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?
In her catalogue essay accompanying Richard Tuttle’s 2005 exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, curator Madeleine Grynsztejn locates Tuttle, with his spare works, simple materials and “mystic” inclinations, as part of “the tradition of American Transcendentalism.” Grynsztejn makes a very good point. For all their focus on spirituality, the mid-19th-century Transcendentalists, notably Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, were not really otherworldly, but instead sought radically heightened consciousness in direct encounters with the immediate, physical world. Featuring such mundane, around-the-house stuff as Styrofoam, wood, paper, string, fabric and metal pipes, Tuttle’s works have a similar orientation. They are resolutely material but also intensely poetic. Such amalgamations of insistent physical fact and pure spirit were on view in “Systems: VIII-XII” (all works 2012), the artist’s recent exhibition of expansive (for Tuttle-who has oftentimes been identified with small works) sculptural ensembles.
Whereas the first part of this series, shown last year at Pace, largely consists of upright, vertical sculptures, the five pieces displayed here tend toward the horizontal: they are mostly low, seemingly strewn about on the floor (or on broad pedestals). There are considerable gaps between their constituent parts, meaning that emptiness is a major ingredient. At first glance, Systems, XII looks incredibly casual: among its elements are a metal pole tightly wrapped with red cloth, a wooden beam propped on a small pile of blue Styrofoam, a crumpled piece of white fabric nestling on the beam, and raw wood blocks in a rudimentary pyramid shape. Actually, it’s an exquisite, almost painterly composition, and it subtly embraces juxtapositions of elevation and gravity, rigid and flexible materials, revelation and concealment, vivid and subdued colors.
Systems, X is tripartite. An upright wooden beam juts from a concrete base. Fitted with a vaguely arrowhead-shaped cloth-and-wood construction, this simple beam becomes an eccentric object that seems peculiarly devotional, but in a way you can’t quite pin down. Next to it is a small, three-sided wood block resting on another block; painted red, the interior of the top block sports a woven cloth shape loosely reminiscent of a pattern for a woman’s dress, and it’s utterly lovely. For the third part, a thin plywood sheet on four legs forms a low, sloping table; underneath are black plastic bags crammed with black fabric. On the table, a folded thick, white cloth, perhaps a humble bath mat, nestles among three slotted wooden constructions sprouting cloth tufts. A stick dipped in red paint juts upward from the cloth, the interior of which is also painted a glowing red that shades into soft pink. You know what you are looking at is humdrum stuff, but in this very particular arrangement, the idiosyncratic “system” of shapes, textures and colors seems quietly marvelous and frankly sublime.
Tuttle is an inquiring poet of things, which are his inspiration and lexicon, and special moments abound. A small bundle of fabric scraps precariously balancing on four zigzagging stacks of blue Styrofoam panels is somehow deeply touching, engaging eyes, mind and emotions. A much-hammered metal panel, spray- painted yellowish on one side and silver on the other, and held aloft on a scaffolding of two wood beams and six metal pipes, manages to look both damaged and splendid. Completing the exhibition were four small wall works, each pairing a micro, mixed-medium sculpture with a tiny painting on paper. All of Tuttle’s works on view disclose exactly what was used, and how. They also exude a mysterious soulfulness, a palpable and transformative wisdom.
Photo: Richard Tuttle: Systems, IX, 2012, wood, string, metal, fabric, plastic, foam, paint, 17½ feet wide; at Pace.