New York

Richard Tuttle

Sperone Westwater

Richard Tuttle has cornered the market in Tuttles. Nobody else can make them because nobody knows what they are. Artists influenced by Tuttle tend to make the kind of work people refer to as “quirky,” but Tuttle is quirky only in his weaker moments, when he is charmingly arbitrary or harmlessly hermetic. More often, his work is recalcitrantly ordinary, and that’s where its enigma resides. A Tuttle is not really a particular kind of object; it’s the concretized aura of an attitude—an autistic, almost infuriating indifference to many of the things other artists (and critics, and viewers) care passionately about, like the dramas of originality versus historicism, or the intersecting definitions of painting and sculpture.

Not that Tuttle’s work is historically anomalous, of course. Along with its humble roots in quotidian handicrafts and tinkering, it has grander ones in Dada (especially Schwitters and Arp), Suprematism, and even in the Impressionists’ rejection of finish as it was understood by the academy of their day. Everything Tuttle does—“painting” or “sculpture” as well as drawing—seems designed to preserve the spontaneity of the sketch. He proceeds as though anything like elaboration were inimical to the search for a quintessence of art, or to his own sense of unrepressed play and formal quiddity. The twenty-five works in this show, for instance, are all dated 1998, which means that each represents—allowing for crating, shipping, and maybe time off for a New Year’s hangover—about one day’s work. That suggests something diaristic, but the works don’t offer much in the way of autobiography, even though they all share a title, New Mexico, New York, that links the artist’s current home states.

Each work is made of a roughly cut quasi rectangle of fir plywood, to the surface of which a smaller, usually trapezoidal piece has been attached, something like the flap of an envelope or handbag. Tiny holes scattered sparsely across the surface allow the works to be fixed to the wall with thin brads. Most are painted in just two colors (I noticed no more than four in any work), bold but ingratiating like those of a child’s Magic Marker set. The simple, slightly graffitti-ish forms often suggest pictographic distillations of landscape. A single line meandering through a color field might be a road or river, and shapes that arise elsewhere are clearly mountains or houses; an orange-and-yellow oval surrounded by black and touched by a streak of gray must be a full moon sharing the night sky with a single cloud. Yet the physical immediacy of the plywood object, with the counter-geometry of its primitive relief and the line of shadow it creates, argues against any representational transparency.

Then, too, something else argues even more forcefully against the seemingly slapdash appearance of the elementary imagery. Almost unnoticeably most of the time, pencil marks outlining the component shapes show through the colors, suggesting that each work has in fact been planned out in advance, that the presiding air of spontaneity is the product of artifice. Or is it? I can’t help but wonder why faint pencil lines appear even around the bases of the cutout plywood trapezoids—those surely must have been drawn after the second piece of wood was added. Perhaps they’re just a signal that Tuttle is cultivating refinements the drift of which remains unfathomable. Is there a message concealed within those flaps? Or is Tuttle’s uncommunicativeness its own reward, a piquant anomaly at a time when most art has acquiesced in functioning as its own publicity?

Barry Schwabsky