Remain in Life
We are so accustomed to mediation that immediacy has become invisible. You can see it on the faces of the visitors ambling through the Richard Tuttle retrospective here at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. They gaze vacantly at the oblong sheets of white paper affixed to white walls, at the pages of ruled notebook paper touched with dabs of watercolour, at the slats of wood hanging mutely and undecorated just above the floor. The artist is infamous for understatement: his 1975 Whitney retrospective led to the firing of the exhibition curator, thanks in part to the display of a three-inch length of clothesline cord nailed to the wall (a work which makes a reprise in this exhibition). Richard Tuttle doesn’t sign his sculptures. Neither does Richard Serra, but that’s a different story; Serra’s work is in no danger of being overlooked. A simple signature on a Tuttle piece would help immeasurably in locating the artist’s effort, linking him with the intention and the form. Without a signature, Tuttle’s pieces are vulnerable, capable of floating away from the wall and straight out the gallery door. Only their hefty prices really tie them down.
Curious about the impact of their dollar aura, I asked Tuttle if he would consider showing work anonymously. His answer was no and the reason he gave was the problem of the individual. In his essay in the SFMoMA catalogue, Richard Schiff quotes Tuttle as saying, “My work is an effort to overcome identity.” Overcome maybe, but not before dealing with it solidly first. Identity is, in fact, key to his works. It is the key to their making and the key to their being seen. Identity is expressed in the eccentricity of his forms. As things they are singular, utterly unique, and implausible outside of any schema external to themselves. This is not conventional self-referential modernism though. Tuttle is not zeroing in on the essence of a medium. The works are autonomous not because they circle the wagons around a type, but because they exist alone, bright and apart, as peculiar, idiosyncratic things.
If the pieces have such strong identities, why do they need Tuttle’s? I think in this regard, the artist is being didactic. He wants to show what is possible. What is possible for an artist to do. How far someone can reach in our society. An artwork cannot be a role model. But an artist can. He wants us to follow in his footsteps.
His works also express identity in their mode of address: each piece appears as if addressed to a particular person. They are like letters so full of friendly warmth and intimate understanding that their message can be conveyed with as much subtly as the stroke of fingers in the aftermath of love. When we see them we may enjoy the sentiment of such a delicate touch, but we sense it is unlikely those fingers are really meant for us. Tuttle admitted to me that he makes his work to be appreciated by a single person, someone he may or may not know. He contrasted his approach to what he calls the “mirror effect,” embodied in the work of an artist like Picasso, who felt that his art should reflect the whole of society. Tuttle is keen on whispering in someone’s ear.
Individuality, Tuttle observes, is under threat in our mass-mediated, egalitarian society. “I never felt as alienated as when I saw my name on the side of a bus,” he told me around the time of the opening of the current show. “It’s the problem of the demos,” he said, explaining that for all its benefits, democracy, especially in its American manifestation, has put the individual under strain. So, he wants his work to inspire singularity, to call forth a new age of the sui genera. Hurrying away from conformity, Tuttle’s art only looks forward. Not backward through allusion, sideways with irony, or static in repetition. His is both a humanist and Romantic project. Avoiding the monumentality of a public offering, Tuttle makes work as an essentially private affair. Yet, understood as a tonic for a homogenized society, his practice generates counter-monuments, physical manifestos for the social necessity of a furtive voice. In this sense, his art is political.
Above all, I am struck by the exquisite attention to detail in Tuttle’s art. Although apparently offhand, Tuttle’s mark and form making is more arduously achieved than the most highly rendered realism. His art is beyond convention, or, at least, whatever conventions it may accept are acknowledged to be contingent and temporary. But to be without conventions, without absolute standards in any case, is not the same as randomness; at least not for Tuttle. He arrives at structures as if out of thin air, through the total power of his concentration. I once came upon him at an exhibition of his own work in New York. He was alone in the gallery, standing about a foot from the wall, staring intently not at one of his pieces but at the blank space between them. “See the white here,” he said, “it’s different from the white just over there.” The difference was invisible to me. In the SFMoMA exhibition, I notice that the wood slat pieces are slightly painted on the sides. Not the whole sides, just a few inches, touched with white. I finally see the white. Tuttle would see which white.
As art involved with the problem of individuality, Tuttle expects that his work should face the issue of mortality. He uses ephemeral materials that speak to the flimsiness of our physical and sentient being ...and of our certain demise. But, let’s be frank, this isn’t art about death. It’s art about life. What is the opposite of suicide? The decision to live, to remain in life. Tuttle’s work is about making this decision every day, every time he makes a work. The work itself expresses the reasons for his choice. A little colour, a little form, a line or two, and it is reason enough.
About the Author
Lawrence Rinder is Director of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. He is Dean of Graduate Studies at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco.