New York

Richard Tuttle

Whitney Museum of American Art

The architecture of the Whitney Museum and the art of Richard Tuttle make strange bedfellows. This essential fact remains, regardless of what else (good and mostly bad) has been said about his exhibition there. Ten years of Tuttle’s work, presented as “a major examination” (not a retrospective, but major nonetheless), were seen in a series of three installations designed, it was stated, to expose much work, yet allow each piece the large quantity of space it required. There were about 25 pieces on view at a time. About ten of these formed the core of the exhibition and were visible, although in different places, during all three parts. Pieces were shifted from wall to wall, from floor to wall, wall to floor, and many were recreated on the spot. In her statement accompanying the exhibition, Marcia Tucker writes, “Tuttle has often said that given a specific space, there may be only one work which seems ‘right’ for it,” and she goes on to note that his work is “dependent upon the space in which it is installed or executed.”

A sense of this “rightness” never comes across in this exhibition, and the rotating installations don’t help matters; it seems that most of these pieces can go just about anywhere. Unfortunately, the “dependency” upon space is all too apparent and brings up a contradictory conclusion: the work cannot go just about anywhere, in fact there is almost nowhere that it looks “right.” Tuttle’s work doesn’t require a lot of space as much as it requires a special space; his art is intimate and fragile—it always looks fine in Betty Parsons’ small, white sanctum. The Whitney is not Tuttle’s special kind of space, although it has its own overbearing intimacy of varied and aggressive textures and patterns, as if all those rough walls, floors and ponderous overhead cement grids should orient us tactilely within its otherwise cavernous, scaleless volumes. Even Tuttle’s best work tends to get lost in the Whitney, because although it can enhance and be enhanced by the atmosphere of a space with its own kind of totality (his exhibition of white paper octagons at the also-white Clocktower is another successful example), it cannot convincingly create the proper atmosphere if it does not already exist, and Tuttle’s work is more about atmosphere than experiential space.

The “core” of the exhibition included a number of painted wood shapes from Tuttle’s first show in 1965, a work consisting of 26 smaller, related shapes in galvanized iron from 1967 and a number of colored canvas shapes from 1967–68, for which he is probably best known. The flat painted wood pieces, with their strange, whimsical shapes, strong monochromes and thick edges, withstood the Whitney with the greatest success. They also seem to sum up Tuttle’s sensibility: his attraction to an irregular, mysteriously naturalistic geometry (some of these shapes could be out of Arthur Dove), a sensitivity for line and for the edges of things, the quirky combination of the pictorial and the sculptural, all clarified by monochrome color and an honest, if restrained, materiality. These qualities are also prominent in the irregular canvas shapes, as well as the more recent “wood slat” pieces seen at Parsons in 1974: vertical sections of plywood centered on a wall at its juncture with the floor which made the entire wall act as a ground for the shapes. Tuttle achieved his most attenuated delicacy and greatest formal irony in the wire pieces from 1971–72, which consisted of lengths of wire, a drawn pencil line and the wire’s cast shadows.

In many of Tuttle’s other series he is isolating too completely the various aspects of an art that is already simple, that lacks the fullness to be worked over so throughly. But at the Whitney it is hard to see that the wire and the “wood slat” pieces are significantly better than Tuttle’s other series since 1970. Some of these are pretentiously inconsequential: the Houston Works, infinitesimal cardboard dots at the center of a wall; the equally indiscernible rope pieces, three inches of rope held to the wall by nails: the funkier Summer Wood Pieces; the uncharacteristically bright, slick Paintings for the Wall (some of which could easily have been the logo for an oil company or a television network); and least of all, 10 Kinds of Memory and Memory Itself, pieces of plain white string grouped in various configurations on the floor. It’s not all the Whitney’s fault.

Like a number of artists born c. 1940 and who started showing after 1965, Tuttle works with a more clearly emotional, maybe even mystical, approach to abstraction than artists, somewhat older, who emerged 1960–65. While artists like Flavin, Judd and Stella seem concerned with what is literally there, Tuttle, in particular, becomes more and more involved with what is “there” by implication only. In Tuttle’s case it is casual and unconvincing; it seems that any little scrap that falls into his hands will be transformed magically, poetically into art.

The only process is that of isolation, of placing i in the proper atmosphere, much as one would place a revered object on an altar. This is a nostalgic notion of reduction; it characterizes Tuttle’s most ephemeral series, which make him look like the Rod McKuen of post-Minimalism. When Tuttle’s work gets extremely slight, as it does too often, it is not experienced emotionally or perceptually; it becomes conceptual and academic. While an artist like Robert Irwin forces us to experience pure space by eliminating a focal point, Tuttle simply makes the focal point all the more important by making it hard to find; his casualness reverts back to a traditional, centered preciousness.

This show could have ben smaller, more carefully selected and more impressive. It provides new information about Tuttle, and that information is damaging; in showing the best and the worst, it is a genuine “examination.”

Roberta Smith