For Richard Tuttle, A Little Went A Long Way

Capturing a kind of human frailty:
Capturing a kind of human frailty: "Drift III," left, and "Yellow Dancer," both from 1965. Below right, "20 Pearls" from 2003 illustrates Tuttle's continuing pursuit of art as source of wonder rather than as a statement of ideas or ideals. (Whitney Museum Of American Art/copyright Richard Tuttle)
By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 1, 2005

NEW YORK -- In 1975, the Whitney Museum of American Art staged a 10-year retrospective of New York artist Richard Tuttle, then 34 years old. It caused a huge stink.

One writer called Tuttle a "charlatan" and said that he felt "fooled" by the absurdly modest art on view. A three-inch piece of fraying cord, nailed up about thigh-high, was holding down an entire wall at the Whitney. Irregular geometric shapes had been cut from canvas, messily hemmed, dyed in pastel colors then pinned up or lain across the floor. Funny bits of florist's wire were nailed to the wall, so that they vaguely (very vaguely) mimicked wavy pencil lines drawn under them.

Hilton Kramer, then a famously conservative critic at the New York Times, took the show as the perfect occasion to release some of his trademark bile. He called the exhibition "irredeemable," "pathetic," "a bore and a waste."

Thirty years on, it's hard to imagine what the fuss was all about. In an art world that has featured newly severed cows' heads, images from hard-core porn and lifelike popes struck down by meteors, as well as thousands of orange sheets crisscrossing Central Park, there's not much threat in a few quiet bits and bobs of stuff.

The Whitney recently launched another major Tuttle retrospective. The response in New York seems to be almost entirely positive, as it was in San Francisco, when curator Madeleine Grynsztejn premiered the exhibition. Critics have raved, and almost every art fiend you meet insists it is the season's one heart-stopping show.

After years of being somewhere in the middle of the pack, Tuttle has pulled ahead as one of the most interesting, idiosyncratic figures of the last decades. He's now one of the most influential, too. On a recent Sunday morning, the Whitney's galleries soon began to fill with people wearing slightly scruffy versions of the latest fashion fads -- always a sure sign you're in the presence of artists.

It may be Tuttle's quiet modesty that makes him fit the bill today. For decades, we've lived with art that's desperate to impress-- to scream "I matter more than any other stuff." In Tuttle, that kind of showing off is absolutely absent. He doesn't plan some grand effect, or theorize about a point he wants to make. He just does some little thing, then waits patiently to witness the results his gesture has.

That little piece of cord is deliberately set at the level of our hips, rather than at eye height, so that at first we fail to notice it at all. Once we do, it has a strange -- but still quiet -- resonance. Somehow, it makes the wall feel emptier than it might if it were truly blank. As in a drawing, only the presence of a mark creates a sense that everything else is empty background; only the bird in flight -- or a cross high on a hill -- makes a white page feel like empty sky. And, of course, the presence of that newfound emptiness makes the mark seem that much more significant. One visitor to that first Tuttle show said, "The tiny ragged threads are me , lost in the vast smooth, impenetrable world of the wall."

That sounds right. There's a kind of human frailty that's captured in Tuttle, as in few other artists.

His first notable works were minimal objects hung flat on the wall -- two one-inch-thick rectangular planks, for example, each about one foot by three and painted a uniform pale blue. But the true champions of minimal art, such as Donald Judd or Robert Morris, would have made such objects look quasi-industrial, absolutely crisp and square and impeccably painted. Whereas Tuttle lets his objects remain flawed. His edges waver, as though drawn by hand, and his surfaces show traces of the brush.

They are human, and humane, but without trumpeting the ego of the human male who made them. For all the presence of the artist's "hand," there's none of Jackson Pollock's macho posturing in them.

At the time of that first Whitney show, Tuttle's art was described -- and apparently derided -- as "childlike" and "feminine." Those now sound like positives.

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