‘26,” Richard Tuttle’s playful yet poignant retrospective at Pace Gallery’s West 25th Street space, provided a window into the Post-Minimalist artist’s abstract humor and whimsical voice while revealing his influence on the New York art scene over the past five decades. The title (number 26), however, extended the show’s purview beyond this historical and biographical frame, referencing—quite explicitly—the alphabet. What the press release described as “A collection of signs, a set of symbols, a system.… The foundation of language.… A selection of objects” inaugurated a new identity for the previously shown pieces, making a work like the 1970 1st Paper Octagonal (a white paper octagon, roughly five and a half feet in diameter, starch-pasted to the gallery wall) not only as much about language as Tuttle’s heralded “tin letters” but also about introducing a fresh network of meaning.
The show opened with a collection of early work, including M – Violet – M (1965), a wall piece made from a shallow taupe-colored plywood relief evoking both a prostrate pair of pants and a grapheme. This initial grouping flowed into a room of sprawling and shrinking sculptural works constructed largely from industrial materials, such as wood, chicken wire, and fabric. Accompanying this gathering was an array of two- (and two-and-a-half-) dimensional pieces hung on the wall, including Fiction Fish I (1992), a roughly four-by-four-inch powder-blue and bubblegum-pink painting made of modeling paste and cardboard, hung just centimeters above the baseboard. Further on, in a dimly lit backroom, there was an assortment of textile pieces and wall stickers, and in an adjacent, even darker enclave, a selection of the artist’s rarely seen drawings on paper.
Tuttle’s attention to detail and display, his proclivity for pastel colors, his attraction to modest materials such as cardboard, wire, wood, and fabric, and his improvisational, ad hoc approach to compositions unified this comprehensive installation.
Most of all, “26” underscored the works’ cohesiveness and the artist’s agenda via a sort of timeline constructed from 26 elongated cardboard prisms, painted black and lit from within, that ran through the entire space. Although this format successfully guided the viewer through the show—illuminating Tuttle’s development (or lack of it) as well as his involvement in the New York art scene—these structures felt somewhat overbearing, overwhelming the more delicate, diminutive pieces.
That said, the exhibition—which could be viewed as a retrospective as well as a semiotic investigation—provided a rare opportunity to witness and reflect on this artist’s impromptu charm and erudition.