Progression of Art
Attempting to move beyond traditional painting methods through his early work, Tuttle began to consider the possibilities of the bare canvas. Purple Octagonal consists not of a canvas pulled across a rectangular stretcher and set behind a frame in preparation for the painter's brush, but an irregularly shaped, eight-sided canvas nailed directly to the wall. Unprotected, the canvas is intended to bend, fold, and crease when installed, moved, or placed in storage. The wrinkles in the fabric reflect this gradual process of wear and tear, a physical appearance which reflects the life of the work beyond the gallery. As viewers, we are invited to imagine the piece being removed from the wall and folded up, or taken down and replaced at a moment's notice.
While the gesture of presenting an artwork as the document of a process is exemplary of its time and place - New York in the 1960s - the processes which this crumpled, irregularly shaped object invites us to imagine are not the austere philosophical disciplines of Tuttle's Conceptualist contemporaries, but the routines of everyday life: eating, working, socializing. By presenting a piece of fabric which seems to bear the marks of regular and informal use, Tuttle establishes a conceptual link between the painter's canvas and the less precious fabrics which we surround ourselves with every day: above all else, the piece resembles a table-cloth. Tuttle's decision to hang the work with nails, and the scrappy, organic-seeming shape of the canvas, challenge the idea of the work's preciousness: we wonder if the sides were cut intentionally, or whether the shape has been assembled from discarded sections of existing frames. Has a scrap sheet of canvas been used?
Purple Octagon is an important early work, indicative of Tuttle's homely approach to Conceptual Art. Though he should no more be exclusively associated with this movement than any other, his invitation to ruminate on the rituals of the everyday bears the distinctive marks of conceptual subtlety and playful humility which characterize his practice.
Dyed Canvas - Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago
Ten Kinds of Memory and Memory Itself
One of Tuttle's most controversial works, Ten Kinds of Memory and Memory Itself consists of a series of string 'drawings' laid out on the gallery floor. The work's appearance and method of composition reflect the artist's interest in line, relationships of scale, and the interplay between process and visual outcome. The piece is arranged on the floor through a series of movements that can be repeated to re-create the work in any context: Tuttle stands, sits, throws or stretches his body as the string is drawn, resulting in certain consistent patterns.
In one sense, Tuttle's string drawings give three-dimensional life to the lines of the abstract sketch. No longer restricted to the page, the work extends our sense of what a drawing might be made of, and the range of surfaces on which it might be made. We could almost see Ten Kinds of Memory as an abstract map, a series of topographical markings extending across the gallery floor. Its scale and horizontal placement enhance those associations, and also make the visual form of the piece highly subjective, dependent on the movement and positioning of the individual viewer. As regards the significance placed on compositional method, Tuttle again establishes a connection between visual form and compositional ritual which is in the spirit of much Conceptual and Minimalist art: the work becomes the index or evidence of the process used to create it.
While this work was harshly criticized when first shown at the Whitney in 1975 - in an infamous New York Times review, Hilton Kramer asserted that in Tuttle's case, "less is unmistakably less" - the polarized reception of Ten Kinds of Memory ironically put Tuttle on the art-world map. Indeed, his Whitney exhibition is now considered a defining moment in his career, when a coherent overall impression of his artistic style was presented for the first time.
String - Whitney Museum of American Art
New Mexico, New York #14
New Mexico, New York # 14 is one of a number of wall-bound low-relief works created with fir plywood. It consists of a simple, abstract, red-and-white painting on an irregularly shaped board which droops in the center. Hanging on the wall like a bent envelope, the piece is, like much of Tuttle's work, meant to look worn and crumpled, as if it had followed the artist around the country on the journey evoked by the title. The white line which swoops downwards from the top-left corner of the piece is both a visual marker and, perhaps, a conceptual marker of that same journey, looping back on itself as if to indicate the repetitive migratory patterns of the artist's life.
Like Purple Octagon, this is a work that seems at once abstract and oddly homely in its connotations. The thin line that runs across the top half of the painting is very much like an envelope flap, so the overall appearance of the work again reminds us of the banal props and material detritus of daily routine. The use of line in this piece is equally characteristic of Tuttle's oeuvre: unsteady, imperfectly rendered, it nonetheless has a peculiarly deliberative quality unique to the artist, which sometimes manifests itself in works that seem almost orthographic, as if they were made from the letters of an obscure script. Tuttle himself has stated that every artist has certain unique attributes, adding that "[o]ne of my attributes is a certain kind of line. It isn't a straight or singular line - it's almost a line of energetics."
Focusing on Tuttle's use of everyday materials, and on his works' resemblance to everyday objects, curator Connie Butler states that "[o]ne of the ways his work is extraordinarily generous is his incorporation of materials that are absolutely familiar to us, so familiar that they are invisible - the things we find littered around our desk drawers, that we would normally not pay attention to, are those things - those little orphans - that Richard rescues and incorporates into his work."
Acrylic on fir plywood - Pace Gallery, New York
Ink in Fiber
This work consists of a sheet of hand-made paper with a copper plate placed in its center, framing a red square, surrounded by a slightly larger square of spattered green ink worked into the fibers of the paper. The linguistic or literary connotations of the page as visual frame are typical of Tuttle's gestures towards the visual and sensory experience of engaging with written symbols, while the use of non-manufactured materials seems to reflect an investment in the touch or spirit of the artist, in contrast to the impersonality of many of his contemporaries' oeuvres.
Tuttle's interest in incorporating printmaking into his practice grew from a desire to combine an unusual range of materials and processes without any preemptive sense of potential outcome. In this case, the artist's decision to present ink in paper instead of ink on paper reflects a similar desire to push at the constrains of different compositional processes, as does his unusual combination of copper and paper, which gives Ink in Fiber its unique textural associations. The hard and soft of the copper and paper seem resolved through the mediating presence of the ink: as if the liquid were adhering the two materials to one other. The colors are subtler than in much of Tuttle's work, and suggest a connection to the natural world: the green of the ink seems like the green of the forest or field, the red like clay or earth.
Ink in Fiber is exemplary of Tuttle's mature work in its allusions to a diverse and unusual range of artistic and artisanal practices - from writing to printmaking to weaving to Conceptualism and Minimalism - and in the sense of warmth and intimacy which it conveys. Its allusions to literary or linguistic composition, meanwhile, are typical of his work which often presents an impression of working with an arcane, abstract language of some kind. This may partly reflect the influence of his wife Mei-mei Bursennbrugge, a significant poet associated with the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E and New York Schools, and thus with the abstract edge of modern literary composition.
Hammered copper plate on handmade dyed paper - Museum of Modern Art, New York
The Place in the Window #2
The Place in the Window #2 is one of seven sculptures created during Tuttle's residency at the Getty Research Centre in Los Angeles during 2012-13, comprising colored cotton fiber stitched into wire mesh. The mesh is shaped to create a series of rough rectangular forms, with breakages and loose wires generating that quality of visual spontaneity so characteristic of Tuttle's practice. While the materials and dimensions of the work suggest a sculpture, Tuttle's decision to hang it on the wall alludes to painting, the twined fibers reminding us of the bright, mixed pigments of an Abstract Expressionist painting.
Again, one of the striking qualities of this artwork is the way it appears to have been created by combining a range of distinct compositional processes, resulting in a sui generis form. The wire backing provides a 'canvas' on which Tuttle 'paints' with a palette of multicolored, fibrous strands, bringing associations of painting, sculpture, and mixed-media assemblage to the final work. This formal in-betweenness is perhaps part of what generates the work's dreamlike quality. It is difficult to tell precisely what materials have been used to create the piece, and how they are adhered to each other. What texture would this piece have if we touched it? What are its physical and structural qualities? Our inability to glean obvious answers to these questions is part of what seems to set the piece in a space subtly apart from waking reality.
At the same time, the Getty sculptures indicate another side to Tuttle's practice, one more rooted in real life. We sense it in his use of everyday materials and objects to construct his work, and in its subtle figurative suggestiveness. The warm color palette of this piece, with its sunset-like tonal harmony of reds, oranges, and purples, might remind us of the Getty's bright, hillside location in North Los Angeles. Indeed the title seems to present the piece as having been composed in a particular spot within the building, perhaps a "place in the window" with a view out across the vast city below. It is this impression of a love of the world as it is, and not only the more esoteric connotations of Tuttle's work, which give it its unique character.
Colored cotton fiber and wire mesh - Getty Research Center, Los Angeles
I Don't Know. The Weave of Textile Language
Created for the Tate Modern's vast Turbine Hall - the site of various iconic installation works since the gallery's opening in 2000 - I Don't Know is both the most publicly viewed artwork Tuttle has created and a piece which, ironically, eschews many of the characteristic traits of his practice. While much of his sculptural work is constructed on a miniature scale, this immense fabric-based sculpture, suspended dozens of feet in the air and stretching across and above the viewing space of the gallery, applies the principles which have long defined Tuttle's oeuvre on a grand physical scale. Towards the far end of the sculpture, the huge swathes of fabric, wrapped around a series of wooden circles, descend to the ground, lending a tangible sense of scale, and inviting the viewer, as it were, to ascend into the dreamworld of the artwork.
The scale of the piece is, undeniably, one of the most significant aspects of its visual form. Stretching through the hall, it makes the viewer newly aware of the relative smallness of their body. At the same time, its stated engagement with 'textile language' hearkens back to many of Tuttle's most long-held interests: fabric, weaving, and the idea of a 'line' or language underpinning non-linguistic forms of creation. Indeed, prior to the construction of the Tate Modern piece, Tuttle created a series of smaller fabric works for New York's Pace Gallery entitled Looking for the Map, which effectively served as studies for I Don't Know.
Tuttle's commission to fill Tate's iconic Turbine Hall reflects his status as one of the most celebrated and revered of contemporary artists. He has chosen to use this platform to present his works as paeans to the positive side of humanity, noting in an interview related to his Tate exhibition that "[i]f you made a list of great novels, symphonies and architecture, you could see the beauty of humanity, which is one of the hardest things to see right now. We're so critical, so competitive. We blame ourselves for ruining the Earth. A theme in the Pace show was the beauty of people."
Fabric and wood - Tate Modern, London