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Sunday 06.11.06

« Ovitz Part II at Reed's Cooley Gallery | Main | Reminder Thursday »

The Art Of Richard Tuttle at the Des Moines Art Center


Fountain, 1965; Acrylic on plywood; 1 x 39 1/8 x 38 3/4 in.;
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York;
50th Anniversary gift of Richard Brown Baker, © Richard Tuttle;
photo: Jerry L. Thompson, courtesy the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

While at the wonderful Des Moines Art Center a few weeks ago I was able to take in their fantastic version of The Art of Richard Tuttle retrospective. It ended today, June 11th. Sure it was an impressive show at both SFMOMA and the Whitney but the DAC offered some exciting new twists, especially a not to be forgotten Tuttle vs. Richard Meier showdown. The show was installed in both the Eliel Saarinen and Meier wings of the DAC and the difference between the two is part of the special magic this version of the show had. All of the other museums presenting this show have only one architect for their space, Botta, Breuer and next up at Chicago's MCA, Joseph Paul Kleihues (these are my favorite museum galleries anywhere).

Each version of the retrospective would have to be different as Tuttle is an idiosyncratic and pragmatic artist. He adapts and instead of cultivating ambivalence he engages both his materials and space in precise, unfussy and subtle ways. Tuttle practices the art of insinuation. It is personal so let's just liken the effect to visual whispering. Still, don't mistake that for being inward, Tuttle is an aggressive artist. By turning down the volume the viewer has to listen carefully with more than just their eyes and there is a bodily relation to even the flattest wall mounted works.

Tuttle is also massively influential to artists like Phoebe Washburn, Sarah Sze, Mitzi Pederson and a host of others. Tuttle is especially influential in San Francisco as Pulliam Deffenbaugh's Bay Area Bazzar show illustrated. Still Tuttle's different (less fussy, more confident) and more succinct than all those later artists who simply add a little glitter or fill a room. One day Id love to see a show with Tuttle, Rauschenberg & Klee, he holds up in the top tier of combine artists. Artists like Julian Schnabel and Washburn do not belong there at the top and never will.

There were many highpoints to choose from like 1964's Silver Picture or Fountain from 1965. Both display a gift for condensing and harnessing gravity. Similarly, Paul Klee would begin his composition classes at the Bauhaus admonishing his students learn to control gravity in their work.

Other highpoints were 8th Wood Slat (1974) and the 25th wire piece (1972). Both are Trojan horses in their environment, the Eliel Saarinen Wing of the DAC. His Nordic Art Nouveau style is warm, boxy and Tuttle subtly shifts expectations with the slat piece… is it part of the museum? Did someone screw up when they built the museum by not finishing the trim? This would be a completely different piece in Breuer's brutalist architecture.

The show continued through the Saarinen wing as if the two were made for each other and Monkey's Recovery #3 from 1983 was like some kind of softened eggbeater for art weary eyes. A few of the floor pieces like Six (1987) seemed a little cramped but not in a bad way, more like they were all secretly plotting some revolt and the viewer had just stumbled in on their conversation. Quiet but... suspiciously quiet. Tuttle is a master of insinuation and that extends to how he manages the viewer's expectations.

So what happens when Tuttle runs into Richard Meier's own very aggressive architecture? ...some seriously funny stuff. Highlights were predictably New Mexico, New York #14 (1998) and another masterpiece the 8th Waferboard Piece from 1996.

New Mexico, New York #14, 1998; Acrylic on plywood; 22 3/4 x 10 1/2 x 1/2 in.;
Collection of Susan Harris and Glenn Gissler, New York, © Richard Tuttle;
photo: Tom Powel, courtesy Sperone Westwater, New York

Then things get funny. In one spot where Meier has strategically placed several square windows thereby making the curved wall unusable for most artists, Tuttle just ignores convention by breaking the rigid plane of window symmetry with framed pieces like Table and Chair (1990). It's like Tuttle took the opportunity to create an arty breakfast nook by going out of plane! I can picture Meier getting all Yosemite Sam mad complaining how that wascally Tuttle was making "footy prints all over his desert" This was Tuttle dressing in drag and aesthetically giving Meier's building a big slobbery kiss MMMMMMuuuuhhhhh!

In another area nearby, Meier created a cramped but large wall. Something that invited large paintings but due to its tight placement near another wall would normally remain bare (some architects only fantasize about bare walls in a museum with no art, Meier gets to build them. That is until Tuttle puts a string leading to a Chinese finger puzzle near the floor. The Chinese finger puzzle is an apt metaphor for the situation, it's only a constraining situation if you pull, Tuttle condenses and liberates.

Tuttle isn't a formalist or constructivist like some have occasionally written, he creates psychological states that only enfranchised freedom, careful attention and pragmatic vigilance create. The man's a liberator and his art is his very civilized insurrection. Meier's tyranny was just another pragmatic opportunity.

One final treat was DAC curator Laura Burkhalter's revelation that they had acquired a later Tuttle, Floor Drawing #19 (Sentences III), that coresponded to an early work in the collection by his now departed friend, Agnes Martin.

Agnes Martin, The Garden, 1958, painted wood
Des Moines Art Center's Louise Noun Collection of Art by Women, 2001.29

Richard Tuttle, Floor Drawing #19 (Sentences III), 1989
Acrylic paint, wood, ceramic light fixtures, natural canvas
Purchased with funds from the Coffin Fine Arts Trust;
Nathan Emory Coffin Collection of the Des Moines Art Center, 2000.16

Together the two works reminded me of the mementos of Marsden Hartley (specifically his Portrait of a German Officer) and helped me to understand their aesthetic conversation. It's classic case of a museum continuing to develop a unique coherent collection. Perfect.

After the retrospective ends the Tuttle and Martin can converse in the same room together. Art doesn't so much cheat death as prolong the elements of life.

Posted by Jeff Jahn on June 11, 2006 at 23:00 | Comments (1)


Fine review, Jeff. I saw the show at SFMOMA and found the drawings sublime.

Posted by: Brigitte [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 12, 2006 09:55 AM

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