If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.
Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing
A BREATH for Terry Winters
“The earth is a satellite of the moon.”
Of fresh paint
Slides right past civilization
On its way to tongue
This handkerchief is pulled
With agonizing slowness to reveal
Something we’re all going to vote for
And in this corner, nothing
Is ever cornered, but used as a model
For “The Infinite Freedom of Circularity”
As invisible as growth
Except the steering wheel
Is not connected
And of course it is the part
You are unwilling to part with
Like a spit curl on a first date
There, hovering like a coelenterate
A heart is being offered, and yes
Amazingly, is being accepted
Unfathomable! The economics of love
Puts the whole thing to rest
Easy as a piece of advice
Speaking directly — it is, & luckily
We jump out of its way. This here compels
A complete reevaluation of the system!
Hand it to you
Just pick it up
and keep orbiting
Bob Holman Do you like doing interviews?
Terry Winters Well, (long pause) I could. I have nothing to take the initiative with. It’s more of a serve and volley thing. (pause) So, (laughter) the ball’s in your court.
BH There’s a red brush that looks like a lipstick, Japanese, eyelash by your sink. It’s been recently used.
TW It was. A brush used for striping paint—a striping brush. Like they use on cars. What’s the name of that guy in California?
BH Big Daddy Roth?
TW Sign painters use them.
BH When you were a kid, did somebody tell you that you had talent?
TW I was encouraged by friends and family.
BH Did any of them have talent?
TW All of them. Were you encouraged to write poetry?
BH When I took my first poem up to Mrs. Mine in the third grade, she said, “That’s a great poem, Robert, where did you copy it from?” That’s about all the encouragement you’d need.
TW There you go. Qualified encouragement. Suspicious encouragement.
BH The best kind. (pause) You’ve got a show coming up at the Whitney. Are you looking forward to it?
TW Yes. It’s been in Los Angeles, so I’ve seen it there. It’s very useful. It’s an opportunity to see a lot of work together. To mark a certain point in the ongoing work.
BH Are there things that you saw in Los Angeles that you had forgotten about?
TW No, not so much a matter of forgetting as an opportunity to reevaluate things. That helps fuel the engine that keeps you going.
BH Some things spark you on to new sparks.
TW Yes, it helps point you in directions you might want to push the work or change things.
BH What kind of things?
TW Things that have to do with my relationship to the imagery and to the way the images get painted or discovered in the process of painting.
BH When you speak about following directions and pushing, your images seem to be growing, pushing against the edges of themselves. They seem to be evocations of your processes. They talk about taking a walk or making love or making popcorn. There are explosions in all of those things.
TW Definitely in making love and making popcorn. (laughter)
BH Or, I was wondering if you see one and think, “Oh there’s that green again! I forgot about that green.” Or do you go back to a particular image…
TW No, it’s more about the way the paintings feel to me now. And remembering what it felt like painting them, and the kind of resonance that happens between those two things. You don’t see things right away, sometimes.
BH Yeah, I know. (laughter)
TW If ever. I’m interested in how I’m feeling now when I paint and having the opportunity to look at all this different work allows me to locate myself. Does that make sense?
BH (pause) Yes, it seems very logical. Thank God you have a show at the Whitney, I don’t know what you’d do. (laughter)
TW You have to collaborate with circumstance.
BH They look like intellectual things, academic—scientific things, you know?
TW It’s a disguise.
BH You destroy them or they’re amplified by the treatment. The forms themselves are cerebral, but then something very physical goes on with them, turns them into action. The new ones…there definitely seems to be a change going on.
TW Yes, and even more since the show and the catalogue got put together.
BH Broader, vaster.
TW More direct.
BH More sex.
TW More sex, if that’s possible. (laughter) Yes, definitely more sex. More dangerous sex.
BH Yes, there are no safe paintings. What were those big Indian picture books?
TW The Tantric art books?
BH Some of the newer work reminds me of them.
TW Tantric art was important to me. I was still in school when that book came out. But, in some way, my new work has aspirations in those directions. Where they function as diagrammatic equivalents. Paintings built like a machine that can induce certain meditative states.
BH There were two of those books. We used to take LSD and look at them, get lost for awhile.
TW Yes, they’re about that kind of psychic place.
BH Did you ever paint on acid?
TW (laughter) No.
BH Do you have a ritual before you start painting?
TW No, I have very irregular work habits.
BH That’s good. (laughter)
TW Did you ever write a poem on acid?
BH Oh, yes, I wrote a book on acid! (laughter) I wrote my first book on acid. It took me one night to write this book. It was called “My First Book.” Once I got that out of the way the rest was easy.
TW Better than “My Last Book.” Henri Michaux did a lot of experiments with drawing while on mescaline and wrote about it beautifully. He did these drawings in Geneva with a doctor in the psychiatric hospital.
BH Oh, this looks exactly like the way your brain melts after about the third or fourth hour!
TW They’re fantastic in the way they describe different mental states.
BH This is almost like a brain graph. Phew.
TW He started these in the late ’50s.
BH Geneva would certainly be a safe place to do mescaline.
TW Yes, a very clinical situation. It was like all the early LSD experiments, very controlled environments.
BH (reading from Michaux) “There remains a tendency toward fragmentation. When I take up again the fine-nibbed pen that leads to the tenuous tracery, after some time, prone also to a slight dizziness, which imparts a vibratile quality to the light lines in the space it creates, I find myself in a fleeting, familiar, immense and immensely-riddled world, where all at once is and is not, shows and does not show, contains and does not contain, drawings of the essential wavering, where half-glimpsed faces peep, now with one expression, now with another, ever indeterminate, and non-definitive in that aspect.”
TW That’s abstraction.
BH The face part, I think, is mescaline. It’s the basic human ego/survival mechanism, to place human features on that kind of abstraction.
TW Maybe the mescaline makes you more sensitive to it, but it’s something that’s very essential about how the brain decodes information. You know that famous quote from Leonardo’s notebook about seeing figures in the stains on a wall? There seems to be almost a biological need to invest images with those kinds of readings.
BH Like the way my kids see a diver and Mickey Mouse in your painting.
TW It’s all true. That’s one of the essential qualities of abstraction—there’s not a one-to-one relationship between the image and what it stands for in the world. There are shifting meanings which have the characteristics of metaphor.
BH Is it a constant, conscious effort to keep that imagery out of the work, or is it a training you go through that allows you to move beyond that?
TW I try to get more into the work. We’re allowed to let it happen in ways—you control it, you edit it, and it pops up and you end up in the finished work choosing what you want to allow. But they just get revealed all over the place. And it’s part of what I think is a truer reflection of what I’m really working on. They’re really starting to come in all over the place. Hallucinogens make people more aware and relaxed about those sorts of things happening and they make you more aware of the metaphor, the connection between things. That’s why you brought up the question about the ass in the painting or the Tantra art book and the connection to that. Those things are all tied together. Whether or not they’re drug induced—there’s something about that state of either making or viewing a painting and seeing it as a picture. That seems to be the big excitement to me about paintings. You know? You get lost in the space of it. It’s a product of the imagination.
BH Do you remember that show of yours where you had a thousand drawings, every one like the page of a book? Boy, that was an explosion when you took a walk in those rooms. What was that show called?
BH Is it a book?
TW Yes, it actually became a book. I did it with ULAE. We reproduced each drawing to actual size to keep all the work together as one piece.
BH Now ULAE, you can never tell when those guys do a book, whether it’s going to look like a book. Is this a book that looks like a book? It’s got a binding and…
TW Well, it looks like a book to me. Yes, it’s got a binding. You want to see one?
BH Yes, that would be great. “There, hovering like a coelenterate.” Just happen to have it here, huh? You thought I had an altar. Terry has gone to get the paper towels. But, I’d like you to know that when he’s finished using a paper towel, Terry dries it off and reuses it. (laughter) This is great, Terry. Coelenterates. Terry just walked out of the room. (laughter from distance) I’m going to do the rest of this interview myself. OK, I’m looking at this incredible book, Schema. There’s a drawing that looks like both reels of an eight-millimeter movie projector, twirling, and yet also has a coelenterate edge. Here is a bunch of purple penises that all together form into one genital blot. No, this is puffball with coelenterate. Oh, here he comes back.
TW I’m back. Is this wire supposed to be plugged in somewhere?
BH Yes, it’s supposed to be plugged into your left ear. (laughter) I’m gonna plug this in and see if I can hear you think.
TW This is going to be a nightmare to transcribe. We should do it like William Burroughs, cut up notes.
BH OK, I’m plugging this little chromium switch into…now we are not only talking, we are amplifying on things. You wanna hear yourself think?
BH Coelenterate is a class of animals.
TW What structure?
BH Sponges, if I recall. There it is, the hovering coelenterate.
TW Now I want to hear your connection with the Tantric book because I have it right here.
BH Oh, you’re kidding me, there it is! The Tantra Art book has materialized on Terry’s desk! This is not a set-up. “Thou art formless, though possessing form, for by means of Maya, thou dost assume innumerable forms according to thy desire.”
TW That says it.
BH You can start transcribing now, we’ve just moved onto a higher plane. Do you have a brush in your hand to start with? You just look at the canvas.
BH Is it thought-paint or is it paint-think?
TW Paint-think, I think somebody already described that situation.
BH Shoot! Who said that? Descartes observer consciousness. Optical analysis by Descartes included an experiment in which he removed the eye of an ox—didn’t Bunuel do this?—scraped the back of the eye to make it transparent and observed on the retina the inverted image of the same.
Oh, here’s your catalogue! This is what I was talking about. The “big reds,” I call them, oh, like this, Five of Eight. Those are beautiful, recent, 1990.
TW Those paintings seem to be pictures of things, but you don’t know quite what. They describe physical forces at work. The images aren’t only an illustration of what they’re referring to, but somehow equivalents.
BH OK, I will read you this section from Williams’ “Paterson:”
(The multiple seed,
packed tight with detail, soured,
is lost in the flux and the mind,
distracted, floats off in the same
“Scum” is such a strange word.
TW It makes me think of waterfalls. As a child, upstate in the summer, I would see these waterfalls that had enormous amounts of white scum at the bottom. And there are the falls in “Paterson.” That’s the reference in the poem.
Rolling in, top up,
under, thrust and recoil, a great clatter:
lifted as air, boated, multicolored, a
wash of seas—
from mathematics to particulars—
divided as the dew,
floating mists to be rained down and
regathered into a river, that flows
shells and animalcules
generally and so to man,
It is the Falls! “Scum,” not a pretty word. There’s another kind of beauty at work in your paintings. Do you intentionally destroy beauty to find beauty in your paintings?
TW No, I’m not looking…(phone rings)
BH Terry is now answering the phone and looking up scum in the dictionary. Now, if only he could be painting, too. (We’re going to get him to do three things at once today. Four things.)
TW Do you search for beauty in your poems?
BH Yes. Search isn’t the word.
TW It’s “find.”
BH That’s it. It’s revealed. (Terry looks up “scum.”)
TW “A thin layer of impurities which forms on the top of liquids or bodies of water, often as a result of boiling or fermentation.” That’s why, it’s refuse. “The worthless parts of things. A low, despicable, worthless person.”
BH Where does it come from?
TW Now this is the other interesting thing, it’s akin to the Greek word, foam. That’s the other really beautiful association. ‘Cause when I saw it on these waterfalls, it was huge piles of white, bubbly foam. And I asked what it was and they said, “Scum.” (laughter) It is a confusing word. I guess when scum becomes foam it’s more interesting. Foam’s a beautiful word.
BH Yes, foam. It doesn’t have that consonant in there to send it into the gutter. What’s the word after “scum?”
TW Scumble. To scumble in painting is to “soften the outlines of the color by applying a thin layer of opaque color.”
BH Do you scumble?
TW I must. In drawing, it’s “the softening of outlines by rubbing or blurring.” So it’s connected.
BH Here’s a rhizome of an iris. They’re kind of like the opposite of coelenterate. Rhizomorph. There must be some poets who have written about your rhizomorphs. (reads) “A form of mycellia attaching fungi to the roots of plants upon which they prey.” (pause) Sounds like an epiphany to me: when the scum turns to foam.
TW It’s like when the moon hits your eye.
BH (laughter) Did you paint the waterfall?
TW No, I just remember it.
BH Do you paint from memory?
TW I paint looking at things, then the paintings take over. I always start from someplace outside myself and end up someplace inside myself.
BH Sounds like politics. You’re a Taoist?
BH Does living on White Street have anything to do with it?
BH You don’t name all your paintings.
TW Not everything, but I title a lot of things.
BH I’ll get your catalogue and read some names. (pause) Oh, wow, look at these guys! Insecta, Dystopia.
TW J.G. Ballard said, “The ultimate dystopia is the inside of one’s own head.”
BH He’s really underrated. Crash, one of the great books.
TW And the Atrocity Exhibition.
BH Putting the “a” on the end of Insect! Genius! Here’s the colors of the Chakra. Digits, Dome, Morula. What is morula?
TW It’s the Latin word for mulberry. It’s also a stage in the development of an egg.
BH This is great. How big is Free Union? 80 by 104?
TW Approximately. That’s the title of an Andre Breton poem.
BH “Fate Map.”
TW That’s a diagram used in embryology to describe the future of a form. “Fate map is a technical term.” I like the idea of projecting a future, graphically.
Bob Holman is a poet and host of the Friday Night Slam at the Nuyorican Poets’ Cafe.
If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.