TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT November 1983

IMAGINING NOWHERE: RICHARD TUTTLE’S “MONKEY’S RECOVERY”

IF RICHARD TUTTLE HAS GIVEN more body in his new work to the allusions and associations formerly held in check by the strictures of formal procedure, it is not for the purpose of forming a unity of configuration or image. These clusters of materials and forms of varying degrees of specificity do not aspire to homogenization; they colonize one another in exquisite symbiosis, loosely strung together by string and wire. Tuttle’s disjunctiveness evades art-didactic intent. The openness of his configurations permits no resolution; the chorus of shadows muffles the voices of physicality and returns the viewer to the implacable emptiness of the wall. The route is more circuitous than before, but the end (non)goal is the same. The wire leads to nowhere in its rambling from one event to another, on the vagrant paths of the imagination. What is ritualized is the a-logic of the intuitive rather than the more logical choices of the conscious.

For some twenty years, radical economy of means united with efficient and self-sufficient procedures in configurations of terse serenity have given Tuttle’s art the austere mien of a monk. Now, “monk” has been adorned with a suffix; “Monkey’s Recovery” titles not one but six recent works. A jingling variety of materials, shapes, textures, and colors conspires to draw out the allusions and illusions long suppressed and restrained in the organic irregularity of Tuttle’s earlier constructions. Already the title(s) tease(s) with ambiguity. Are we faced with six manifestations of the same recovery, six separate recoveries by one monkey, or six monkeys and six recoveries?

The monkeys’ pre- and mock-humanity have won them frequent roles in the religions and myths of East and West; in India, they are even given semisacred status by the Hindus (our preference for giants gives us King Kong). Although capable of being organized in an army, monkeys’ roles most frequently focus on the nonutilitarian spectrum of human capabilities, including mischief, play, and creation. Tuttle’s “Monkey” is drawn both from immediate personal experience and his long involvement with Eastern culture. “Recovery” refers to the often mysterious resilience of Iiving organisms, and these pieces present the recovery of ideas that occupied Tuttle as he witnessed the sickness and recovery of a close friend—one born in the Chinese Year of the Monkey. Then, too, Tuttle has been very impressed by Arthur Waley’s 1942 translation of Wu Ch’eng-en’s Chinese epic, Monkey, a long rollicking pun on Buddhist spirituality that features a monkey capable of multiplying himself a thousandfold by plucking a hair from his arm and blowing on it. The multiples of “Monkey’s Recovery” present the antic side of Tuttle’s spirituality, mocking and (re)covering his vows of poverty and purity with playfully pictorial nonsequiturs. Transparency of procedure is here interrupted and camouflaged by the opacity of imagination.

In Tuttle’s wire pieces, begun in 1971, the place and space of making and viewing are one; the process is immediately self-evident and self-contained. The viewer need only imagine a hammer and a pencil to recreate the contrapuntal calibration of wire, pencil, and shadow being faced on the wall. The finely tuned pencil lines resonate with and measure bodily balance while they mediate between the material resilience of the wire and the immateriality of its shifting shadow. The wire pieces are remarkably clear ideograms of mind moving through the material to the immaterial. The humble wire that usually submits passively to holding a picture on the wall in these pieces erases and replaces the picture and the pictorial, as it uncoils and recoils the measure of intent.

In all but one of the “Monkey’s Recovery” series, wire retains its prominence but not its preeminence. The wire is once again twisted and wound to submit to and support the pictorial on the wall; but, nonetheless, it retains its visibility and is still itself an event—as a loop attached to a wooden block or piece of cloth and hung from a nail, as stem, as branch, as armature. Indeed, bonding and a joy in juncture and juxtaposition motivate much of the series. In Monkey’s Recovery #6 the aluminum tubing that laughingly looks like crumpled garden furniture or a backpack has at least as much visual weight as the congregation of forms, textures, and colors that it carries. In #2 an irregular ring of Homasote is attached to the wall by three flat metal clamps and is overlapped by a wooden block. A string mesh nailed to the block is strung with a bundle of bent heart (antherium) shapes. The wall contains the Homasote ring; the ring, at least visually, contains the wooden block; the wooden block contains the string—the containers all but become the contents.

This antherium shape is one of many puns on Tuttle’s earlier work; he has let imagination’s kaleidoscope distort, tumble, and recombine the intentions, shapes, and materials of his past. As the wire can become a branch, so the discreetly irregular octagon that has been so prominent throughout Tuttle’s work can accumulate image to become leaflike, podlike, or, quite specifically, a tree. The unstretched canvas works (1967–68), whose spare tenacity once allowed only the variegation of the monochrome dyeing process and the vagaries of wrinkles-cum-drawing, now can overlap in layers imposed upon by images and objects, or can hang limply by one edge like a deflated balloon mocked by the gravity that once dignified its suspension; or can puff up to become the base of some mutant staghorn fern. The pencil that once left such a clear trace of the experience of the balance of body and mind now becomes a tool of fable with a function that can only be imagined—in #6, three pencillike shafts ringed with half the hues of the rainbow lie pointlessly in the grooves of a shallow, green container. The congruence of making and viewing has been fractured and layered in overlapping events and edges that merrily lure self-revelation into a game of hide-and-seek. Now the viewer must uncover to recover.

Tuttle has detoured consciousness, but he has maintained the simplicity of form and directness and clarity of construction (in spite of coverups and an occasional secret) that have always characterized his work. The seemingly naive playfulness of Monkey’s Recovery #1 through #6 retrieves simple from simple-minded by virtue of Tuttle’s (and monkeys’) exceptional coordination of eyes, mind, and limbs. His respect for and understanding of the weight of color, form, and surface bring vision to concentration. His freehand lines and edges, whether cut, sewn, soldered, painted, or penciled, have a delicate directness that vibrates with natural grace.

The revival of image and its interaction with postwar American abstraction continues to preoccupy many of the most vital artists of various generations. The relatively modest size and scale of Tuttle’s work, its modest means and materials, and its seeming effortlessness combine in an egolessness that is common to Tuttle’s alter-culture of Japan. “Modesty” is not a word currently in high favor, but Tuttle sees no difference between “modest” and “major,” just as he sees no difference between flower and weed, and just as we need not doubt that the path to nowhere can abound in way stations of the profound.

Klaus Kertess writes fiction and art criticism.