Odd Man In

Known for tiny sculptures made from materials such as paper, rope, string, and bubble wrap, Richard Tuttle has become hugely influential.

Black Stuff, 1992, paper, wire, wood, and paint.


The handling of “macho” materials—bronze, marble, wood, and sheet lead—reveals the muscle-flexing strength of the men who shape it. Consider the huge steel beams of Mark di Suvero, some of the granite forms of Isamu Noguchi, the crushed auto parts of John Chamberlain, the aggressive slabs of Richard Serra. Their work represents sheer power, marked by menacing bigness and boldness.

By contrast there’s the world and work of Richard Tuttle, the subtle, idiosyncratic Tuttle, who can leave viewers dazed or dazzled. Tuttle offers an intimate, personal vision in sharp distinction to the impersonal “Danger: Men at Work” esthetic. Until lately Tuttle has been the odd man out.

Quirky, elusive, eccentric—these are some of the words that have been used to describe Tuttle. The critic-curator Dave Hickey once called Tuttle’s work precious because the objects—a palm-size paper cube, a plywood panel eleven inches square—are so small, seemingly delicate and ephemeral. Robert Storr, professor of modern art at New York University, counters, “What’s wrong with being precious? Watteau was precious. He was also brilliant. It’s the old butch-femme prejudice we have in our culture. We get stuck with the macho idea of the artist, when we need to get away from a lot of chest-pounding conceits.”

Tuttle uses paper, rope, string, cloth, wire, cardboard, bubble wrap, nails, archival Foamcore, plywood—the most humble materials, which he may then complement with a pencil or brushstroke. “His work resists quick value judgments,” says critic-curator Dominique Nahas. “It’s too direct, too overbearingly modest.”

“I use materials today that I’ve used throughout my art career, which began four decades ago,” explains Tuttle. “It’s material that isn’t self-conscious and relates—as do wire, string, bubble wrap—to the processof art making.” Engaging Tuttle in conversation involves some mental leaps: having studied literature and philosophy, he enjoys pouncing on the thought-provoking paradox, such as, “I make form out of material, but I also make material out of form.” At times he may confound viewers who wonder if his work should be called drawing or sculpture or assemblage. Tuttle feels art should have no categorical limitations. “It’s one of the freest things we have,” he insists. “It lets the human spirit evolve.”

Biking from his Tribeca loft to the Meatpacking District in the West Village, where Sperone Westwater, the gallery representing him in New York, is located, the trim, tweedy, and handsomely boyish Tuttle, at age 62, evokes the image of an earnest college professor pedaling across the quad. Then he brakes and scans a piece of scrunched-up plastic rubble. “This material has already invented itself with a form,” he laughs, “but it could serve as a starting point for an idea.”

Unlike many contemporary artists who have made their impression with giant-size works created, perhaps, to fill vast galleries, Tuttle established his presence by thinking small, often in miniature, and then hanging his work very high or very low—or just very Tuttle. When he entered the art world in the mid-1960s, he saw billboard- and mural-size art and asked himself, “What’s the future in that?” Nevertheless, choosing to work on a Lilliputian scale presented its own problem-solving attractions: Tuttle would make hismark the hard way. “His scale has always disarmed people,” says Agnes Gund, president emerita of New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), adding, “He liberated what an artist can do. He’s an innovator.”

Tuttle’s use of modest materials has given him a kind of cult status. “When you’re talking to him, you feel another part of him is really making art,” says Adam Weinberg, director of the Whitney Museum. “It’s his life.” His mainstream reputation has long been secure in Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, and the Netherlands (he’s represented in Dí¼sseldorf by Galerie Schmela and in Zurich by Annemarie Verna Galerie). “Europeans have always had an easier time understanding my belief that in art there are no limits,” observes Tuttle.

His position in the American art world is rapidly changing. A show last year at Sperone Westwater, with drawings priced at $15,000, was a sellout. His early dyed-and-sewn canvas pieces, which sold for $450 in the 1960s, now bring $200,000, while wood works that sold for $450 in 1965 are reaching $450,000, and a 1966 installation of the 26 letters of the alphabet, composed of soldered tin, sold at auction to MoMA for $1 million.

At the moment, Tuttle, an introspective man who may toss Hegel, Mozart, and Edith Wharton into a meditation on creativity and the concept of reason, is planning a vast retrospective that opens in the summer of next year at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) and travels to the Whitney, the Des Moines Art Center, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the Dallas Museum of Art, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. He’s also preparing for two shows in New York this fall: one of new work at the Drawing Center, the other of Tuttle-made furniture and lamps at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, which will also feature work by Chamberlain, Judd, and Scott Burton.

Richard Tuttle is now odd man in.

Relaxing at a bistro before meeting his dealer Angela Westwater to discuss the three upcoming events, Tuttle sips a café au lait between bites of a baguette smeared with strawberry jam. In his very quiet voice, he says, “I’ve had museum shows all over the world. So my situation is rather curious. It reminds me of the American opera singer who first had to get acclaim in Europe before being recognized at home.” He pauses, and then adds, “But it’s a very pleasing situation.”

As a child growing up in Roselle, New Jersey, Tuttle knew he wanted to be an artist. “Art is something you discover because you need it,” he says. “You go out and look for it.” On his first day in school, given paper, a pencil, and crayons, he diligently began drawing horizon lines and arcs in different colors. The other children, he recalls, scribbled the usual loopy faces, which the teacher pinned up on the wall. She ignored Tuttle and his issues of perspective. At home he would amuse himself making papier-mí¢ché puppets and designing holiday ornaments.

Tuttle officially began his career in the ’60s by making small paper-box constructions. “I’m very much aware of the connoisseurship of paper,” he says. “Paper has the capacity for every expression and dimension.” He adds, “Art is discipline, and discipline is drawing.”

His methods and materials range from deceptively simple drawings on paper of squares, lines, and dots, sometimes in light pastel colors; to collage and assemblage work with folds and cuts; to artist’s books that are like works of sculpture. His fascination with book design began while he was at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, and worked on the yearbook. He was inspired by doing pasteups and began making paper cubes, which became for him the embodiment of abstract emotion.

Settling in New York after graduating from college in 1963, he spent a semester studying at the Cooper Union School of Art and Architecture before deciding to plunge into the exuberant art world of t
he ’60s. He supported himself by working at the Cooper Union library, then as a soda jerk, then helping install shows at Asia House, and, most important of all, as a gofer at the prestigious Betty Parsons Gallery. Pollock, Rothko, and Reinhardt were a few of the names Parsons fearlessly showed when others had misgivings. She said that she exhibited artists who stirred her imagination. When Tuttle told her one day that he dreamed of having a show, she raised her eyes heavenward and asked, “Oh, Richard, do you really want to get involved in all this?” He answered, “Yes.”

And so it began, though Parsons felt that he should first see the world. She helped him get a grant in 1965 from the C. Douglas Dillon Foundation, which enabled artists to have studios in Paris. “It was a jolt, an awakening, to live in Paris,” Tuttle recalls. He discovered, as Montaigne wrote, “From frequenting the world a wonderful clarity of human judgment is acquired.”

Tuttle sees the evolution of his work, from his first shows at Betty Parsons through the present, as following a continuum or a spiral. In 1965 he painted thin plywood reliefs, with stretched canvas as surface, and three years ago he used plywood, minus canvas, with a painted abstract surface. Taking delight in mixing his media, in the late ’60s he produced dyed-canvas pieces tacked to walls, and then returning to paper, he worked with octagonal sheets glued to walls. In keeping with Tuttle’s obsession with the interplay of light and shadow, these paper pieces seemed to disappear into the wall (depending on the light), and some seemed darker than others. In the ’70s he moved to his famous wire pieces, in which he played with the concept of drawing in space.

“What interested me,” he says about the wire works, “was the idea of getting free of oneself. How does one get free? When I did drawings with thin wire in 1972, I thought, ‘I’ll make something that I’m the least part of, that I have the least to do with, that makes for a freer art.’” So he began by drawing a line on a wall and then traced that line with a length of wire held in place by small nails. When the wire was “released,” or cut, it leaped from the wall and assumed its own shape, thereby creating something that you can and can’t control. Many of these “wire pieces” can’t be removed from the wall without being destroyed, but that doesn’t concern Tuttle, who insists, “It’s all the same to me in terms of art.”

Looking at Tuttle’s work today, it’s hard to understand the ruckus among some critics in 1975 when curator Marcia Tucker gave him a solo show at the Whitney. A review in the New York Times called it “a bore and a waste… pathetic.” It was so vitriolic, Tucker says, it led to her being fired. But it also enabled her to found New York’s New Museum of Contemporary Art. At the time, Tuttle’s parents, worried about what the neighbors may have read in the newspaper, didn’t venture out of the house. They never read the New Yorkmagazine article that called his show “extraordinary.”

His art, explains Tucker, was antiheroic. Among the pieces displayed were plywood slats—angled pieces of wood that pointed, like split arrows, up to the ceiling; tin alphabet letters that appeared to have been hurled randomly at the wall but were actually carefully arranged (recently purchased by MoMA); cloth octagons in dyed pastels and white paper octagons glued to the wall; “string pieces,” or drawings dancing across the floor; and wire works. “There was also a one-inch piece of rope on a huge white wall,” Tucker recalls. “It had innocence, vulnerability, and intimacy. But in those days, some people couldn’t accept that kind of unassuming presence. Tuttle is really more Eastern than Western in his art. In the East, the most important elements are the most simple.” Tuttle recalls a time in the early ’70s when he was particularly discouraged and went to Coney Island, stared out at the pounding surf, and thought, “I’ll give it up. The making of art.” But then he said to himself, “If this isn’t something, there’s nothing else that is something.”

But as the Whitney show proved, he didn’t give up art or pursue a trendier route. And his upcoming return to the museum brings him full circle. “The Whitney has a long history with Tuttle,” says Weinberg. “We own his work, and he has been in group exhibitions here.” Robert Rosenblum, professor of art history at New York University, declares, “You see, there is truth and justice in the art world—sometimes.”

In recent years Tuttle has busied himself with overlapping plywood panels and with bits of Foamcore that burst with bulbous abstract forms painted in rich, sensuous colors. He has also been producing wood reliefs, works on paper, and constructions—all of which he hangs at eye level. This work seems to be reaching a broader audience than his early art, and some critics believe it’s his best in decades. Dominique Nahas calls it “demurely elegant… a new high for the artist.”

Madeleine Grynsztejn, the Elise S. Haas Senior Curator of Painting and Sculpture at SFMOMA, who is organizing the Tuttle retrospective there, reflects that Tuttle’s courage in scale and willful choice of ephemeral material influenced many younger artists, such as Tom Friedman, Jessica Stockholder, Polly Apfelbaum, Jim Hodges, Tony Feher, and Sarah Sze. Storr observes, “To a new generation, Tuttle is an inspiration rather than a stylebook. He lets them trust in the visual durability of physically slight things.”

For his part, Tuttle appears oblivious to the extent of his influence. In New York, he regularly sees close friends and collectors Dorothy and Herbert Vogel, spending hours with them in museums, discussing Impressionism, Expressionism, and Minimalism. In the Southwest, he has a special bond with Agnes Martin, who lives in Taos. They met in the ’60s when he bought a drawing from her on the installment plan. “He likes drawing, and he likes line,” Martin has observed. “We both do.”

Tuttle, his wife, poet Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, and their teenage daughter, Martha, commute between Tribeca and an adobe “complex” on a mesa near Santa Fe that he designed. There’s nothing around for miles except rabbitbrush, juniper, tumbleweed, and in the far distance, mountains between uneven rows of rocks of bloodred sandstone. The moon at night can appear a burnished orange, and the sky by day has a turquoise luminosity. Every day Tuttle experiences extraordinary changes in light. “You’re also stimulated by the forms you see,” he remarks. When there, he works in an uncluttered gray-brick studio. And at night, Tuttle, who enjoys playing the piano, and his wife listen to recordings of Alfred Brendel performing Beethoven piano sonatas.

Tuttle’s parents were staunch Presbyterians who immersed themselves in religion and never even attended their son’s shows. The artist once told his father, an electrical engineer who did not consider art-making a valid career, “I am doing for me the most difficult thing I can think of.” His father seemed to respect him for that. Tuttle has a spirituality of his own. But whenever he feels a longing for religion, he runs in the opposite direction. “You have to find your own direction and make your own world. Religion has an agenda. Art does not. It has no rules, no morality, no ethics. I like art where I feel the artist knows the rules—and then breaks them.”

Always eager to stretch the parameters of what’s considered art, Tuttle believes that it’s time for artists to find new surfaces on which to paint. For Tuttle this has meant using disarmingly informal elements that can crinkle,
wrinkle, tear, and
stain. “We’re just about done with the possibilities of the stretched canvas,” he explains, adding, “If I can free a humble material from itself, perhaps I can free myself from myself.”

Contributing editor Paul Gardner coproduced the documentaries Art City: Simplicity and Art City: A Ruling Passion with director Chris Maybach.

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