By Panero, James
New Criterion , Vol. 24, No. 6
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. …