Richard Tuttle

Neue Galerie am Landesmuseum Joanneum

The late-Baroque hall of mirrors in the Neue Galerie made such an impression on Richard Tuttle that he decided to do an installation here, called The Baroque and Color, 1987. Over the course of a year he wrote a series of nine letters on this theme to the director of the museum. The decor of the hall of mirrors is an ensemble of white wainscoting, gilded moldings and shell-work, crystal chandeliers, and, of course, mirrors; color as we normally think of it is nowhere to be seen. In his letters, which were incorporated into the installation (displayed in a long, glass exhibition case), Tuttle made a distinction between the “non-colors” of the Baroque and the modern, so-called “free” colors of, say, Matisse. For a radical sensualist like Tuttle all sensory impressions have equal value, so that the universal validity of any particular color system, whether Baroque or modem, seems questionable to him. Thus he could write, “In fact, what I am interested in is bringing the range of color in the Baroque back into what the Fauves called ‘color.’ Are they nature’s colors?”

Color, however, was not the only theme that concerned the artist here. He was fascinated by the Baroque Gesamthunstwerk, its interweaving of rhythm and tectonics, reality and illusion, which denies the autonomy of art in favor of its decorative function. His longtime preoccupation with the picture/frame problem was also evident here, though in a rather eccentric form.

The central image/icon of the installation in the hall of mirrors was a kind of tailor’s mannequin, life-size, which Tuttle covered with fine Japanese rice paper, cut into scale-shaped pieces and arranged in a gridlike pattern; and he darkened some of the spaces between these pieces by applying caput mortuum (a bluish-red iron oxide). Concealing and revealing are unmistakably present in this work as a single, interactive artistic process.

The rest of the objects in the installation were playful forms attached to the mirrors. Tuttle constructed these from common materials such as cardboard, foam rubber, styrofoam, tin, wood, and metallic foil. He used muted color schemes of white, black, and brown in some, but bright colors in others. Several of them dipped below the frames of the mirrors, creating the impression that the objects were floating weightlessly in the air. On one mirror, a form resembling an upended flag was attached in just this fashion, along with more than a dozen tiny, golden, foam-rubber “cloudlets” above it over the entire length of the mirror, so that they too seemed to float. These echoed the visual rhythms of the gilded shellwork, while most of the other forms recalled musical instruments: keyboards, the neck and scroll of a violin, tuning pegs, sound holes, organ pipes, and the like. Despite the subtlety and fragility of the objects, they provoked intensely vivid ideas and feelings.

In the other three rooms of the Neue Galerie, Tuttle showed several series of watercolors that he’d done from 1984 to 1986, the products of various “sentimental journeys” (to Scotland, Germany, Spain, Egypt, China, Japan). He painted these watercolors on different kinds of paper, often just ordinary sketchbook paper, and chose a particular form for displaying each series—for example, one group was shown simply taped to styrofoam supports, a second was matted with high-quality watercolor paper, while a third was “framed” with yellow-painted paper cut into elaborate shapes, with the watercolors dipping below the “frames.” His constant understatement is what makes these works so interesting. They are all extremely spare and display a strict compositional logic. Two patches of color (or a patch of color and a line) collide with each other, and out of these the most amazing images arise. Every tiny detail seems to have been carefully considered; nothing has been left to chance. One senses that what is most important for Tuttle is the investigation of the meaning and interconnectedness of each gesture and simple event.

Helmut Draxler

Translated from the German by Leslie Strickland.