Magazine article Artforum International

Richard Tuttle: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Magazine article Artforum International

Richard Tuttle: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Article excerpt

There are several artists of the 1960s generation whose portraits have become the icons of an era: Think of Robert Smithson standing alone at the end of his jetty, or Eva Hesse clowning in her studio, or a masked and booted Richard Serra wielding that ladleful of lead. Now try to summon a comparable image of Richard Tuttle. Chances are you will fail.

It may well be that the current Tuttle retrospective--a major exhibition organized by Madeleine Grynsztejn of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and scheduled to travel to New York, Des Moines, Dallas, Chicago, and Los Angeles--will change things. If so, the newly anointed icon will look quite different from its prototypes, and display an oddly elusive saint. Don't ask him to mug for the camera. He's too involved in his tasks to strike the required pose.

But of course he is posing even so. In most photos, Tuttle turns his back to the observer and does something invisible on or to the wall. In others, he kneels above a length of material (paper or fabric, mostly) stretched out on the floor. In a few, he fusses intently with scrappy lengths of wood and piles of cloth. If the sheer workmanlike anonymity of these images seems eloquent, this is not simply due to the jeans and T-shirt the artist routinely wears. The photos seem to figure the ambiguities of Tuttle's role in recent art: Not unlike the best of his work, he looks both present and absent, aggressive and recessive. What this means, in career terms, is that although routinely deemed an "artist's artist" by the cognoscenti, he is far from widely known. Unlike Serra or Smithson, there is only one large-scale work by Tuttle (a decorative wall-size tiling in an upscale Miami development) permanently on view in a (quasi-) public outdoor space. Unlike Hesse, his comfortable New Jersey origins are without tragedy or romance. And unlike all three of these contemporaries, Tuttle's importance to art since the '70s has yet to be properly gauged. For although he thrives on exhibitions--they are essential to his practice, in complex ways--he has never had a museum retrospective on this ambitious scale: No less than 329 works are listed in the exhibition catalogue. But this impressive number doesn't really tell the whole story. Not only are many pieces part of larger suites that are not shown in their entirety, but several are multipartite in and of themselves. Very much so: Two have forty elements, another has twenty-seven. If few other artists so routinely conflate the singular with the multiple, making one into many (and vice versa), few recent retrospectives have managed to offer a similarly compendious sampling of a full four decades, yet been rigorously selective even so.


Tuttle is prolific. No wonder that what he is doing with his back to the camera is making works of art. I'd like to be more specific about his products, but doing so demands some delicacy. What is most exciting--and sometimes most frustrating--about Tuttle's pieces is the way they inhabit a special twilight zone that keeps them hovering somewhere between their status as images and their existence as things. Which is to suggest, of course, that they are neither paintings nor sculpture. Sooner or later, every commentator is forced to make this basic point.

To say this, however, is to my mind to say next to nothing at all. Why should the work want or need to come across as either? Tuttle began his career at that now-distant moment in the mid-'60s when the settled authority of both media had been undermined. The boundaries only got more fluid as "systems" and "specific objects" and "intermedia" staked their various claims. To judge from the evidence, Tuttle was never much interested in any of these categories as such, just as he set little store by describing or illustrating the look or feel of tangible objects as encountered in the world. At the same time, however, his processes were utterly specific, his works relentlessly handmade. …

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