Richard Tuttle

at Rhona Hoffman Gallery, through December 23

In 1975, when Richard Tuttle was 34, he had a retrospective at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art that caused something of a scandal. (It’s a measure of how elevated art debates were in olden times that the imbroglio had nothing to do with penises or whips or urine but was over the matter of aesthetic quality.) Hilton Kramer, then of the New York Times, led the attack. He wrote that, rather than demonstrating that less is more, the exhibit “establishes new standards of lessness,” calling it “egregiously subordinate to the most minor of minor art.” Kramer described “some bits of string arranged on the rug,” making the work sound austere even by the standards of minimalism. Marcia Tucker was the curator “responsible,” in Kramer’s words, “for this debacle”; she left the Whitney soon afterward and later founded the New Museum, which she still heads.

I lived in New York then. Curiosity piqued and expecting to be amused, I trudged off to the debacle. But Tuttle’s “lessness” was surprisingly, thoughtfully elegant. Admittedly it was strange to see small strands of wire displayed in the Whitney’s high-ceilinged rooms, and I recall standing in front of an inch-long piece of rope attached to the wall, wondering how this could be art. Yet somehow this form neatly bound in the middle succeeded: it was interesting to look at, and it established a dialogue with the space around it. Set in the middle of a huge, empty wall, the rope had an odd, almost numinous presence, a presence that Kramer missed because of his own biases: Tuttle’s “bits and pieces,” he sniped, “lie strewn around the ample second-floor galleries in a pathetic attempt to master its vast empty spaces.” But unlike countless earlier generations of artists, Tuttle doesn’t seek to dominate the space around his work. During the anti-authoritarian 60s a number of artists, like Tuttle, sought to establish a new, more modest role for art, as objects that exist in a dialogue with their spectators and surroundings.

Several dozen of Tuttle’s works on display at Rhona Hoffman–collages from the 70s and drawings and constructions from the 90s–reveal how subtle, and even how affecting, his art can be. The artist has done just enough to make his forms strong and coherent; one mark fewer, one fold of paper less, and a piece that now seems alive would be flat and uninteresting. Tuttle tests limits: how much must one do to raw materials to produce art? By doing the minimum he leaves the viewer’s imagination a huge amount of room, deepening one’s ability to find visual excitement in everyday objects.

In the collage numbered II, 6 Tuttle has placed a thin band of paper shaped like an L against an 11-by-14-inch sheet of white paper. The vertical portion of the L is painted black, but most of the horizontal portion is folded over to reveal the underside, which is light tan. It isn’t the act of folding that “completes” this work, but the fact that the underside is colored differently: as is so often the case with Tuttle, making the work seem open-ended, incomplete, completes it–one wonders whether the entire underside is colored similarly. I began to think about perception in general, about how we assume that we know what the invisible sides of objects look like. It’s also significant that, because the horizontal part of the paper would be longer than the vertical if unfolded, this is not an actual L. A letter would invoke language, hint at symbols. By making his shapes abstract, Tuttle keeps their implications universal.

Virtually all of Tuttle’s collages are surrounded by a large, otherwise blank sheet of paper, which comes close to monumentalizing the design the way the wall at the Whitney had done for the bit of rope, creating a blank field that focuses the eye on a few shapes and colors. And the emptiness encourages the viewer’s imagination to take the design where it will. Thus can the imprecise daubs of gray watercolor on the folds of III, 17 seem like metaphors for turning points in life, for our obsessive desire to leave some mark of our presence behind.

The folded paper introduces physical and metaphysical depth effects: the works project into three-dimensional space, but because folded paper always has an underside they also invoke the hidden, the unseeable. Another group of collages, all untitled, on 24-by-18-inch sheets makes three-dimensionality more explicit. Tuttle has mounted pages torn from a notebook, many with the notebook holes still visible at one edge, unframed and attached to the wall by two crudely torn pieces of masking tape. Many of these works also play with depth and flatness in the picture plane: in one, a cutout curved orange band is placed just beneath a curved band of much paler orange painted on the paper. The attached strip is coming loose from its backing at the left, and there’s something faintly humorous in the juxtaposition of the flat and the unruly cutout curves; the suggestion is that any visual form can come to life, leaping off the page and into the viewer’s space.

One notices the weave of the paper in Tuttle’s collages, especially when the cutout paper is aligned differently from the backing. The tiny irregularities of the paper’s surface seem a chaos beyond the artist’s control, a kind of noise background for his modest interventions. Tuttle’s interest in chaos is even more apparent in Beckmann Drawings I-VIII. In each drawing, two or three colored shapes, not unlike the designs in the collages, are placed in a thicket of diagonal swaths of pencil whose density recalls the claustrophobic compositions of Max Beckmann, to whom the title refers. Each of these swaths is itself made up of many tiny, chaotic squiggles. The larger forest of dynamic diagonal lines seems less random than the squiggles, but it’s still more like a forest than like Beckmann’s studied designs. Subtly painted over the lines are light gray bands, also pointing in different directions, suggesting man-made roads through the wilderness. On this continuum, from disordered wilderness to the orderly human, the colored shapes are at the “civilized” extreme, high-art jewels or little treasures–a critic once compared a Tuttle exhibit to an Easter-egg hunt–placed within the trees.

With its creases, its disparate forms, its play on flatness and depth, Tuttle’s work eludes traditional categories. A former New Yorker who lives in Santa Fe, Tuttle is also a collector–of Islamic carpets, among other things–and has traveled extensively in Europe and Japan. He once told an interviewer, “My work is an effort to overcome identity,” and to another remarked that he wished to make art that looked “ecstatic, as though the artist had never been there.” Many of his pieces suggest not a finished traditional artwork but the thought process that might inspire one– the perceptual incongruities in a fleeting image, or ideas about repetition and variation. This tendency is most explicit in the newest works, all from 1995, a series of nine numbered constructions called “Source of Imagery.”

These generally lean against the gallery wall, crossing the boundary between flat picture and the viewer’s space. III is a piece of mostly unpainted wood lying almost parallel to the floor; on its surface are Styrofoam hemispheres, bands of paint, painted black calligraphic lines, and Styrofoam and wooden cubes, all laid out in rows and columns. This simple geometry alone didn’t do much for me–what made the work interesting was to see it as an expanded artist’s palette, a storehouse or inventory of Tuttle’s raw materials. Then its flat orientation made sense, and I found myself encouraged to create a Tuttle in my mind’s eye.

In VI two vertical pieces of rough wood support a kind of arch, while two similar pieces lying flat on the floor project out from the gallery wall; sitting on one is an unpainted wood cube. This oddly dramatic work has more the quality of an event than of a completed sculpture, almost as if the floor planks represented the vertical pieces coming to life and marching out into the world–commanded, perhaps, by the wooden cube. Simple, spare, it encourages questions. Western art, with its roots in religious icons, has traditionally maintained an authoritarian relationship to the viewer, who aspires to an understanding of its mysteries. But Tuttle opens up the mysterious black box of art, revealing the ideas behind it and inviting the viewer to participate in its creation.

As the Art Institute’s massive Monet show draws to a close (on November 26), I find myself thinking about the difference between museums and galleries. I first saw Joseph Cornell’s boxes in various galleries, where someone would open a box’s drawers for you so that you could see what was inside, or turn the box upside down if it was one that had two “tops.” The Art Institute has a superb collection of Cornell boxes, well displayed but of necessity behind glass–which destroys their interactive nature, the sense of them as touchable household objects. In a way museums have to kill a work to save it.

Perhaps the Tuttle show at the Whitney caused such outrage because we’ve come to expect predigested, predictable art from our museums–such as 159 of the best Monets, all in chronological order–and Tuttle’s art precludes fixed conceptions. I shudder to think of how a museum might display one of the “Source of Imagery” pieces, which the viewer should be able to walk around, to view from all angles. But then even Michelangelo’s David is behind glass nowadays. I don’t know if Tuttle is as great an artist as Monet, but Monet’s style is already an accepted part of our culture. Certainly I learned more about art and about seeing from Tuttle’s show than I did by joining the troops of “must-see” viewers at the Art Institute.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Tropea.