New York

Richard Tuttle

A kind of quirky retrospective, this exhibition begins with Richard Tuttle’s latest work, a series of “20 Pearls” (all 2003), moves a year backward to sixteen “Blue/ Red, Phase: Drawings,” then goes further back to the 1997 Botanic Rendering: Inverleith House (a work in 10 parts), and finally leaps forward again, concluding with four works from “Between Two Points,” 2001. To complicate matters further, tucked away in the corner of the first gallery is the sculpture Yale Piece, 1973: two wood panels kept upright and parallel by nine crisscrossed wood struts, each painted a different bright color. Is there any consistency among this seemingly infinite variety of works? Yes: Apart from Yale Piece, they’re all intimate, eccentric, and oddly organic. Indeed, they seem to be mutant blooms from some hypothetical hortus conclusus. They also recapitulate the history of gesture; vibrating sensation and amorphous brushwork become dramatically one, as in 20 Pearls (14). It’s as though Tuttle were trying to update Kandinsky’s improvisations, while cognizant of the fact that improvisation had become dated, if not yet entirely obsolete, as Tuttle’s own quivering works demonstrate. Each Pearl is in fact a composite of seemingly random color gestures, all more or less integrated around a central division, or vestige of structure. Luminous pearls form around irritating foreign matter, and Tuttle’s own natural gems—their indwelling luminosity as eye-catching as their irksome irregularity—seem to be made of a new kind of foreign matter: mineralized color.

Tuttle’s obsession with the abstracted natural is evident in all the works on view. The earlier ones are more conspicuously structured, however bizarrely. Again one thinks of Kandinsky, but this time his Bauhaus period, which featured a singular integration of geometry and gesture—geometrized gesture and gesturalized geometry. Structure is what’s at issue in Yale Piece (so called because it was made for an exhibition on the Ivy League campus); it’s an attempt to breathe expressive life into geometric abstraction, which, with ’60s Minimalism, had fallen into the dead end of flat affect. The work makes clear the generally polar architectonics of Tuttle’s works: By dint of both color and position, the brightly hued struts are at odds with one another, and the parallel panels are, in turn, at odds with them, making for a certain tension. This is the most taut of the exhibition’s works—an ingenious reconciliation of opposites that leaves the two unreconciled. Tuttle seems to have loosened up as he developed, yet this tension—the sense of the irreconcilable within the reconciled—survives (just barely so in the “Pearls”) as a trace in those central divisions of the later works. Moving further away from Minimalism while retaining a “minimal” look—for there’s an economy of means here, despite the organic flutter and compositional intricacy—Tuttle arrives at a kind of precious, introverted, miniaturized maximalism. His gestures and geometry may be the fading signifiers of a dying modernism, but they have not lost their transcendental import—however uncertain, and however regressively bound to an impressionist sense of slippery nature, they may seem.

Donald Kuspit