New York

Richard Tuttle

Mary Boone Gallery | Chelsea

The Whitney Museum’s 1975 Richard Tuttle exhibition cost Marcia Tucker, its curator, her job. Asked to leave in the wake of the controversy that ensued, Tucker survived the debacle and went on to found the New Museum. The show was decisive for me as well: I’ve always remembered it as an almost euphoric moment. I was in college, and had few preconceptions about contemporary art—Pop was part of the landscape of my childhood in New York, so it didn’t yet demand any thinking. This, however, did. And that, more or less, is how I turned into a critic—though it took a few years more to turn any woolly gray-stuff into printable matter. The Tuttle controversy was of the Emperor’s clothes variety: there was so little, physically, to his work. Spindly, sparsely installed, rudimentary wire-constructions like the doodles of a cockeyed spider sprang off walls creating linear shadows that were not only often larger, but seemed at once more illusory and more concrete than the objects themselves. That, for the most part, was that, in room after room. But these ephemeral three-dimensional sketches, like the proverbial iron butterfly, not only held their ground, but seemed in their sheer presence to outweigh their imposing, stone-floored surroundings. The show struck me as proof of the power of a realized thought—no matter how basic the thought, or materially pitiful the realization. And this no doubt sophomoric revelation opened my eyes to—well, to the conceptual art of the ’70s, for one thing. and to current sculptural stuff like Jessica Stockholder’s, for another.

Tuttle is not a conceptual artist, but, rather, like Stockholder, something along the lines of a mannerist minimalist. He left New York for New Mexico almost a decade ago, and infrequent glimpses of his sculpture have, over the intervening years, suggested a continued exploration of the subtler properties of presence, as well as a more fervent use of color. A mid-sized work by Tuttle seen last season in the back of this gallery—a wonderful orange, boxlike wall-relief with lights and an evocative backstage mood—seemed to herald a triumphant return to center stage. But alas, this show wasn’t it. Consisting of 24 adorably twee objects forming a baseboard-level frieze, this installation might have looked less self-consciously fussy in a less fastidious environment. As things stood, however, Tuttle’s works seemed overly dainty and ingratiating—they came off like post-Minimal novelties in a post-Minimal gift shop. Which is not to say that I’m not still hoping for more in the future.

Lisa Liebmann