Ad Reinhardt was on to something when he declared, "You have to choose between Duchamp and Mondrian." It was a good distinction. One might prefer Matisse to Mondrian, but why quibble. The point remains the same, and it was a point that most artists got, especially in twentieth-century New York, where the two traditions of art and anti-art, the homemade and the ready-made, raced like cars competing for alternate-side-of-the-street parking somewhere in the grid.
In 1961, the critic Roger Shattuck clarified the distinction further. Moving beyond the hardware-store ready-made of Duchamp's snow shovel (In Advance of the Broken Arm/[from] Marcel Duchamp 1915), Shattuck warned of the broadening horizons of the anti-art movement in neo-Dada and the assemblages of Robert Rauschenberg. These items, Shattuck suggested, "illustrate the association of two elements that cancel each other out and return us--spiritually and aesthetically--to zero.... The process is essentially self-consuming, a reversion to dead level after an initial shock."
It was a Duchampian lesson new artists were learning fast. While the Mondrians were striving for zero content and infinite meaning, the Duchampians raced towards infinite content and zero meaning. One sought idealized mimesis, the other idealized literalness. And the Marcels were winning.
That is, until the backlash of the backlash in the late 1970s: Suddenly there was art smog and an art energy crisis. The Duchampian boomers were stuck in the Dada gas fine. Some artists even dusted off their old diesel Mondrians. As for the Duchampians who became known as the post-minimalists, the generation that came of age in this period during the 1970s, there just wasn't enough Dada to go around.
No artist reflected this new chastened Dada sensibility more sincerely than Richard Tuttle. Turtle's diminutive work of wire, rope, string, pencil marks, and cut paper, now on view at the Whitney Museum and at numerous galleries around town, not only suggested art energy conservation; it also turned your thermostat down and encouraged you to put on a cardigan sweater.
Back in 1975, the Whitney Museum hosted Turtle's first, and failed, New York exhibition. Tuttle now says of the experience: "I believe in the possibility of a total living art. That show supported this notion. Half was to create the solution, the other half was to create the problem" Put that on your next gnostic greeting card, because this month New York is Tuttletown. The energy-efficient Dadaist has returned in a new SUV, and he's taking a gas-guzzling victory lap around the city.
Richard Turtle has prided himself on occupying an "in-between" position in the Reinhardt dichotomy. He "evades taxonomies." Yet Tuttle is most clearly understood as a Duchampian with Mondrian applique. Tuttle begins with modernist fragments but he undoes, rather than builds upon, their mimetic possibilities. The San Francisco curator Madeleine Grynsztejn writes, "These objects vaunt an inherent force and reason whose 'content' derives from their own compelling features--line, shape, volume, color, and texture--and they enter the world as fully formed entities in tune with the real physical parameters of the space in which they are located." Tuttle's art is not so much ready-made as Reddi-Wip, a pastiche of modernism in convenient spray form, aerosoled Paul Klee, silly-string Miro.
In October in these pages, Peter Campion reviewed the first incarnation of the traveling Tuttle roadshow in San Francicso. While I do not wish to revisit the exhibition again here, one must at least note the particular poignancy of Turtle's New York return, on view at the Whitney Museum through February 5 before hitting the road again for more of the whistle-stop tour.
Really, where would Tuttle be without the failed Whitney show of thirty years ago? A large portion of the Whitney's current show, most notably the catalogue essays, is dedicated to recounting those tense Dada moments of 1975. The official line goes something like this: Hilton Kramer writes a negative and mean-spirited review, which leads directly to the Whitney's firing of the curator Marcia Tucker (forget about the directors and trustees who did the firing, or negative reviews from Lawrence Alloway of The Nation and David Bourdon of The Village Voice). Fade to today. Reason reveals all, and a more "enlightened" Whitney, not to say art-going public, declares that the 1975 show "daringly set a prescient agenda for new approaches to the presentation of contemporary art that still resonate thirty years later." All the while, the Whitney Director Adam D. Weinberg hedges, "It also raised questions regarding the relationship of the artist to the museum that remain unanswered today."
Duchamp remarked that "the creative act is not performed by the artist alone." The academy's favorite word for this is "contingency." But Duchamp's quip hits all too close to home when your Dadaist show is "contingent" enough to get you fired. So this time around, it's contemporary present, contingency past: a Dada redemption story.
A show at Peter Freeman began with a collection of Tuttle's earliest--What? Paintings? Sculptures? Goodness, it's hard to say; he's just so "in-between"! (1) Freeman identifies these early objects as "relief paintings," and perhaps we are meant to be relieved at not having to call them "constructed paintings" (Tuttle's original title). Names mean a great deal for literal objects. As with Duchamp, evocative rifles are the hallmark of Tuttle's otherwise anti-mimeric program (Drift IV , Flag ). And the shapes: well, it's a sugary cereal that formalists will love for the marshmallowy fun and Duchampians will be proud of for its Dada goodness. Pink hearts, yellow moons, orange stars, and green clovers anyone?
From there, nothing in the galleries gets as small as Tuttle's installation consisting of a three-inch-long piece of rope tacked to the wall (3rd Rope Piece, 1974), now on view at the Whitney. But yes, Tuttle goes small. Kramer wrote of Tuttle in 1975 that "less has never been as less as this," but I believe we can now safely amend this statement. Where price is concerned (and the Tuttle market has never been stronger), less has become more. Pencil mark for pencil mark, Richard Tuttle may now be the most expensive artist in the history of mankind. At the Tuttle drawings show at Zwirner & Wirth, one only needed a scientific instrument sensitive enough to test the microns of pencil graphite to confirm the theory. (2)
Not to make an argument against aesthetic distillation. Mondrian did more with less than Tuttle. But six-figure prices for a suite of little trapezoids that depict nothing other than a suite of little trapezoids?
Indeed, Turtle has built a career out of the criticism leveled against him by Kramer and others in the 1970s. In The Village Voice in 1975, David Bourdon called Tuttle's spare work, "gentle though fey ... a perverse type of interior decoration ... niggardly if not always precious." At Brooke Alexander Editions, where Tuttle's more recent print work is on display, both niggardly and precious came as a packaged set. (3) Six Nails (2005), featuring white enamel on steel at 16 by 12 inches, plus nails, resembled flowers by way of Colorforms. Grynsztejn writes, "In his quest to figure out 'how to maintain the achievements of modernism, particularly in a world dead to them,' Tuttle recovers modernism's best qualities in a subversive, deliberately nongeneral, and imperfect sublime." Maintaining modernism is an honorable position, but for me there's little comfort in seeing this past fetishized by a Dada tribesman like Richard Tuttle.
I reviewed Joe Zucker's last New York pairing of shows two years ago. Back again at Kasmin and Nolan/Eckman, there couldn't be a better tonic for the art world's version of same old, same old. (4) Zucker and Richard Turtle, both born in 1941, rely heavily on the symbolic. But whereas Tuttle uses symbols to break the mimetic down into the literal, Zucker builds a mimetic world up from a set of symbols. Is Zucker an anarcho-modernist? One can see the primordial ooze of paint, the slick of oils and turpentine, the substances Duchamp detested, bubbling up from Zucker's richly poured surfaces of his own painted reliefs. The "containers" now at Kasmin depict the life-sized outlines of Zucker's studio furniture. The "ships" at Nolan/Eckman, built out of a pattern of boxes and rolls, have been constructed to haul the goods. Zucker's sign system is autobiographical and allegorical, but it builds up to a surprising mimetic conclusion. Now that's painted relief.
To be filed under "sleeper hits of the month": The artist Biala (1903-2000)--born Janice Tworkovsky of Biala, Poland--with a life torn from the pages of Janet Flanner's "Letter from Paris." A poor Jewish immigrant in New York, she becomes the mistress of Ford Madox Ford, in remarriage an associate of the de Koonings, and a jet-setter dividing her time between New York and Paris. But she could also paint: Milton Avery-like harmonies with the languid vision of Bonnard. Tibor de Nagy gallery has rescued more than a few women of the New York School from unwarranted obscurity, and the gallery can now add Biala to its list of worthy salvations. (5)
At Allan Stone Gallery: The other month it was a museum-level exhibition of that A-list eccentric John Graham. Now the gallery has opened its doors to an eccentric unknown whose work was an early interest--fascination, even--of the director Allan Stone. (6)
The painter Robert S. Neuman, born 1926, composed accomplished abstractions in the 1950s, then dispensed with the AbEx playbook and variously pursued colorful disk abstractions ("space signs"), cartoonish ships, hard-edged bars, and aqueous "tee-pee" triangles. Some of the results are garish, some fun, others--you're not sure what to make of them. But what pleases most is to see an artist who has used the crisis of modern art as an excuse for pictorial life, rather than as a reliquary of modernist death. Mondrian would be proud.
(1) "Richard Tuttle: Constructed Relief Paintings, 1964-1965" was on view at Peter Freeman, Inc, New York, from November 3, 2005 through January 28, 2006.
(2) "The Kreutzcr Sonata: Historical Work by Richard Turtle" opened at Zwimer & Wirth, New York, on January 6 and remains on view through February 18, 2006.
(3) "Richard Turtle: Prints 1973-2005" was on view at Brooke Alexander Editions from October 20, 2005 through January 30, 2006.
(4) "Joe Zucker: Open Storage, New Paintings" and "Joe Zucker: Container Ships" opened respectively at Paul Kasmin Gallery, New York, and Nolan/Eckman Gallery, New York, on January 12 and remain on view through February 11, 2006.
(5) "Biala: Selected Paintings" opened at Tibor de Nagy, New York, on January 5 and remains on view through February 4, 2006.
(6) "Robert S. Neuman: Fifty Years" opened at Allan Stone Gallery, New York, on January 12 and remains on view through March 4, 2006.…