One of the leading artists of the post–Jasper Johns/Robert Rauschenberg generation, Terry Winters wields his brush with the kind of knowledge and conviction that make periodic talk of the death of painting seem empty. Bitumen (1986) is a work from the first decade of his career, when Winters was exploring such basic natural processes as crystal formation, fungal growth, and (as in this oil on linen painting) cellular division and was equally immersed in the natural history of painting itself.
Winters's training at New York's High School of Art and Design and, later, at the Pratt Institute left him curious about his medium, and he began grinding and making his own paints. Attracted to bitumen, a dark pigment made from coal tar, but aware that its use is responsible for the blistering surfaces of many nineteenth-century paintings, he obtained a stable, modified version from the French firm Lefranc & Bourgeois for use in this painting. On full display here is what Winters calls the "transparency and viscosity" of bitumen, which he extended with umbers and other earth colors. Thick, juicy modeling alternates with passages of almost aqueous translucency. The material itself seems to partake of the painting's theme of organic growth, which is appropriate given the carbon base of the titular pigment. The tabular array of the composition, on the other hand, with its forms laid out like specimens on a table, refers to the rational ordering schemes employed by naturalists, as well as Johns's splayed compositions and the later works of Philip Guston. Thus the painting proposes a meeting of nature and culture that is at the heart of Winters's work.
Since 1990 Winters has turned his gaze from organic motifs to the digital presentation of graphic information, appropriating and overlaying imagery to drive his interrelated practices of painting, drawing, and printmaking. In this respect he was one of the first painters to embrace cyberspace and postmodern information theory. Winters has held fast to traditional artistic media as the appropriate vehicle for these explorations, thus extending the viability and possibilities of painting.
Bitumen is the first work by this innovative artist to enter the National Gallery's collection. Its acquisition was made possible by a generous gift from the Richard S. Zeisler Fund. The addition of this early but classic work by Winters will help the gallery tell the story of painting in the 1980s, when artists such as Johns, Anselm Kiefer, Brice Marden, and others proved the continuing vitality of expressive abstract painting.