Artist pokes holes in reality with his fanciful work
Surprise, delight and wonder these are some of the pleasures afforded by the curious creations of Richard Tuttle, the internationally acclaimed New York artist whose 40-year retrospective opens at the Dallas Museum of Art today. An influential member of the post-minimalist generation that stressed process and materials over form, he has strong ties to our region.
His first major museum show was mounted by the DMA in its old Fair Park location in 1971, and in 1998 the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth paired his work with that of the late New Mexico painter Agnes Martin. Lenders to the current exhibition include Dallas collectors Marguerite and Robert Hoffman, Cindy and Howard Rachofsky, Deedie and Rusty Rose and William B. Jordan and Robert Brownlee.
Less is what Mr. Tuttle does best gentle offerings that invite close observation, which have the potential to lift the observer out of the everyday world onto a more fanciful plane.
"My job is the creation of possibility, but meaning is created by the experience of the viewer," he says. "What I dream of is as many meanings as there are viewers."
Honesty is at the heart of all he does, from the kinesthetic sweep of his arm as he draws a faint pencil line on the wall to his choice of humble materials such as wire, nails, plywood, corrugated paper, wafer board, Styrofoam and foil.
The touring retrospective, organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, is billed as a survey of paintings, sculptures, drawings, assemblages and artist books. But it's hard to put a name to eccentric cloth shapes that have no top or bottom, front or back, or quirky light constructions pieced together from miscellany such as painted twigs, exposed wires, bare light bulbs and Masonite.
More elusive examples include white paper octagonals that fade into their white background, becoming all but invisible from certain vantage points, and delicate pencil and wire drawings done directly on the wall, which Mr. Tuttle must re-create each time he shows them.
The casual, nonchalant air of Mr. Tuttle's work is misleading. Much as his lines meander, he's methodical about their rendering. And he's nothing short of obsessive about a work's relationship to the space around it.
The precarious balance between simplicity of appearance and complexity of concept serves as a sub-theme, as does the marriage of intuition and calculation.
Mr. Tuttle's improvisational approach has led him in many directions, but his journey comes into clearer focus here, where more than 300 objects are sensitively arranged in rough chronological groupings.
It's a language unto itself, starting with 26 idiosyncratic iron Letters and 10 3-inch cardboard cubes with geometric cutouts, and ending with the translucent 20 Pearls series of 2003, done by applying thin layers of acrylic to oddly configured foam board.
Mr. Tuttle moves from small to large and back to small, often using restraint, but sometimes unleashing latent energy akin to the life force, or as he puts it "the light contained within our bodies."
One experiment leads to the next. Painted plywood shapes from 1965 segue into the 1967 dyed canvases that captured the imagination of Dallas audiences more than 30 years ago. Loopy pencil and wire wall drawings that originated in the early 1970s are juxtaposed with a tiny 1974 "drawing" made by nailing a 3-inch piece of clothesline with frazzled edges to the wall. All have the kind of poetic resonance that is almost impossible to describe.
More recent ventures range from a lively series of drawings titled 40 Days, with abstract iconography that is neither language nor image, to freestanding structures Mr. Tuttle thinks of as "floor drawings," some with drooping elements and others reminiscent of makeshift tents.
Departing from tradition, Mr. Tuttle includes a monumental ceiling-to-floor piece titled Memento Five, Grey and Yellow , with white cut-outs of the letter "P" hovering above two ballooning rectangles that appear to float, one long and one short. Installed at the south end of the DMA Concourse, just outside the Contemporary Galleries that house many of his drawings, Memento has the room to breathe it lacked at the San Francisco museum.
Mr. Tuttle constantly challenges the observer's notion of reality, discarding art world pretensions along the way. He reduces painting to a few simple gestures, allows the shadows created by pencil-and-wire drawings to be the most visible elements and creates sculptures from things that appear in danger of disintegrating.
Titles serve as hints Yellow Dancer for a 1965 wood piece that resembles an irregular horseshoe balanced on one foot; Replace the Abstract Picture Plane for unconventional geometric abstractions mounted in box-like frames; New Mexico, New York for a white loop superimposed on a red "envelope," a reference to the fact that Mr. Tuttle divides his time between two homes.
But meaning is subjective, and Mr. Tuttle passes the gift of free-association on to the observer. He's particularly fond of Inside the Still Pure Form, the unpunctuated title he gave an installation of wall paintings, low-relief sculptures and drawings.
"I love the idea that people can put a comma anywhere they want," he says with a mischievous smile.
"Something happens when a viewer takes my work someplace never intended," he writes in the catalog. " ... There is a discrete charm in something that is made that allows it to circulate ... like the light in an otherwise blue sky, the twinkle in an eye ... "
Some of the most evocative works in the exhibition are spontaneous drawings done on notebook pages with perforated edges and books little larger than a human hand. For Richard Tuttle: Community (1999), he left part of the book's actual creation to the reader.
Anyone who bought a copy, as I did, was given a piece of gold cord to string through holes provided in the cover, along with four green plastic tabs we could attach anywhere we liked.
"I try to make something that will survive for as long as possible," Mr. Tuttle says. "But I'm not doing this for the elite. My art is open to everyone."
- Janet Kutner