One of the leading artists of the post–Johns/Rauschenberg generation, Terry Winters wields his brush with a 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 canvas) cellular division, and when he was equally immersed in the natural history of painting itself.
Winters' training at the High School of Art and Design in Manhattan and then at Pratt Institute (class of 1971) left him curious about his medium, and he began grinding and making his own paints. Attracted to bitumen, which is made from coal tar, but aware that its use was responsible for the poor condition of many 19th-century paintings, he obtained a stable, modified version from the French firm Lefranc & Bourgeois. On full display in this painting (one of four named for pigments) 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 basis of the titular pigment. The tabular array of the composition, on the other hand, with its forms laid out like specimens on a table, recalls the rational ordering schemes of the naturalist as well as the splayed compositions of Johns and the later Guston. Thus the painting enacts a meeting of nature and culture that is at the heart of Winters' work.
Since 1990 Winters has turned his gaze from organic motifs to the digital presentation of graphic information (including weather maps, architectural plans, and statistical charts), 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 the possibilities of painting.