Richard Tuttle is hardly a household name, like, say, his better-known contemporaries Sol Lewitt or Ellsworth Kelly. Art lovers may have seen one of his works here, one there, over the years, but Tuttle’s are works of such unpretentious subtlety that, alone, they don’t generally etch into the memory. Put it all together, as in this stunning retrospective exhibiting some three hundred pieces covering four decades of of his work, and Tuttle irrefutably assumes a position of major significance in the pantheon of contemporary artists.
Curator Madeleine Grynsztejn labels Tuttle a post-minimalist, grouping him together with the likes of Eva Hesse, Richard Serra, and Bruce Nauman. Minimalism, which, broadly speaking had a three-decade run in the last half of the 20th century, was a reaction to the spontaneity and emotional intensity of abstract expressionism. It stripped down to simplified geometric forms, reduced the range of color, and excised emotion, resulting in works that are often beautiful, but, as often, cool to the point of being glacially unfriendly.
The post-minimalists, in turn, reacted against the extremes of minimalism, retaining some of the simplification of form of the former, but introducing a more human element, making room for quirky variations, allowing, even, for the humorous and the poetic. Tuttle is notable for his use of non-traditional materials and a degree of improvisation in his creative process. "Independence," writes Grynsztejn, "is what drives the radically ambiguous nature of his work, which is neither sculpture nor painting nor drawing, neither two- nor three-dimensional, but a vivid and always changing combination of the above."
A series of early works ("constructed paintings") in acrylic on plywood (see "Drift III" to the left) retain some of the simplification of form of the minimalists, but Tuttle was already playing, adding the odd juxtaposition of elements, the less-than-precise geometric angle, the ideographic character. And already his brilliance as a colorist was evident, often in off-shades and somewhat faded tones: mustard, mauve, salmon. Those colors appear too in another group of pieces which were created by dying unstretched canvases cut to varying irregular forms, hemming them and either hanging them loosely on the wall with a few nails or laying them on the floor like rugs. Tuttle specified neither which was the front or back of these pieces nor how they should be hung–a degree of chance introduced that would doubtless leave a pure minimalist in shock.
In an elegant group of watercolors on paper from 1971, Tuttle outlined a variety of forms (circle, oval, vertical, a variety of squiggles and ideographs) and then used horizontal brushstrokes of varying colors to fill the forms. These small paintings are consistent with Tuttle’s ever-present concern with line and his unerring eye for color, as well as his mastery of yet another medium.
A wall of pieces from 1972, made of graphite and florist wire, is as ethereal as a group of gossamer spider webs, barely visible from across the room. Close up, these are marvels of linear expression in which what appears at first to be quite simple is revealed to be compellingly complex. Each of these pieces is dependent on Tuttle’s installation. Thus, they are not portable; presumably, without his presence, they cannot exist. Tuttle pencils a line on the wall and then nails a length of florist wire to each end of the line. To a degree the wire is shaped by the graphite line, but it is a coiled wire and takes on its own shape once in place. Three elements–the line on the wall, the protruding wire and the shadow cast on the wall by the wire–together create an intricate interplay of line and texture in three dimensions. There’s added tension, too, in the playoff between the artist’s control of his materials and the element of chance in the shaping of the wire.
From the reduced materials and scale of the 1970s, Tuttle’s work virtually seems to explode in the 1980s, as if pent up energy was being released. A series of wall-hung assemblages start small and relatively simple, then evolve into larger, more complex, and more colorful works, employing an ever widening range of materials. There’s a roomful of constructions that employ strings of electrical lighting as an integral element. Yet other assemblages have migrated to the floor, large sculptural pieces such as the 1987 Six, made of wood, canvas, acrylic, corduroy, nails, wire, and linen thread.
In more recent work, Tuttle has focused on low relief works, such as the Waferboard series in which shape, color and the texture of his material combine in sophisticated compositions that suggest, but do not insist, on recognizable forms. He also has been utilizing square plywood panels, a material which seems to reach both a theoretical and esthetic apotheosis in Replace the Abstract Picture Plane IV. Forty of the panels are arrayed is such a manner as to suggest the instability of the viewing plane, Tuttle’s assertion that the classic flat picture plane that has dominated Western ways of seeing since the Renaissance is too narrow a limitation of our ways of seeing. That a work with such a formidable theme is also thoroughly pleasing to the eye in its harmony, its range of colors and textures, and the challenge of its shifting planes, is revelatory of the genius of Richard Tuttle.