New York

Richard Tuttle

Betty Parsons Gallery

Richard Tuttle’s 1975 exhibition at the Whitney provoked Hilton Kramer—not widely known for his sense of humor—into writing what unwittingly may be his most entertaining review ever, in which the venerable New York Times critic composed adorable word plays on the minimalness of Tuttle’s art. If Tuttle accomplished nothing else in his career, what he did for Kramer’s reputation at that moment would be enough. But Kramer’s vituperative criticism was lighthearted and mild compared to what other writers made of Tuttle and the organizer of that exhibition, the then Whitney curator Marcia Tucker. The two of them were attacked with a ferocity rare in today’s press. What was it about the delicate, almost weightless, almost invisible wire, pencil, cloth, paper, wood and metal pieces strewn, hung and drawn here and there about an entire floor of the museum that warranted such outrage? Tuttle’s work had been shown publicly for ten years prior to the Whitney show, and yet the reaction then was like that which greeted the first appearances of the Impressionists and the Fauves.

Tuttle’s latest show consisted of six small (of course) folded, painted, and cut paper constructions fastened to and completed upon the gallery walls. On the wall opposite the entrance, one confronted two similar, horizontal black painted shapes, each with a central diagonal appendage—like a child’s idea of a steamship—connected by an ochre rectangle painted on the wall itself. Upon entering the gallery proper, there were an eccentric doughnut shape with an upswept purple tail, the upper part of the doughnut painted light blue, the lower part painted pale orange on the wall; a pendulous white shape with a green lip, and, where the lip ended short of the edge of the white shape, a matching green painted square completing the line. There was also a slender diagonal shaft with two flaps folded over and hanging don, the forward section of the shaft painted pale blue, the area of wall between the shaft and the first flap painted a more opaque, stumbled blue, creating a dark triangular form. A paper construction resembling a medieval shoe, whose posted toe and instep were painted rust, folded over a half pale gray-brown ellipse, was completed on the wall in a colder gray. A question mark painted cream with a purple flap lay on its face, a fine pencil line circling and encountering the horizontal element just in front of the depending flap. It is only a slight exaggeration to point out that all six pieces barely cover as much space as it takes to describe them here.

The power of these fragile pieces is unmistakable. They attract the viewer, beckon him in, and then gently prod him around the room, all the time engaging his incredulity. The pieces are so artless, so helpless, that their very presence and insistence that we take them seriously makes them seem all at once precocious and audacious. These lovely and loveable bleeps and squiggles—why do they remind me of Al Capp’s schmoos?—are probably not epochal, but every time Tuttle shows new work, the casualness, fragility, and impermanence of his pieces make us critically reconsider our beliefs about what constitutes Art.

Stuart Greenspan