New York

Richard Tuttle

Betty Parsons Gallery

Richard Tuttle’s show of hardly definable canvas octagons at the Betty Parsons Gallery was impressive in the quietest and most radically undermining way. His crumpled, then flattened-out pieces of canvas, hemmed along their irregularly proportioned contours, and dyed through both faces of the fabric—stretched without armature onto the walls or placed on the floor—are not paintings in the narrowest physical sense, nor are they sculptures, nor even “hangings.” They defy pinpointing (as all art of high quality probably should), and challenge one’s preconceived notions about what constitutes “painting,” “sculpture,” or “object hood,” as such. They are comparable, in their implications to Oldenburg’s deflation of traditionally hard sculpture, and yet they are not as blatant in terms of presence or “message” as Oldenburg’s work. They neither excite nor assault one’s eye, nor do they recede into non entity (as some of the so-called “minimal” paintings do—with all excuses for the labeling), but appeal on a level that is quite ambiguous. They even have a kind of vaguely iconic quality, perhaps derived from their one compelling feature—a really hermetic oddness! The initial reaction to these strange pieces of colored cloth—which are soaked in colors like oyster pink, mottled beige, ivory, lime, hot cerise, grey-green, or reddish-brown—is one of sheer puzzlement, which can slowly fashion itself into disappointment, or, for this viewer, into genuine delight.

Tuttle began several years ago by doing constructed “paintings”—actually painted wooden shapes almost like reliefs, in which he was also involved with not quite regular edges and a certain modest, hollow weightlessness. Then he cut out small galvanized metal pieces in a very personalized alphabet of template like shapes, also with the wobbly contours and erratic forms which characterize his earlier and his most recent works. He seems to work consistently with materials that are not particularly distinguished in themselves—plywood, flimsy tin, or unsized, wrinkled canvas—but he manages to come up with unique and evocative solutions for their use. In an almost sly way, he takes up with problems that have been raised in the past few years by certain new methods of facture and composition which have challenged young painters in the work of Frankenthaler, Louis, and Noland (the use of stained pigment), or Frank Stella (the shaped canvas, and the resultant object quality of paintings which are made to project out from the wall on thick stretchers). In a sense, he is pushing these discoveries to their limit, or is eliminating them altogether. Either side of the stained fabric may be shown (although Frankenthaler has reversed some of her paintings also), which somehow compromises the intentions of identifying paint and surface (which is the “surface?”), and much as his pieces seem like painting objects, they have no stretchers at all. Even if Tuttle’s octagons are not the ultimate answer to these questions, they do suggest some interestingly new and original means of approaching them.

Although the group of shapes and colors which were exhibited were not conceived as a definite ordered sequence, in combination they are especially effective, contrasting subtle tints and intense hues with eccentric silhouettes. The installation should be congratulated for its artfulness. The arrangement, spaced between an entrance “hall” and the main gallery room, was finely balanced in terms of colors, and provided some surprising perspectives of certain isolated trios and couples.

Tuttle’s pieces are very matter-of-fact, though they are also personally “withdrawn” in the way that the work of many young artists has been in recent years. One need only conjure up the paintings of Brice Marden and David Novros, Don Judd’s “objects,” or Carl Andre’s block and tile arrangements to realize this attitude as it exists in many different forms. And yet Tuttle distinguishes himself from these others in at least two very important ways—he seems to encompass a concern for the sensuous, and for a kind of chromatic fantasy with an imaginative charm in his dyed fabric shapes, both of which are levelly denied by the work and thinking of his colleagues. This may be the least obvious suggestion in his work, but to my eye, it is one of the most promising features of it, and an area in which one hopes many more will begin to experiment and develop again.

Emily Wasserman