Trying to Resuscitate Painting, Koolhaas Puts Three on the Ceiling

That the art of painting has been shunted to the sidelines of the contemporary art scene is indisputable. While there are galleries that exhibit painting and artists who continue to put brush to canvas, this venerable art form can’t catch a break. If it’s not being declared dead for the umpteenth time, it’s being shushed out the door to make room for The Next Big Thing, which is usually some form of un- or anti-painting. The time, patience and consideration necessary to look at a painting for letting it weave its elusive yet plain-as-the-nose-on-your-face magic is distinctly at odds with an art world that remunerates the predictably outrageous and conveniently digestible. Such a status quo, by its very nature, ” rules out entirely the very possibility of a comeback of painting, at least as Queen of the arts. “

This quote comes from Arthur Danto, the art critic for The Nation, and can be found in the essay for the catalog accompanying the current exhibition of the work of Sean Scully at Knoedler & Company gallery. Mr. Danto finds the diminution of painting unjust, arguing that ” there has to be room for [it] in the open disjunction of ways of making art. ” He doesn’t, however, make his argument too vehemently and is, one feels, more than a little enamored of the art world’s reigning ” open disjunction. “

Take Mr. Danto’s statement that some artists whom ” we think of primarily as painters have in some ways been liberated by the pluralism of art. ” He cites as an example the painter David Reed, who has created tableaux within which his pictures are placed alongside video monitors, beds and other objects. Yet when Mr. Reed contrives such an installation or, for that matter, when Mr. Scully covers a metal box jutting a foot or two from the wall with stripes, are they freed by the anything-goes ethos of the ” pluralistic art world? ” Or are these painters doing their damnedest to compete with a scene that places a premium on the brute fact of fashion? There’s a difference between liberation and covering one’s backside. It is this distinction that Mr. Danto elides, lest the pluralist boat be rocked too much for his liking.

In fairness to Mr. Danto, Mr. Reed and Mr. Scully, it should be noted they aren’t the only people made fidgety by their fidelity to a medium as woefully unhip as painting. The art world is chock-full of such folks, and the painter Terry Winters has joined their ranks. Mr. Winters, whose paintings and drawings are at both Lehmann Maupin and Matthew Marks Gallery, may seem an unlikely candidate for inclusion in this crowd. He has, after all, long pursued a rough-hewn brand of quasi-abstract painting, one that takes as its precedent the work of Philip Guston and Cy Twombly.

Having established himself as a painter of biological forms, Mr. Winters has, in recent years, dedicated himself to depicting a schematic, sci-fi flavored architecture. These canvases, with their overlapping and interpenetrating diagrams, give flesh to the verities of our virtual age and have done much to jump-start a career that was threatening to become as moist and murky as the artist’s signature biomorphs. After initially resisting the new work’s scrabbled willfulness, I ultimately found myself converted to its ungainly but impressively ambitious determination. I vividly recall the wobbly inside-out complexity of Gray Scale Image (1998), a piece from Mr. Winters’ last show at Marks, and have become quite fond of Light Source Direction (1997), a painting in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art that has been on display for some time in the atrium of the museum’s 20th-century wing.

Since visiting Set Diagram at Lehmann Maupin, however, I’m inclined to reinstate my atheism in all things Winters. Here’s an exhibition in which the art of painting willingly happily cries ” Uncle! ” to extra-aesthetic considerations. The title is a term used to describe ” relationships between two or more sets of information. ” In the 60 yes, 60 paintings on view, we see Mr. Winters limning digital-age imagery: woozy and rubbery meshes, scrabbled circuitry and, as a sop to the faithful, a duo of bobbing biomorphs.

Yet Set Diagram isn’t, it should be understood, an exhibition of paintings. It’s a site-specific installation, a collaboration between Mr. Winters and Rem Koolhaas, the renowned architect and writer. Mr. Koolhaas has arranged, salon style, the artist’s modestly scaled pictures on sheets of plywood that cover a good portion of the walls and ceiling of the gallery. (Three of Mr. Winters’ paintings can, in fact, be found on the ceiling.) This installation, we are told, ” create[s] a matrix of difference, correspondence, and counterpoint. ” Yet the only thing that’s technologically true about Set Diagram is its built-in obsolescence. The thing hasn’t been up a month and it already looks like a cornpone relic of the Information Age.

One would be less inclined to cavil about Set Diagram if the pictures themselves were any good. As it is, the canvases are thin and threadbare when they aren’t congealed or congested. (Perhaps Mr. Winters was hoping that Mr. Koolhaas’ Zeitgeist cool would camouflage their indolence.) Mr. Winters fares better in the Marks exhibition. While needlessly overstuffed, the show includes what may be the most elegant piece of art this ham-handed painter has ever done an untitled netting of silvery lines from 1999. Even so, one leaves the exhibition feeling that Mr. Winters is not so much in a holding pattern as he is running scared. From the pretentious tomfoolery of Set Diagram to the let’s-empty-the-flat-files overkill of the Marks show, Mr. Winters would appear to be a painter who’s begun to harbor significant doubts about the viability of his medium. As a result, he’s begun to grasp at straws. No wonder the recent work is all over the place, and no place at all. Terry Winters: Set Diagram is at Lehmann Maupin, 39 Greene Street, and Terry Winters: Drawings is at Matthew Marks Gallery, 523 West 24th Street, both until April 28.