Jackie Winsor

by Craig Gholson


Jackie Winsor, Burnt Piece, 1977-78, cement, burnt wood, and wire mesh, 33 7/8 x 34 x 34".

Jackie Winsor talks to Craig Gholson about the influences of color on her sculptures and the discoveries she comes across through her work, as well as the dichotomous elemental impact of fire.



Craig Gholson Jackie, your new work seems quite shocking to me. There seem to be quite a few changes since your show at the Modern, in ’79.

Jackie Winsor What’s surprising about them?

CG I think it’s how . . . how blatant the color is. Blatant is not . . .

JW . . . a word I’d use to describe them!

CG Interestingly, the sculpture you dragged through the streets has the most color in it. You wouldn’t look at it and think that. There are many layers of colored paint but it just so happens the outer color is dark and the dragging process didn’t bring to the surface as much color . . .

JW . . . to make fuchsia show.

CG . . . as one expected. It’s another one of those processes that was introduced that didn’t have the desired effect, in this case it had a more subtle effect.

JW I thought the outer layer would be skinned off by dragging it across a rough surface (the street). What happened is that the dragging created a friction which created heat and mixed the paint. So it created paint blends . . . like abstract expressionism. It didn’t scratch off a layer and leave one of the layers of green. It made more of these gray mixes . . . you said it had more color?

CG I said it had a broader range of colors.

JW More painterly, maybe, not more colorful.

CG But it didn’t end up looking like that. That was one of the cases where the process and the ideal of the process seem so far apart.

JW The pieces I’m working on that you’ve seen are, well, one is bright red and the other a kind of fleshy pink and the inside of the fleshy pink one is vibrant blue with mirrors and colored cloth. It isn’t painterly in the sense that there is a lot of paint, but it’s colorful and the surfaces, although they’ve been worked on a lot (very delicately to get the pink color), are not painterly in the way that the thick paint is on the dragged piece.

CG The lacquered surfaces of the new pieces have 50 layers of paint on them.

JW They’re transparent. Each layer reveals the one below. These are very thin layers of brilliant color, thin layers of glazing, of vibrant color, which remains translucent. The final color is vibrating the levels of paint beneath. They’re more painterly in the use of color underneath. It’s an identifiably bright colored. What was the point you were making about that?

CG Well, what is shocking for me is that now one can look back at all of your work and see that that interest was there. That it is the particular interest that has surfaced, is what surprises me. It comes as a revelation . . . Well, because it was revealed. I mean you could go back as far as the rope pieces and figure out that there was some painterly sense involved in those very early pieces.

JW Well, I used to be a painter when I was in college. So I don’t think you lose that. The part of the color that interests me is not just color but how the content quality of color equals qualities inherent in other materials that I use. Like in the piece that’s red with the mirror and has a burnt sphere removed from its center. The red in some way, on an experiential level, equals the burning of the interior.

CG The form of your work (the cube and the sphere) and their human volume and scale have remained constant. The variables within that form are, simplistically, the surface and color you choose. What went into making a surface, how does a flesh tone and a mirror come into play?

JW I need to backtrack to the pieces that preceded them. A long time ago, back to the show at the Museum of Modern Art, I built a cube out of concrete and wood and I burned the wood out of it. Part of wanting to do that was having destruction be a part of the process of construction. It was also about form and force being two units working together. After that, I built the piece that was meant to contain an explosion, the containment of force as the unknown, as the ingredient of the unknown into the materials. I tried to imbue the materials with that quality. So I created a situation—a cube that could withstand stress and then I brought the materials, the explosives into it. They were to have a similar relation as the fire did to the wood. Except what I asked for was the unknown. On the day this unknown was to enter into the piece the explosives people didn’t pay too much attention. They had the wrong explosives and they used them. I wanted a low-intensity, high-impact explosive, they used a high-intensity, low-impact explosive and it blew the structure up rather than hitting like a hammer on the surface of the interior. The unknown blew the whole thing apart, physically and emotionally. Because of that moment in the piece when it was blown apart and how big that moment felt to me I became aware of my own incredible vulnerability. The next step that I made along the line was to build another cube. What I wanted to do was work with the vulnerability I had experienced in the moment the piece exploded. Only this time I wanted to be made to experience the underlying strength under vulnerability. I took the cube shape and I broke it open.

Jackie Winsor, Open Cube, 1983, plaster, pigment, wire lathe, and wood, 96 x 72 x 3". Courtesy Paula Cooper.

CG What did you get?

JW I thought I was going to have a plus sign. What I got was a red Christian cross. What I got was everybody’s parochial school training, you know “Hail Mary’s” etc., confession. I heard all of that and that piece became a pivotal piece for me in understanding what I was working with at the time. After doing that piece I spent the whole year feeling so vulnerable. I was vulnerable to everything, oh god, it was a terrible year. It was a first. Before that I had thought in some way a piece mirrors you but in this sculpture I began to realize how much I mirrored it. You give to it and it gives to you . . . and the degree to which you experience that, it is determined by scale. Then my interest turned again to content. What’s in there, what’s happening with those materials. I wanted to see that if it projects its content to you, can you then receive that content and project a more ideal content back. I wanted to work with the matter, the material content.

CG Did you get scared? It’s a fairly risky thing to put out. How vulnerable did you want to make yourself in making the piece before you could stop being vulnerable.

JW I hadn’t planned on putting any specific amount of time on it. I just needed to get a piece of information. It’s not like I’m setting myself up . . . I didn’t know how long it would take or its results, it was something I learned. You invent and you discover and that was one of the things I discovered. I invented this little piece of information. A cube breaks open into a Christian cross . . . who would have guessed? And what I discovered about it was that you mirror the piece and you mirror the scale. The scale seemed to be somewhere in the vicinity of a year in relationship to my life.

CG The next pieces that emerged are mirrors on cubes, which mirrors . . .

JW Mirrors, mirror, mirrored what? (laughter)

CG If you use them to enclose a surface they do in fact mirror people, however, those mirrors are also used to conceal. But used in the interior of a sculpture as they are in yours, the mirrors are not an aggressive force to keep you out, they mirror their own interior.

JW Well, on the outside they push you out and they pull you in at the same time.

CG On a vanity level.

JW I wanted the fleshy-pink colored sculpture to be about intimacy. I wanted this one to have very nice feelings about it, If I’m going to spend a year feeling that, well, it might as well be nice. Outside, the pink is like the intimacy when you approach something, the physicalness of it, touch, the appeal of the eyes, visual appeal, seductive. In the mirror you also get to see yourself, so it projects your physical presence. When you look inside the sculpture, however, the intimacy there is your own internal intimacy and the mirror reflects only itself. You never can see your reflection in there. Your inner reflection is more illusive.

Jackie Winsor, Inner Burnt Sphere, 1985, wood, glass, and paint, 31" sq. Photo by Amanda Means, 1985.

CG I think it’s true that mirrors are a very curious combination of noises in that they reflect everything that’s there but also peacefulness and calm, surface-wise.

JW Well, the piece disappears, actually. The mass disappears with the mirror and you appear, the viewer appears, so it gets to be there and not be there, a hit. However, the mirror in the orange piece is a little different because it has a pristine quality, sharp edges . . . the burnt sphere out of the center and the sumptuousness of its red equals fire and burntness . . . the event was pristine.

CG It’s like fire and ice.

JW Absolutely.

CG The red edges, the volcanic aspects; it has the burnt sphere in the middle so what it involves seems very closely associated with the earth, like seismic eruptions . . . Those are elements I think you were playing around with in the exploded piece. But then here’s a piece where those elements, like the color red, and the idea of fire and burning are involved. But you didn’t actually explode it.

JW I didn’t think of volcanoes. I was thinking of fire on the outside and fire on the inside. The first sculpture is pink with mirror and blue mirror on the inside with cheesecloth. The other one is many fine layers of shades of red on the outer structure of the cube with mirrors on the six sides and a sphere burned out of the center. I wanted the inside and the outside to equal each other. One is like the residue of burning and the other is the sumptuousness of fire. In terms of making the sculptures, what I wanted was a quality of remembering rather than the quality of being there. I wanted to have this distance, the sumptuousness of distance rather than the trauma of the event. In the pieces before that the event was in them. The fire and the explosion took place inside them.

CG Was part of the situation.

JW Right. In this piece a fire took place in it, too, but the fire was used to create a shape, it was chiseled, carved, drilled, sanded, and burned on the inside to get this shape and it’s there. The shape is there as much as the fire is. It doesn’t have the impact of elements out of control. It’s harnessed, mastered. That mastery gives it a distance, so the scale of the fire is more in range. The scale of events when they take place, when you’re experiencing them, is huge. What you might remember is the sumptuousness of an event, not necessarily the trauma. That’s what I had in mind as far as scale. Why do you think these pieces are surprising?

CG To me the sculptures seem more idealistic. Not in the terms that they come from an idea that you had and then you made that piece but they seem more in control. In that way they’re closer to the ideal. I know you’re still dealing with unknown elements and the risks are as great but . . .

JW You were saying earlier that the difference between the earlier pieces and the later ones is that the earlier have an actual eruption, the actual event in it, whereas the later seem to be the vibration of an explosion. Right, like a volcano . . .

CG Well, what it is is not the actual cataclysmic event.

JW It’s like watching it, at a distance. That’s the distance I wanted that I call memory. The difference is not having the vibration actually within it. I have been interested in the idea of a volcano because in it there’s destruction and birth. It spews up fire, gas, and molten lava. It creates, if it’s near water, the lava creates land. It is the birth of the land, the birth of the continent.

CG It’s beautiful and enticing. One is drawn to it.

JW In a very elemental way. I’ve had these volcano photographs around that have these extreme colors. The red that I use in the sculpture is from fire, from volcanoes. I made the paint to be fire. I painted it so that it was fire. Very sumptuous.

CG Why do you think you were drawn to the colors you’ve used in these pieces?

JW Well, I used orange in the open cube piece. It just seemed like a good idea. And then when it turned into a Christian cross . . . I suppose it’s the most difficult color to use.

CG Why would that be the most difficult color?

JW I was mixing it with plaster and the more brilliant the color the more it looked like a softy ice cream. The plaster whitens it down. and if you see it in shade, it’s more beautiful than if you see it in bright light. If you absolutely saturate the plaster it still looks awful. So I spent a lot of time just trying to get the color to be okay. It always seems too raw to me. In the more recent pieces I wanted the color to be like fire. Fire is sumptuous, translucent, transparent, it’s like veils, it’s hot. The result of fire, however, is burned and black. It’s the flame itself that is incredibly sumptuous. So the way I painted it was in the same fashion, I wanted it to be very sumptuous.

Jackie Winsor, Pink and Blue Piece (detail), 1985, wood, glass, and paint, 31" sq. Photo by Amanda Means.

CG Those are colors that we closely associate with spirituality. In the hierarchy of colors, in the spiritual world, reds and oranges are the highest, I think violets are next.

JW When I first used the red it was much more reminiscent of blood, whether it was my intention or not. It was much more opaque and being in that shape, the cross . . .

CG You can’t create this piece that is a big red cross and have people come up to you and tell you stories about absolution and their Catholic childhoods and then end up making me feel that my perception that those colors have a spiritual association is incorrect.

JW Red is associated with blood, pain, and suffering, right?

CG That’s one side of the coin. I think it also has a connotation of the flame being ignited within you and transforming you into a higher form of being.

JW In the cross-shaped one?

CG Fire can be associated with the phoenix, destruction is inherent. This idea that you will be reborn and will rise above the destruction is also inherent, right? Those are all spiritual concepts.

JW So what is it that you are asking me?

CG I’m not asking you anything. What I would like to get you to admit—

JW (laughter)

CG —is that you full-well know when you used those colors that there’s a spiritual connection. That you’re not some ninny that stumbled upon it . . . not Lorelei makes sculpture and all of a sudden she’s . . .

JW What you’re asking me is do I have any spiritual interest in color? I think, I’m not very scholarly about Christianity and I’m certainly not very scholarly about any other kinds of things, so I can’t really answer that question because I don’t really know about it. One of the things I’m very interested in is mastering certain things. I’m very fastidious about certain areas that interest me. So what interests me at the moment is penetrating the anatomy of what content is. To understand the abstract principles that are there, to see what you can actually do with it, what you can move around; what you can move around with your art work, what you can move around in the abstraction, the art and what you can move around in the life-part of it. I’m interested in how those contents mirror each other and how you can move parts, parts of the abstraction, parts of the life. I’m really interested in how those contents mirror each other and how you can move parts, parts of the abstraction, parts of the life. I’m really interested in it right down to the littlest detail: watching it. This plays back and forth between me and the work. Part of the area I’m working with is fire, in the sculptural, carving-away sense. And the illusion of fire. Dealing with the real and the illusions together in one thing. I’m interested, but rather than spiritual (I don’t quite know what that means), I am interested in mastering something, to know it well. I seem to want to know a lot about red and fire and black. How they all play with each other and what they feel like. The difference between using the red and the shape that turns out to be a cross seems to he more a pain and suffering in our psychology but over there, in this new piece, the red is sumptuous with something that’s burned-out, destroyed, or carved or shaped and it can actually be quite a wonderful experience. What’s the difference? I’m interested in that area, that range, and as I said earlier, what I seemed to learn about that is how to give it distance through memory. How you can include memory as a distancing element to the pain and suffering . . .

CG What memory would seem to do would indicate somehow that the pain and suffering had been incorporated into your experience.

JW Intended. I think the difference is that one is intended and the other seems to come from being a victim. The whole idea of the cross and the martyrs, seems, from our perception of it, not intended. Martyrdom seems more “victim” in our experience, but to choose something takes away the pain and suffering. I’m interested in, how one experiences those things. What gives distance and what pulls you in. What turns the volume up and what allows the volume to stay at a nice level. What engages you . . . all that.

Winter 1986
The cover of BOMB 14