In her catalogue essay accompanying Richard Tuttle’s 2005 exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, curator Madeleine Grynsztejn locates Tuttle, with his spare works, simple materials and “mystic” inclinations, as part of “the tradition of American Transcendentalism.” Grynsztejn makes a very good point. For all their focus on spirituality, the mid-19th-century Transcendentalists, notably Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, were not really otherworldly, but instead sought radically heightened consciousness in direct encounters with the immediate, physical world. Featuring such mundane, around-the-house stuff as Styrofoam, wood, paper, string, fabric and metal pipes, Tuttle’s works have a similar orientation. They are resolutely material but also intensely poetic. Such amalgamations of insistent physical fact and pure spirit were on view in “Systems: VIII-XII” (all works 2012), the artist’s recent exhibition of expansive (for Tuttle-who has oftentimes been identified with small works) sculptural ensembles.
Whereas the first part of this series, shown last year at Pace, largely consists of upright, vertical sculptures, the five pieces displayed here tend toward the horizontal: they are mostly low, seemingly strewn about on the floor (or on broad pedestals). There are considerable gaps between their constituent parts, meaning that emptiness is a major ingredient. At first glance, Systems, XII looks incredibly casual: among its elements are a metal pole tightly wrapped with red cloth, a wooden beam propped on a small pile of blue Styrofoam, a crumpled piece of white fabric nestling on the beam, and raw wood blocks in a rudimentary pyramid shape. Actually, it’s an exquisite, almost painterly composition, and it subtly embraces juxtapositions of elevation and gravity, rigid and flexible materials, revelation and concealment, vivid and subdued colors.
Systems, X is tripartite. An upright wooden beam juts from a concrete base. Fitted with a vaguely arrowhead-shaped cloth-and-wood construction, this simple beam becomes an eccentric object that seems peculiarly devotional, but in a way you can’t quite pin down. Next to it is a small, three-sided wood block resting on another block; painted red, the interior of the top block sports a woven cloth shape loosely reminiscent of a pattern for a woman’s dress, and it’s utterly lovely. For the third part, a thin plywood sheet on four legs forms a low, sloping table; underneath are black plastic bags crammed with black fabric. On the table, a folded thick, white cloth, perhaps a humble bath mat, nestles among three slotted wooden constructions sprouting cloth tufts. A stick dipped in red paint juts upward from the cloth, the interior of which is also painted a glowing red that shades into soft pink. You know what you are looking at is humdrum stuff, but in this very particular arrangement, the idiosyncratic “system” of shapes, textures and colors seems quietly marvelous and frankly sublime.
Tuttle is an inquiring poet of things, which are his inspiration and lexicon, and special moments abound. A small bundle of fabric scraps precariously balancing on four zigzagging stacks of blue Styrofoam panels is somehow deeply touching, engaging eyes, mind and emotions. A much-hammered metal panel, spray- painted yellowish on one side and silver on the other, and held aloft on a scaffolding of two wood beams and six metal pipes, manages to look both damaged and splendid. Completing the exhibition were four small wall works, each pairing a micro, mixed-medium sculpture with a tiny painting on paper. All of Tuttle’s works on view disclose exactly what was used, and how. They also exude a mysterious soulfulness, a palpable and transformative wisdom.
Photo: Richard Tuttle: Systems, IX, 2012, wood, string, metal, fabric, plastic, foam, paint, 17½ feet wide; at Pace.