Terry Winters

Monkey Puzzle


Terry Winters born 1949
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 2750 x 3664 mm
Purchased with assistance from the Eli Broad Family Foundation 1988

Not on display

Display caption

The image in the painting is derived from a biology textbook illustration of a circulation system. Winters is interested in the organizing structures and systems beneath the seeming randomness of nature's complexity. His paintings are metaphors for social structures, means of communication and modes of living. They also represent psychological states and human relationships. The principal forms in the painting are inverted mirror images of each other and suggest mythical male and female figures. Winters is concerned to retain evidence of the history of the making of the painting and allows previous intentions and changes of mind to remain visible.

Gallery label, September 2004

Catalogue entry

T05076 Monkey Puzzle 1987

Oil on canvas 2750 × 3664 (108 1/4 × 144 1/4)
Inscribed ‘T Winters MONKEY PUZZLE 1987’ on back of canvas t.l.
Purchased from Daniel Weinberg Gallery, Los Angeles (Grant-in-Aid) with assistance from the Eli Broad Family Foundation 1988
Exh: Terry Winters: Painting and Drawing, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, July–Aug. 1987, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Sept.–Nov. 1987, Albert and Vera List Visual Arts Center, MIT, Cambridge, Mass., Sept.–Nov. 1987, University Art Museum, Santa Barbara, Jan.–Feb. 1988 (20, repr. in col.)
Lit: Phyllis Plous, ‘Mutatis Mutandis’, in Phyllis Plous, Terry Winters: Painting and Drawing, exh. cat., Walker Art Center, Minneapolis 1987, p.18, repr. no.20 (col.) and on cover (detail); Jeremy Lewison, ‘Terry Winters: Painting as Metaphor’ in Edinburgh International: Reason and Emotion in Contemporary Art, exh. cat., Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh 1987, p.146, repr.; Tate Gallery Report 1986 – 8, 1988, repr. (col.). Also repr: Lisa Phillips, Terry Winters, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York 1991, p.128 (col.)

This painting depicts two looping forms in outline, one in black with white and the other in white with black, each form being broadly an inverted mirror image of the other. In addition, there is a white, cross-shaped form of a floral appearance towards the centre and, immediately below it, another cross of less complexity.

Winters began painting in the early 1970s at a time when a number of American painters were looking for ways in which to push painting further away from Abstract Expressionism towards a more reductive idiom, which would highlight the essential elements of painting. The process of painting, rather than expressive content, became the subject of the work. Winters was preoccupied by similar concerns and was particularly interested in the material nature of paint and the history of pigment. Through his exploration of this subject he became increasingly interested in the mineral, biological and geographical sources of pigment and recognised a metaphorical potential in them. This marked the beginning of an engagement with the world of science, particularly of micro-organisms. His paintings since then have made reference to morphology, crystallography and genetics, as well as to architecture. By employing images borrowed from such sources, Winters has been able to invest apparently abstract paintings with meanings relating to notions of creation, of both life and painting. For Winters there are parallels between the two processes. Although Winters makes use of highly specific images he does not expect or desire the viewer to identify them. As Roberta Smith has written: ‘[The] actual source [of his imagery] is not important, however, the sense that there is a source, a larger referent [than merely the artist's private and personal vocabulary]... is crucial, and it is this combination of knowing and not knowing that accounts for much of their power’ (‘Text’, Terry Winters: Schema, West Islip, New York 1988, [p.7]). In their sense of ambiguity there are links between Winters's paintings and Surrealism.

A precedent for the use of biological and primal images may be found in the paintings of the mid-1940s of Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman among others. However, Winters's approach to such subject matter is different, as Lisa Phillips has written: ‘In contrast to these artists, who used organic forms emblematic of virgin birth and the creation myth, Winters uses generic, diagrammatic forms, drawn from pre-existing sources, and these are frequently repeated within a painting or from one painting to the next’ (Phillips 1991, p.18).

In an interview with the cataloguer on 31 October 1988, held in the artist's studio, Winters stated that the principal forms in ‘Monkey Puzzle’ were derived from human circulatory systems, which he had seen illustrated in a medical textbook (he cannot recall its title). However, he stresses that, although this was the source of the images, the painting itself is not a literal depiction of such systems. He commented: ‘While the paintings sometimes appear to function as an illustration of a pre-existing structure, I'm interested in how the process of transcription and depiction create pictures where meanings are open-ended’. In an interview with Scott Gutterman (Journal of Art, vol.4, Sept. 1991, p.39) Winters stated: ‘In my paintings I try to set something up that seems to be about factual description but really isn't.’ Like all of Winters's work, T05076 has metaphorical implications. Nevertheless, the artist acknowledged that he likes to start from a specific form or subject because he does not ‘want to totally invent it’. He commented in the interview with the cataloguer, ‘The things I've based my work on are facts that exist, and nobody really understands exactly how or why. Through my paintings I have, by definition, made objects that are purely invented, artificial, and products of my imagination’. During the course of making a painting his interest in the form becomes clearer ‘or is illuminated in some way’. He stated that, ‘In making the painting [T05076] I never thought that I would end up with this kind of structure’, thereby suggesting that the painting was improvised to a large extent. He told Gutterman (1991, p.38): ‘I have all these ideas when I begin a painting. But they're only ideas, and as soon as the work begins, there's a whole other set of unpredictable, less controllable aspects that are put into play’.

Although T05076 is based on a scientific illustration, it also has broadly figurative associations. While Winters does not deny this, for him it is also one of his most abstract works. In the interview with the cataloguer he stated:

I think it is part of a whole set of activities I was involved in, pushing paintings to be even more abstract and diagrammatic. So it was strange it ended up being both figurative and abstract, that it would take on not so much an anthropomorphic quality but that these forms and configurations actually [would] have a kind of personality. I was struck by the sense that it is possible to read them as personalities and that ... these kinds of looping structures - whether or not they are circulatory systems or a river system or any number of things that they might be - ... can be read and deciphered as figures.

When questioned specifically about the nature of the two forms the artist acknowledged that they might be read as male and female. Although he had not intended them to be so, he had himself interpreted them this way. ‘That reading had a certain psychological resonance for me.’

The painting evolved from two drawings which had been part of the series of seventy-five works on paper entitled ‘Schema’, executed in 1985–6. In this series of drawings, employing at various times graphite, water-colour, pastel, ink, chalk, oil and carbon among other materials, Winters made a range of images which, in some cases, related to previous paintings and, in others, anticipated later works. These were the first drawings, according to Smith, to be as physically elaborate as Winters's paintings and the first to embrace colour extensively. As with his previous work, the images were drawn from a variety of sources relating to the animal, vegetable and mineral world as seen in diagrams, drawings and photographs. One, a gouache depicting five crystal shapes, was the basis for the cross-shaped motifs towards the centre of T05076 (repr. Terry Winters: Schema, 1988, no.69 in col.). The five crystals are painted in black on a variegated grey ground. The artist explained that, before he incorporated the forms based on the circulatory systems, T05076 contained more of these crystal shapes which he subsequently eliminated. It is Winters's practice to rework the canvas continuously, often leaving forms half-painted out and using the pentimenti to indicate the history of the making of the painting.

The other drawing upon which the painting was based adumbrated the motif on the right of the painting and is fairly faithfully transcribed (repr. ibid., no.63 in col.; the work reproduced as no.63 in the ‘Schema’ series in Phillips 1991 is, in fact, no.55). This drawing, in oil and graphite, depicts a linear form based on a circulatory system, on a ground of black and blue-grey.

‘Monkey Puzzle’ was one of the first paintings to be developed from the ‘Schema’ series. This series included a number of drawings which the artist stated ‘broke new ground’ and which he knew he wanted to develop into paintings. Most of his previous paintings had been concerned with botanical and molecular life. Now Winters was developing a vocabulary concerned with human biology, which he has increasingly employed in paintings and drawings since 1987. In a series of nineteen drawings executed in 1987, and therefore contemporary with ‘Monkey Puzzle’, Winters continued to explore images related to organs, vascular sytems, embryonic forms and the interior spaces of the body. Earlier paintings had made reference to human organisms in the main obliquely, but one work in particular had overtly announced Winters's interest in this subject, namely ‘Dumb Compass’, 1985 (collection Larry Gagosian, repr. Phillips 1991, p.99 in col.), which contains forms manifestly related to male and female sexual organs.

‘Monkey Puzzle’ is unusually linear among Winters's paintings which hitherto had principally depicted solid or rounded forms bodied out with colour. This emphasis on line was entirely intentional and closely relates to the drawings. It was subsequently developed in a number of paintings, drawings and prints (see works repr. in Phillips 1991, pp.133–45).

Although many of the drawings in ‘Schema’ are highly coloured, there are a number which are largely monochromatic. Winters has consistently employed different tonalities of black and white in his paintings but, since the mid-1980s, he has widened his palette and made richly coloured paintings. In his use of a dark, limited palette in T05076, therefore, Winters not only echoed the drawings in the ‘Schema’ series on which the painting was based but returned to a practice he had employed in the early 1980s. The emphasis on black and white is particularly noticeable in works such as those belonging to the ‘Plane of Incidence’ series of 1980–1 (repr. Phillips 1991, pp.38–9 in col.). Winters suggested to the cataloguer that the restriction of colour ‘was a way of focusing more on the linear and spatial aspects’ of ‘Monkey Puzzle’, and that it was balanced by his working simultaneously on ‘Montgolfier’, 1987, which ‘had a much more obvious relationship with colour’ with its brightly coloured orbs (Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, repr. Phillips 1991, p.109 in col.). Indeed, Winters considers black to be a richly expressive colour with which he can achieve considerable tonal variation. He explained to the cataloguer a further reason for restricting his palette: ‘There was also that quality in that particular drawing in “Schema” [no.63] that had to do with a greyness ... I think [I] was able to focus my energies on what I felt were the most compelling aspects about these configurations without that wide range of chromatic things going on.’

Shortly after painting T05076 Winters made one other painting which he regards as having an emphasis on the contrast of black and white, ‘Black and White Manifold’ (Estate of Fredrik Roos, repr. Phillips 1991, p.131 in col.). However, here the intensity of the sombre palette is relieved by the buff coloured ground at the top of the painting. A further example of a painting related in theme and colour to T05076 is ‘Set’, 1989 (collection Mr and Mrs Harry W. Anderson, repr. Phillips 1991, p.133 in col.).

The painting was executed in the artist's studio in New York over a period of three months. It was painted in a vertical position and was always orientated in the same direction. The paint has been applied thickly and the forms are alternately gouged out of the ground, using the pressure of the brush, or built up in relief in a series of oozing and flowing lines which endow the work with rhythm and movement and a substantial material presence. The painting was continually reworked, particularly the form on the right. At times the forms were painted over the ground while it was still wet, which resulted in the impression that the forms are carved into it in places. The forms were painted with sweeping gestures. ‘The loops and the scale of the gestures are related to my size and the arc of my arm’, the artist commented.

The title of T05076 is derived from the common name of the tree otherwise known as Araucaria araucana (monkey puzzle tree), a Chile pine whose configuration of branches is said to be difficult for monkeys to climb. The artist stated that the complicated linear system in the painting suggested to him the complexity of the form of a monkey puzzle tree.

This entry has been approved by the artist.

Published in:
Tate Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, London 1996