View of “Richard Tuttle: I Don’t Know. The Weave of Textile Language,” showing (back wall) Looking for the Map 8, 2013-14, and (center) Ten Kinds of Memory and Memory Itself, 1973; at Whitechapel Gallery.

An accounting of the visible world and the invisible world: this is one definition of art offered by Richard Tuttle. With two major presentations of the American artist’s work in London—a career-spanning survey at Whitechapel Gallery and a massive wood-and-textile-based sculpture filling Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall (through Apr. 6)—these words perhaps provide a key to accessing the depth of Tuttle’s oeuvre, one that ranges from arresting and voluminous (as at the Tate) to so slight in appearance that the objects can barely be perceived at all (as with several examples at Whitechapel). Tuttle’s objects, be they flat or three-dimensional, are allusive devices in an open machinery of poetics. The significant inclusion of the artist’s own poetic texts, which accompanied each of the exhibited objects at Whitechapel, further exemplified the artist’s straddling of not only two worlds but two different languages: the verbal and the visual. 

An exposed vulnerability pervades Tuttle’s forms. For example, Looking for the Map 8 (2013–14), installed on the upper floor of the Whitechapel exhibition, looks like it could collapse at any moment. Three narrow wooden boards, turned at a precarious upright angle and placed atop two others, make up a foundational plinth. A long cylindrical slab of wood bisects the piece, resting, again precariously, against the wall above. The work concludes with a draping of richly saturated textiles—blue, green and a striped, deep magenta with a concentrated circle of soft pink. 

But the Whitechapel exhibition’s highlight was in the main room: Tuttle’s re-creation of a number of “Wire Pieces, 1971-74. Much like 3rd Rope Piece (1974)—a few inches of rope and three nails attaching it to the wall (also on view)—the “Wire Pieces” functioned as a jolting disruption of the norms of both Minimalism and Pop art when they were first displayed. Visitors to his 1975 exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York attempted to rip works like these off the walls in protest—a far cry from the generous reception Tuttle has received in these exhibitions. Made of graphite, florist wire and nails, the “Wire Pieces” stage collaborations between material and shadow. He extends the composition with pencil lines: shadow supplemented by the illusion of shadow. It becomes a sort of combat of identification in which you can lose yourself. What is real? All gray, all line—wire, pencil, shadow. 

Observing the range Tuttle can effect with very limited means made the experience of his Turbine Hall installation, I Don’t Know. The Weave of Textile Language, all the more stupefying in its sprawling scale. Four large, smooth mahogany “ships” suspended from the ceiling is what they are to my mind. Tear-shaped discs strewn with swaths of fabric, the work reveals its mechanics slowly. Tuttle has attached golden pieces of cloth across the wooden armatures so that the fabric suggests scraps of flesh clinging to a carcass. Hanging down in the middle of the piece (and thus the middle of the hall) is a huge red extension, which is shaped like a contorted question mark. Discs protrude from its sides, though their real-world referent is inscrutable. While color on a grand scale (which Tuttle is keen to distinguish from size) is certainly impressive, I felt more compelled by the intimacy of the much smaller works at Whitechapel, where I returned several times. 

Perhaps this is because Tuttle is at his most maximalist when he is at his most reduced. One might consider here Ten Kinds of Memory and Memory Itself (1973). Existing within a cordoned-off rectangular area on the gallery floor, it is merely an arrangement of strings, cut and composed anew by the artist with each iteration. Less an installation than a drawing, the work even registers as writing. The marks are lyrical; they form an asemic poem or a map of a world that is not ours. Given the artist’s close involvement with installing his works, pieces such as Ten Kinds of Memory and Memory Itself give me pause to wonder about the fate of Tuttle’s work when he is not here to “lay down the lines.” It is alleged that Tuttle enters into a meditative state during such moments, and it is from within this mysterious state that the particular arrangements come into being: hence, their Tuttleness. The potency of his work is at least partly, if not wholly, rooted in performance. What, then, will a Tuttle be when the artist is no longer with us, once he has surrendered completely to that world of the invisible?