Los Angeles

Richard Tuttle

Baxter Art Gallery; California Institute Of Technology

The fifty or so watercolor and collage drawings Richard Tuttle has chosen for this show are individually superfluous to their own cumulative effect; the whole in this case adds up to something other than the sum of it parts. His very particular abilities to define by contour and color what is fleeting and seemingly inexpressible are matchless. One rummages about for kindred spirits and a few poets come to mind, principally Frank O’Hara and his “grace.” Tuttle, for better or for worse, is a singular figure among contemporary artists and in this show, unfortunately, his uniqueness proves to be for the worse.

In short, the installation is djsastrous. An esthetic mesmerization induced by long expanses of white, unadorned walls suporting 14-inch by 11-inch sheets of paper (all at the same height and at a fixed distance from one another), overwhelms the spectator. Dazing, if not dazzling, the exhibition points up the hopelessness of making the “neutral” gallery; the social science perfection of clean, well-lit, clinical space is antithetical to the bacterial interplay necessary to thought.

Tuttle’s diaristic explorations of visual refinement in certain isolated and poignant eccentricities are sufficiently flexile to survive, even flourish, in any ambience other than one of standardization—its treatment in this space. How these drawings could possibly be thought to look good here becomes a question many times more baffling when it is learned that Tuttle himself put them up.

It might be argued, as Susan Larsen does in her brief catalogue essay, that the work is such that it “attracts the space to the image.” She speaks of the drawings’ “holding power” and of their ability to command “attention and space far greater than their own modest scale.” However clichéd, all of this may have seemed true when leafing through the drawings in their original spiral-bound notebook form, imagining them sent out into the world as art objects. But Tuttle, consciously or not, will not settle for a reintegration of his art into life, since he never admits to any separation of the two. Hence, rather than “art,” these drawings might be better thought of as testimony to Tuttle’s condition at the time of their making. They are intensely personal. His early tinted and painted cloth and wooden objects are consistent with the drawings’ wistful accuracy, but the earlier works’ spatial characteristics, their tangibility, allowed them to displace and reorient the surroundjng architecture, a potency which is evidently not to be had from a sheet of paper carrying a delicately colored, relatively simplified and centralized gesture.

Regarding the direction of Tuttle’s work the salient question rather quickly evolves from one of accomplishment—since the work is so lithe, so piquantly beautiful—to one of aspiration. Its feeling for the seductive glory of material and its architectural resonance give his art a Minimalist bias, but Tuttle constantly eludes any kind of theoretical underpinnings. An exalted consciousness of emotion and perception, of irrationality and anomalies, rather than science or mathematics, serves as the structure for his work. Tuttle goes beyond exposition and refinement, finally, in favor of an art so self-effacing that its alignment with spiritual enlightenment emerges as a central motive.

Richard Tuttle