Look Again: Richard Tuttle at the Whitney
This superb show closes on February 5th. Toni and I went to see it on January 6th. I've been fascinated by this artist's work ever since I began noticing it in galleries decades ago. Lucky for me Tuttle and I shared a space in a group show a few years back, curated by Charles Bernstein and Jay Sanders. But I had already known Tuttle for awhile, as his wife, the poet Mei-Mei Bersenbrugge is a close friend of publisher James Sherry, who published my collection of essays, The Boundary of Blur, back in 1993. Tuttle is interested in poetry and philosophy, and in the video accompanying the show makes the point that "some people characterize my work as visual poetry." Tuttle doesn't seem to mind the characterization, as he is the diametric opposite of the stereotype of the hyper-masculine sculptor who measures the importance of work in terms of physical mass and monumentality. Over the years I've always had the sense that Tuttle has a lot in common with the surrealists who espoused the use of materials to be found right at hand, or collected for reasons otherwise hard to explain. Perhaps my own earliest works of art consisted of sitting and thinking in the basement of my parents' house on Bay Ridge Parkway in Bay Ridge in the 50's. My parents fortunately never bothered to throw out the huge collection of obsolete technology down there. The ambience was one of science -fiction at the boundary point of present, past and future. In reality, I was watching my childhood disappear and also trying to hold on to it at the same time.
For those interested in the artist as cultural heavyweight, Tuttle's work must be a true puzzle, even a disappointment or a bit anxiety-provoking. He has never seemed interested in playing this role, though perhaps in his mid sixties this is becoming more tempting, yet, knowing Tuttle, fame probably won't dazzle him for all that long, since he's too much of a philosopher to totally give way to that temptation. In his piece Title 16, gouache, graphite and paper are folded crossways in the simplistic way any grade school child might think of in an art class. The paper is painted red and brown and attached to the wall with a piece of black paper. This was one of my favorite works in the show. No grand settings, no heavy duty trucking or delivery bills. A gesture: fragile, evanescent, yet, paradoxically, definitive, memorable. A significant part of his ongoing projects consists of collaborations with poets including works of book art and some of these are included in this necessarily abbreviated retrospective as well. Tuttle became well known to a much wider circle in 1975 when the Whitney sponsored a now famous show of his work curated by Marcia Tucker who left the Whitney shortly after. His understated works created quite a stir, though in retrospect seem perfectly in tune with the conceptual tenor of many art works earning a following at that point in time.
Some of the pieces from the 80's are anything but timeless. The materials insist on the denial of permanancy. The "no's" outweight the "musts" a hundred to one. This is protest art in the same way Dylan insists that all his songs are protest art. The are themselves, not representations, no less, no more. No problem with nearly any one of these works passing muster with the Dada group- Arp particularly, but also Schwitters, Duchamp, Andre Breton. Toni describes Tuttle's works as "art in the disguise of everyday materials." Toni also enjoyed the enigma that a piece may be viewed as both a framed drawing and a sculpture of a framed drawing.
Of any artist working today, Tuttle's work most sucessfully establishes a Grand Unified Theory of contemporary art. This is true, even beyond the fact that his spare wire sculptures well preceded the triumph of string theory in contemporary physics. Tuttle's work reestablishes the primacy for the artist of paradox and the central importance of uncovering other dimensions. With Tuttle's work you realize you were standing at the edge all the while: with a gentle nudge, his work tumbles your imagination down the rabbit hole. Of course, admiring critics are quick to follow these somewhat obvious points by assuring us (and his collectors) of their visual beauty and retinal value, and this is quite true; in this regard I particulary enjoyed the assemblages of the 80's which are clearly exquisitely collectible, in addition to sustaining the implacable presence of Tuttle's artistic convictions. Oh yes, convictions: remember those? No, they didn't necessarily disappear with the end of the 60's and the gradual waning of the impact of the 70's conceptual art revolution.
In the video accompanying the show, there is an extensive, excellent interview with Tuttle I recommend, along with urging you to try not to miss this provocative, hauntingly, achingly beautiful assemblage of art works. Tuttle says in the video interview that probably only 1 in 10 of what might be the audience for this work will "get it." Tuttle's art subliminally urges the viewer to look- and think- again and again.