Walking on Air: A Conversation With Richard Tuttle


Part philosopher and part poet, the artist Richard Tuttle creates works that challenge the formal, and often oppositional relationships between  time, space, color, and open and closed forms. The artist met with curator and writer Piper Marshall to discuss these dichotomies in his work, which is on view now at Pace Wildenstein now in an exhibition entitled Walking on Air.

: Your work continually changes the way in which we relate to space, and how we experience the space around us.  The objects in your exhibition, Walking On Air, consist of two overlapping pieces of fabric, some with light colors on top, some with dark; they’re hung by grommets, and appear to float against the wall. The sensitivity with which they are articulated demands that we take them in as sculpture — these works and their presence encourage you to walk around the room in another way. 

RICHARD TUTTLE: I just finished this piece about space, and I’m giving a talk about it soon; I find that space is held together within a work: “In the beginning there was the word and the word was God.” All the early cultures recognized the extraordinary thing of the word, and the placement of the word. I think that my talk will focus on space and the word, even if it is an unfashionable and unpopular subject.  Did you see this Manzoni show recently?

PM: Yes, I did see it. I had never seen so many of his works installed together.

RT: It was shown erroneously: [The New York art world] traditionally associates art with time. And these guys like Manzoni, Klein, and Fontana — they are really about space.  That was extremely important. They found space gave a lot of hope, and their idea of hope was connected to space; you can see that in Mediterranean mythology. I know that I’ve done this for years, wanting to talk about Fontana in New York – but New York measures achievement in terms of time.

PM: How does this cultural divide between notions of time and space inform the works in Walking On Air?

RT: This work is on the other side — it is the other half. With these pieces, I’m saying that the so-called “American experience” is over. It is time to recognize that we are not isolated. We have done our jobs, and now we can get the tools that were not given to us.

PM: So, basically you articulate a collapse between the spatial and the temporal?

RT: I have no problem with drawing on all that European culture has achieved in terms of space. Art represents space, because you cannot experience space outside of art. Someone like Fontana is saying that — space is concrete. The American idea of concrete is like cement. The European idea of concrete is much more a concept than a material.

PM: Many people align yours with that of a poet. How do you thinks these works relate to language?

RT: The pieces on view now are verbal — it was the verbal people, the poets, who pointed this out to me. They like to look at these works by walking to one end, which is first represented by this finite, but very long line. The finite line becomes infinite on the other side, but it has to all start with one point.

PM: Does this reading resonate for you? 

RT: Part of my brain turns on and wonders what they’re saying: Are they talking about a specific kind of confinement, which is also very exciting? What’s the point of saying that [the works] are “infinite?” The scientific community is very comfortable expressing many kinds of infinities — they are busy trying to produce mathematics to support that kind of thing. These poets and intellectuals come along and say that the line becomes infinite — it’s a way of saying that you have produced an infinity that can be confined, and made palpable to the human sense organs.

PM: Your work tends to synthesize disparate elements — the fields of theory and art history, for instance, with the physical, concrete world.

RT: You could say that there are two kinds of viewers: The informed viewer, and the uninformed viewer. The informed viewer brings stuff to the viewing experience; they know their art history and can draw a distinction between, say, modern sculpture and Rodin. The more one knows of art, the more one can enjoy contemporary art. But at the same time, the work should be available to someone who doesn’t know about art history at all. So my question back to you would be: Who are we actually talking to? It is a hard job, and I think my philosophy appeals more to the informed viewer. Yet I don’t want to forget the uninformed viewer who can go in there and look, too. There is plenty of room for both.

PM: These works elicit a striking visceral reaction. You turn space and time much in the same way a poet might turn a phrase.

RT: When we were hanging the show, I had this idea that the viewer should feel like they are riding on a carousel. I know that I am extremely committed to the idea that art is a form of positive energy; it can make us feel like a child. We can and perhaps should aspire to inhabit the mind of a child, especially as we get older. The show should be done in a way that helps and communicates this feeling.


PM: Maybe when we’re talking about an informed versus uninformed viewer, we are trying to talk about populism.

RT: When people comes into that space with my show, I don’t want them to think, “This is Richard Tuttle’s art.” I want them to think, “this is my art.”  A lot of galleries are constructed so that the visitor has to come and look at somebody else’s art. The more a viewer feels like the work is theirs, the happier I am.

PM: Do you see your practice as one that brings together ambiguities in one specific place, perhaps enriching space by offering a new way to look at it?

RT: Art is the moment where space is born. You can take a lot away from this show, yet you can’t take everything. I love exhibitions — I get more from going to an exhibition than I get from reading a book, or going to a lecture.

PM: Museums are one of the last common spaces left. While museums do have bureaucratic structures, the are nevertheless open spaces. The museum audience is an actively thinking audience. When one goes to a museum, one purposefully goes to view and to think. It’s different than the cinema, where you go to check out for a few hours.

RT: I often say that my job is putting the teeth back in art. There is so much in the world — it has become toothless, and one can pass it by. Real artists put real teeth in their work. To find them is thrilling. According to my mother, everyone liked to take me on walks when I was a little kid because I would always point out things: “Look at this! Look at that color.” Everybody came back having the best walk they had ever had. That’s my life — I’m still doing the same thing.

Richard Tuttle: Walking on Air remains on view at PaceWildenstein gallery through April 25, 2009.Installation photography by Kerry Ryan McFate / Courtesy PaceWildenstein, New York.