New York

Richard Tuttle

In this culture of big spectacle and loud noise, it’s inevitable that understatement and beautifully modest production will come to be valued, if only by certain cults. Richard Tuttle certainly qualifies as a high priest in this regard. He makes art that’s small but not cute, simple but not smug, minimal but not Minimalist, casual but not sloppy, formal but not rigid. A lot of pitfalls to skirt for one career, much less one series of work.

In “Two With Any To,” Tuttle shows twenty square plywood panels with pieces of two-by-two attached, on which he has painted simple abstractions in acrylic. These are paintings, but they are intended to have a sculptural presence as well. Originally the works had been fixed to the wall with nails through the four corners; unhappy with the effect, Tuttle pried out the bottom nails of each piece, freeing the panels to pop off the wall and throw a shadow. These shadows matter.

In Two With Any To, #3 (all works 1999), a horizontal rectangle of brown paint is balanced by a vertical block of two-by-two painted dark brown. At first you think you get the joke—that he used the block to trace the rectangle, and that they are the same size. A quick measurement against your finger rules that out: The block is considerably shorter. Disappointed, stepping back, you see that if you figure in the square shadow cast by the block, the two rectangles are almost exactly of equal length. So there is a joke—just not the obvious one. Tuttle rewards close looking, but he also warns against overly materialistic readings that privilege literal presence over experience. In a different setting under different lighting, the proportions would alter and the balance evaporate.

The artist carefully weighs the encompassing whole of the space and lighting against the delight of incidents, balancing the close-up and the wide view. Each work is hung fifty-four and a half inches off the ground, even where the floor dips and swells, so that the show moves with us. And the exhibition keeps changing with repeated visits. Tuttle made three versions of Two With Any To, #9, moving and re-moving the curving white forms at the left and right edges. The first two versions, although they were perfectly fine in themselves, simply didn’t work with the whole. Tuttle has a strong sense of the moment: the now (as opposed to the new).

Not to mention the “no.” Characteristically, it is the hole and not the nail that catches his eye. Like many artists, Tuttle plays with the structural elements of painting: Many of the works, such as Two With Any To, #7, have a pattern of small bites in the wood. As in a Renaissance cartoon, Tuttle made a sketch, laid it on the panel, and punched nails into the wood. He then uses the holes as design elements, connecting the dots.

Halfway through the show’s run, another set of dots—red ones—appeared, decorating the artist’s name stenciled on the gallery’s front wall. The conventional wisdom on Tuttle is that his deceptively make-do aesthetic masks a high degree of refinement. In this show, you get the feeling that this refinement in turn masks a chaos that is just beginning to emerge.

Katy Siegel