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.
By the 1980s and '90s, Tuttle had left his roots in minimalism for a style that was more like florid decoration -- more girlish than ever. He came to make peculiar accumulations of brightly painted scraps of wood and twisted wire and sheets of Bubble Wrap and Pepsi Cola cans and chunks of Styrofoam. His sculptures evoke the products of a kindergarten class. But unlike almost all the other artists who have been inspired by a child's creativity -- think Alexander Calder or Joan Miro or even Paul Klee, who's often cited as an influence -- there's nothing coy or saccharine about Tuttle's work.
Tuttle's art is not about making objects that come across as sweet and cute and full of cuddly innocence. It's not an antidote, that is, to traditional high-art sobriety, the way even Klee's art is. It's about capturing the kind of weight that children themselves attach to their creative work.
There's a strong sense of play in Tuttle's art, but he takes his play as seriously as any toddler does. A little boy once said to me, "Your work is writing; my work is playing." That's the sense that comes across in Tuttle's art -- that an adult artist can play with the deep purpose of a child.
Psychologists will tell you that kids play to test and learn the nature of the world around them. Tuttle does the same: His play tests the world, and it tests the world of art. He tests, for instance, how little stuff it takes to make a painting happen. He tries out the idea that a piece of dyed cloth, pinned up on a wall, might do the trick. And then he also tries to see how much strange stuff can come together in one place and still cohere as something worth a ponder.
Another thing that Tuttle's art recalls is the art of the insane, with its almost accidental, surreal collisions of opposites. Unlike most modern art inspired by insanity, however, there's no angst in Tuttle, and not much irrationality.
There's a sense of accident, but it doesn't rage against reason. Tuttle's accidents are always happy ones. They're relaxed and self-possessed -- utterly sane -- like the kind of chance events that happen in the kitchen of an inventive chef. A little bit of that, a pinch of this, and before you know it you've got mayonnaise or jambalaya.
Maybe that's the most important thing about Tuttle: Everything he makes seems meant as a source of wonder rather than as a statement of ideas or ideals.
That's why words -- including, no doubt, these -- are even more inadequate to Tuttle's work than to most other art. It's about being there, and keeping an open mind, and trying something on for size.
The Art of Richard Tuttle is at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Ave., through Feb. 5. Call 800-WHITNEY or visit www.whitney.org.
Quiet modesty with a strong sense of play: A 1981 work by Tuttle, below, utilizes plywood, acrylic, sawdust and nails, and leaves minimalism behind.