Richard Tuttle

Known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns

By Sherman Sam

Richard Tuttle, Hello, The Roses 19, 2012, wood, paint, 18 × 10 cm. © the artist. Courtesy Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London, and Pace, New York, London & Beijing

'There are known knowns; there are things that we know that we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.'

United States Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, 2002

Increasingly the proliferation of television and the Internet and such media has led to the predominance of the image in our times. And despite the fact that this relentless march of pictures creates the impression that we are apace of things via a constant bombardmentof information, it also feels increasingly fleeting. So perhaps Charles Baudelaire’s old idea about the nature of modern life (as laid out in his essay ‘The Painter of Modern Life’, 1859–60) still holds true: ‘Modernity signifies the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art of which the other half is the eternal and the immutable.’ With that in mind Richard Tuttle’s career, bridging the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, seems to both embrace a certain fleetingness and yet also ignore our current situation, as if in search of permanence.

Tuttle seems to both embrace a certain fleetingness and yet also ignore our current situation, as if in search of permanence

First categorised as ‘postminimalist’ (Robert Pincus-Witten), ‘antiform’ or ‘eccentric abstraction’ (Lucy Lippard), Tuttle’s earliest works (produced during the early to mid- 1960s) were, as those attempts at categorisation suggest, spare, organic and abstract, but unlike his minimalist predecessors, the qualities of Tuttle’s artworks were not rooted in mathematical rhythms or reductive logic. Rather, the rationality of cut-paper octagons attached directly to the wall, or a line drawn on the wall and then extended into space using wire and its shadow, just served to underline the wobbly, poetic difference between himself and his more austere predecessors. Back in 1992, Tuttle told Bob Holman (in an interview published in Bomb magazine) that the Wire Pieces (1971–2) ‘are as close as I’ve ever gotten to pure creative energy’, because ‘time and time again, the intellect robs the creative… The creative is pure and separate and as high intensity as possible.’ In the context of their times, these works were humble and witty compared to the minimalist sensibility, but also inventively playful in their own matter-of-fact way. However, the conservative Hilton Kramer infamously critiqued Tuttle’s 1975 Whitney Museum exhibition, stating in The New York Times that ‘less is unmistakeably less. It is indeed remorselessly and irredeemably less… One is tempted to say that, so far as art is concerned, less has never been as less as this.’ And with that, Tuttle’s first museum show famously resulted in Marcia Tucker, the exhibition’s curator, leaving her position a year later, and founding the New Museum of Contemporary Art a year after that. But to see this Whitney show as reductive, even then, was to entirely miss the complexity of its nature. As history and several museum retrospectives later proved, in Tuttle’s case less has inevitably led to more.

If those simple forms were regarded as less, then his art since then has been, if anything, a move towards the additive and also an opening up to more and more possibilities: little watercolours in home-constructed frames, drawings made with two pencils in one hand, oddly shaped pieces of painted chipboard and long horizontal pieces of dyed fabric are some examples of the experimental spirit of Tuttle’s enquiry. And it is not just a case of how a work comes into being: the installation of Tuttle’s artworks itself can offer as much of a challenge. In 1992 Tuttle famously installed tiny sculptures, paintings and drawings at Mary Boone’s newly renovated gallery, hung just fractions off floor level, with a mere vertical pencil line on the wall to guide one’s eye – and hence body – downwards. ‘Where the wall meets the floor’, he said to Holman, ‘is a special kind of zone. It’s a demilitarized zone.’ According to the critic Barry Schwabsky, it meant that ‘for those willing to look – which meant squatting or getting down on all fours for a toddler’s-eye view – the delights were myriad, and all the more so thanks to the artist’s way of conveying that sculpture can loom large in the mind without being monumental’. On the other hand a (this time) very complimentary review by Holland Cotter in The New York Times had one small criticism: ‘in bringing viewers literally to their knees in front of his art [Tuttle] reveals a passiveaggressive streak that makes humility itself look like little more than a pose’.

‘Where the wall meets the floor is a special kind of zone. It’s a demilitarized zone’

This autumn, London offers two opportunities to see the septuagenarian’s art: a retrospective of his work with fabric at the Whitechapel and a new commission for Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. ‘Since the hippie days’, as he tells Ashton Cooper in Blouin Media, Tuttle has been a collector of fabric, and came very close to curating a show of ancient ritual textiles at the Victoria and Albert Museum this year – an ‘infiltration’, to paraphrase Tate Modern director Chris Dercon. As the artist-in-residence at the Getty last year, Tuttle developed fabrics that have now been manufactured in quantity in India – that itself he says is a feat. This material will form the basis of his Tate commission, I Don’t Know or The Weave of Textile Language. Clues to how these fabrics might be deployed, and his thinking, were on view in New York at Tuttle’s Pace show, Looking for the Map, earlier this year. The catalogue includes instructions on the installation for each work; for example, one reads: ‘4) unroll 16” of muslin from roll, 5) drop loose end over top of box unevenly’. The work Looking for the Map 5 (2013–4) consists of a roll of creamy muslin with one edge draped over a bulbous white-purple cloth structure. The latter is held to the wall with a brace of wood forming a T-shape. “How it is deployed”, he says of the coming installation, “is something we are all waiting to see, me most of all.”

The late great abstractionist Agnes Martin, a close friend since meeting Tuttle in his youth, described her own paintings as ‘a perfectly non-attached space’. By contrast Tuttle prefers ‘non-originary space’. ‘The structures of society to me,’ he said in a 2010 interview with Laura Lake Smith for The Brock Review, ‘are very much built on originary space, like the case of the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Mesopotamians and so on. You know – in the beginning was the word and the word was God. Who’s not going to accept that? If you accept that then you can talk to each other, you can do things like build bridges. As an artist, for me, my greatest moments of my life have been when I have experienced non-originary space… I feel my job really is, through my work, to give people my excitement, my thrill, my happiness of experiencing non-originary space.’ “Because”, he says today, “‘originary’ seems to be a spatial concept in our minds, I had to find non-originary space through the back door, so to speak, ie, people have very little trouble with non-originary time, time and space are equal, therefore, there must be non-originary space.”

There seems to be an attempt to put forward things or organise matter for an experience with as little verbal baggage or linguistic symbolism as possible

Take that how you will. Gnomic, witty, silly or deep, perhaps even spiritual. This space suggests a preverbal experience or at least a place where not everyone agrees on what word to use for ‘god’. It seems to be an attempt to put forward things or organise matter for an experience with as little verbal baggage or linguistic symbolism as possible – an ambition that seems rare among artists today. A work by Tuttle presents very few overt links or representational hooks to the world. There is not even a theoretical narrative; instead it seems closest to say that the work is of the world. That is, Tuttle does not create pictures, and this is what makes his work a challenge for today’s image-oriented, narrative- biased global viewers; rather, he presents works that engage on a purely visual level. Unlike Martin’s self-contained space of nonattachment, Tuttle’s work could be construed as a series of events – as demonstrated by his instructions – to create an encounter as best he can. Hence every element that constitutes the work is generally in view, and in theory every moment of its creation is there to be seen. In that regard Kramer was not wrong: what confronts you is mostly devoid of the metaphysical or metaphorical; it is – in Tuttle’s explanation – just what it is, which would make it an experience at once childlike and sophisticated. Perhaps it is a space for new attachment. The former American politician Donald Rumsfeld famously spoke about known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns; the experience of art itself sometimes requires one to unknow something to know it better. Likewise Tuttle himself has said that he views ‘the textile as profoundly unknown, and perhaps unknowable; extremely useful, therefore, to separate what you know from what you don’t’. Yet the result of encountering a Richard Tuttle artwork, like much of what we meet in the world, can be both fleeting and permanent. That is, if given a chance, it can stay with us or, just like how we edit out the world, be something entirely fleeting. It is a big ask. 

This article originally appeared in the October 2014 issue