matta (both accomplished printmakers); but Winters’s lines are structural, even architectural, and his motif here is not inner space but what one might call the wet mathematics of living matter.

Winters’s interest in organic, vegetal form is explicit in the lovely open-bite etching “Novalis” (1983 – 1989) in which the cells agglomerate upward into a corona and bow steeply towards the viewer. Graphically erotic as Georgia O’Keefe’s flowers, its dark blue lines smoldering and ethereal, “Novalis” evokes Arshile Gorky’s charcoal sketches of plants which are themselves informed by the profound near-eastern tradition of plant studies. But while Gorky’s focus is on modeling and contour, on the tension between taut line and empty space, Winters’s cells are an accumulation of clunky asymmetries and anomalies. These etchings seem to allude to the microscopically precise analyses of Durer’s plant etchings, yet their lines are awkward and spontaneous.

With the stunning “Fourteen Etchings” (1989), Winters decisively moves away from the organicism of his earlier work. Small etchings of dark webbed globes, scattered circles of dots, and pentagons crisscrossed with bisecting lines are posed against luminous photogravures made from x-rays of human hands, legs, and skulls. Like the anamorphic skull hovering in the foreground of the famous Holbein painting, the photogravures in “Fourteen Etchings” haunt the etchings with death, and suggest that the fragile, cryptic marks, which share with Paul Klee’s drawings a fragile, macabre lyricism, are not multiplying but rather breaking down into entropy and chaos. By comparison, the clean, elegant lines of Winters’s woodcut series, “Furrows” (1989), which inevitably evoke the great modernist woodcuts of Paul Gauguin and Christian Nolde, are a move backwards; the next significant leap in Winters’s work appears in the best of the hybrid “Models for Synthetic Pictures” (1994), which simultaneously make use of open-bite etching, spit-bite etchings, and sugar-lift aquatint. InModels for Synthetic Pictures I,” for example, the formerly organic cells are now torn open, asymmetrical, and jaggedly expressive, and they are in a lunging, sidelong motion. The shapes in the “Morula” series are static and perhaps transcendent; the forms in “Models for Synthetic Pictures” are in savage and random process.

Winters’s work gets more subtle and complex, indecipherable and oddly tragic, the more recent it is. In the brilliant portfolio of woodcuts, “Graphic Primitives,” a circuitry of cells pulses out among networks of intersecting lines, a diagram for some impossible system. In the etching “Multiple Visualization Technique” (1998), bright red lattices of light streak and curve off skittering clusters of cells, and in the gorgeous blue “Internal and External Values” (1998), the dense circular lines over dots and grids seem in the process of imploding inward. Winters’s use of sugar-lift aquatint casts the etchings into an ambitious, shimmering, centerless space. If Winters’s earlier work is organic, the more recent prints are cosmological. Both “Multiple Visualization Technique” and “Internal and External Values” are close to surrealism’s mindscapes of the unconscious, but Winters’s work refers to a level of structure that is neither inside nor outside the mind, neither organic nor inorganic, and those structures are in furious, catastrophic motion. This is also apparent in the spiraling helixes that knot and disintegrate as they descend the lithograph “Pattern” (2001), and also in the warping patterns and unraveling coils of the etching “Amplitude” (2000). Influenced perhaps by cyberspace, Winters’s abstractions are at once confidently physical and driven by pure, unstable energy that is always on the threshold of dispersal.

Nearby in the Metropolitan Museum’s permanent collection of contemporary art, two of Winters’s paintings from the late 1990s are also on view: “Light Source Direction” (1997) and “Reflection Line Method” (1997). Winters’s use of oil paint and an alkyl resin makes his surfaces, like those of Jasper Johns’s encaustic paintings, thick, sensuous, slightly distant. One might usefully compare Winters’s paintings with the work of Brice Marden from the “Cold Mountain” series on, but whereas Marden’s undulating bands are ornamental and calligraphic, Winters’s lines are fast, explosive, and on the verge of losing control. In the paintings, the lines bleed together and erase each other, the heavy, stick reds and purples pressing up through them; in the prints, on the other hand, the sharp lines create a dizzying infinity of fractured Piranesian depths.


Daniel Baird