NEW YORKRichard Tuttle has trodden the most independent of paths since he first came to public attention in the mid-1960s. Geometrical shapes cut from white paper and pasted to a wall, strange curving patterns made from wire, cutouts of unstretched dyed canvas, short pieces of rope nailed to a wall these were only some of his early ways of working. They were not to everyones taste. When Tuttle had his first major retrospective, at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1975, Hilton Kramer infamously savaged it in the New York Times: In Mr. Tuttles work, less is unmistakably less. It is, indeed, remorselessly and irredeemably less. It establishes new standards of lessness.
But it was Tuttle who had the last laugh, for not only did appreciation of his work increase dramatically but whole areas of Postminimalist practice emerged apparently inspired by his efforts. The artists second major retrospective opened at the SFMOMA in July 2005, arriving at its sixth and final venue, LA MOCA, a few weeks ago. The show has enabled a new generation of spectators to appreciate Tuttles peculiar, deliberately unstylish, but strangely beautiful work.
His latest New York exhibition, Memory Comes From Dark Extension, opened at Sperone Westwater on May 3, and he spoke to ArtInfo while putting the final touches to its installation. Tuttles way with words is as unique as his use of materials. What follows is one of the most unusual and fascinating interviews we have ever posted.
Richard, this is a beautiful show. But your work is not concerned with beauty, is it?
Eastern philosophers talk about the illusion of the world. I feel very sympathetic to that, because you know in an instant if a person is involved with appearances or reality. Theres a whole huge structure out there that gives high marks for appearances. Then there are the people who are involved with whats real. By far the vast majority of peoples lives are involved with appearanceseven most art is just appearances. People are literally swept away by appearances.
But you believe that youre working with reality rather than appearance?
In our culture there is a job for art, because we cant experience reality anywhere else. And the experience of reality is absolutely fundamental to human existence. My job is to give the best possible visual experience. I try to raise the bar on the visual experience so that people can enjoy their lives. I get to thinking a lot about motivationthe purest motivation should result in the best visual experience. This is the first show where I think Ive really connected with this motivation. It takes a lifetime to achieve ones work. Art is not an overnight career. You cant face your own desperation until after a long time.
In my case, theres a part of me that feels like Im a piece of shit, and all my life Ive tried not to feel like a piece of shit. In an exhibition like this, I actually feel that Ive reached a new level. What can you do? The possibilities that art offers are unique.
It sounds like youre saying that you make art to cope with neurosis.
One way you can deal with feeling like a piece of shit is by developing a neurosis. As an artist, theres a kind of perfection that you can actually achieve. But theres another part thats not possible and it just makes you neurotic and screws you up. Im looking at every one of the pieces in this show and trying to decide if anything needs to be done to make them look like they want to look thats apparent to their nature. And Im trying to resist neurotic fear.
Each work is a challenge. I believe and I think of this as a Renaissance notionthat you get extra points for trying to do something difficult. So each one is chosen as a difficulty. For example, look at this one "Section 1, Extension T" (2007). Ive never before done a piece where theres a relationship between the diamond and the square. The lineage of the diamond is one thing, and the lineage of the square is another thing. To make those lineages work together is really very hard. Id been thinking that it wasnt successful, but when I see it from this distance, I see that it is, because in this case the ocher looks like its luminous, and the white is not luminous. Thats really hard to do. What would be considered good art would be the reverse.
Why do you think that most art deals with appearances rather than reality?
I think that its necessary to achieve art that is reality-based. In our culture, imitation-based experience dominates reality-based experience. I find this an awful thing. But there are artists who know from the bottom of their souls that art is about the experience of reality. The reason we have art is because you cant get a real experience from the world. Philosophers cant tell you, religion cant tell you. So art has become hugely important.
But our culture suppresses art. In our culture, the people who need art to survive are given the message that theyre weirdos. Every day and from every corner of the world theyre getting the message that art is imitation-based, which is absolutely the opposite of the truth. You would never base your life on imitation. Even the people who are saying to do it never would. Its fucked. Its really fucked.
What do you think has brought this state of affairs about?
This is a very special moment in human history, I think. We have a very clear vision right back to the foundation of our particular culture, and you can see that at the foundation of our culture, the artists worked out the theory and the practice of art. The theory is that art is reality-based, and the practice is to make something that shows that. But its tough. Its hard. Every part of it is hard. The Hellenistic philosophers said things will be a lot easier if we say that art is imitation-based. They didnt care, because they werent artists and they had a lot to gain from art being less than it is. So it stumbles along, year after year, without really satisfying anyone.
Every once in a while, usually in really desperate periods, when life becomes totally confused and almost unlivable, artists come back and create art that is reality-based, and everyone says, thank you very much. But then as soon as they can, they turn back to the imitation-based art.
Can you give me an example of how art is presently conceived as imitation-based?
Well, in the "New York Times", art is treated as entertainment. When you get tired and you want to be distracted, then theres art. There was a recent review that said, Dont expect to find tickets for Richard Tuttles show at Ticketron! This is not that kind of show. This is about art as a necessity. There are shows where people will stand in line for blocks, but those are not about necessity. Fortunately, most of the world is not desperate enough that they need this kind of thing. But people who still have art in their lives, theyd be dead without it, because the suppression of art is so enormous.
There must have been particular pressure in preparing a new show immediately after a major retrospective. How do you feel at this point?
Im enormously proud, because [the retrospective went to] six museums that doesnt normally happen. When shows travel they normally lose energy, but this picked up energy as it went along.
One of the reasons this new show at Sperone Westwater is important for me is that it has shown me that there are cycles of life. Im entering a new phase. People talk about retirement, but I see this almost as a plateau from which Ill develop. I wanted to make this as telling an exhibition as possible, because Im going to go on. You have to do what you do. In art history, for example, Goya went to Bordeaux, Monet went to Giverny. David Smith began doing the stainless steel pieces. Youve done what youve done. You dont give a shit anymore. If youre making the world, youve got more than enough to do.
But how did you go about making this show?
A show is so mysterious. You can make a show with two pieces, or you can make a show with a thousand pieces. But this much I know there has to be unity.
My work has never wanted to choose between painting, sculpture, and drawing, but for me this work finally chooses sculpture. Thats the real love. Im pleased with that because I think that sculpture is the highest visual art. Which means its the most expressive. It has the most possibility to express emotion. In this show I reached a point where I saw very clearly that theres breadth and theres depth those are the polarities that can be expanded in an artwork. For myself as a maker, I have to choose. Do I go broad or do I go deep?
Is that why you decided at the last minute to mount these sculptures on a little metal armature? That must be crucial to them.
It is. And I never dreamed that I could get away with that. Its a case where the appliance the armature evolved through the universe in one distinct way, and the sculpture evolved through the universe in another particular way. Now they touch. We can see them as a totality.
I think art should be a special moment. A rare moment when unusual things happen. One of my favorite pieces is this little one, "Section V, Extension F" (2007). It has a certain green. Theres a history to color humans dont see a color until its time to see it. Theres a primal relationship between us and color. For me its very exciting.
- Robert Ayers