Richard Tuttle. I Don’t Know. The Weave of Textile Language, at the Whitechapel Gallery, London.
It’s easy to take for granted the shape-shifting and transitory ‘almost there’ quality of Tuttle’s work and forget the length of his career to boot. It is too easy to have caught a glimpse of 3 or 4 of his pieces over the years and think that you know his work. I caught such a glimpse last year in a large collection of American art. I was impressed by the subtlety and focus to his colour play, hard won, it seemed, from the frailty and ubiquity of the throw-away materials he manipulates or strings together somehow. No matter how fragile, or how far they wavered from the painterly rectangle, the works still held the wall and seemed to hold their own too against the more robust conglomerations of good ol’ American trash that the likes of Rauschenberg, Kienholz or Brecht could throw at me from the same show.
But these initial and casual introductions to his work as seen as parts of larger group exhibitions did not prepare me for the low-key ambiance that this Whitechapel survey show had in store. Here, Tuttle shows assemblages from a 50 year career that explore and question the foundational rectangle of painting and the spatial parameters of sculpture via his obsession with what he calls ‘the weave of textile language’.
I had admired what I considered Tuttle’s real visual lightness of touch. It’s comprised of an acute sensitivity to the potential in colour, texture and weight of the most mundane materials. It’s a sensibility that manifests itself in the most suggestive shapes and a peculiar and refined taste for balance (and its disturbance) stretched to the limit, all achieved by the greatest economy of means. This current show runs with a different emphasis though…
“Just as a series of single threads are woven to form textile, words are interlaced to form sentences and meaning”
This is a cosy correlation between language and the visual properties of textile and cloth. As much as I enjoyed the curatorial thesis, I think it closed down rather than opened up different ways into the work. Why? Because I believe his best work is the least literary and most abstract. The danger here is to overplay Tuttle’s taste for word play and language games which run the risk of turning the works into easy-to-digest absurdities, a sort of neo-dada-lite. From this perspective, Systems VI, 2011, was more like a theatrical curiosity, almost parodying the machinery of the textile industries from the late 19th to early 20th century. Plonked centrally in the ground floor space, It lacked any sensitivity to site, or weight or other clear sculptural concerns. My attention was drawn to the ambiguous play of contrasting materials suspended under an internal light source like a half-built birds nest. On another level, the whole look of the sculpture resembled some kind of revolving clockwork stage; or, with its four corner posts, a makeshift bandstand, the circular base punctuated by wooden beams and irreverent red orbs.
All in all, the ground floor hang felt particularly subdued and, ironically, full of very conventional if ill at ease rectangles, a lot of which were wall texts. Are these texts half-baked truisms or revelatory insights by the artist? At their best they did shed a little light onto the philosophical predilection for finding the miraculous in the everyday. But on more than one occasion they felt visually awkward and, as poetry goes, heavy handed. Wherever one looked they seemed to be cutting up and budging in on the fragile countenance of the works they were there to support. The whole left side of the ground floor space felt cramped in this respect. It was difficult to focus on the tiny combinations of minute flotsam clumped on the end of the makeshift stems of the group Section VII Extension pieces, 2007, or focus on some of the delicate thin washes of paint on spun plastic (Space-is-Concrete series). Spotlights high above focused in on very small areas of wall space and left the overall atmosphere somewhat murky and even more theatrical.
By contrast the right wall felt strangely empty. Here, the Wire Pieces are the sum of pencil lines drawn directly on the wall, combined with tethered wires and the shadows cast by them from the heavy spots. This low-fi choreography of 3 forms of line ignites a flash point between the conceptual and the material. But it’s that gratifying irrational ‘ping’ of the coiling wires released from various tethers that sets the whole thing off.
For all the frailty and danger of whimsy, Tuttle’s ‘touch’ comes from a tough quotidian take on minimalism. This approach, I believe, is explored with more clarity in the last of the upper galleries. Here, the space feels much lighter, and finishes the show with some earlier pieces from the late sixties. Tuttle asks us to focus our senses and scrutinise the vertical warp and horizontal weft of the weave that forms the textured surface on which the painter has worked for centuries – the canvas itself. This warp and weft forms the usually tightly-knit grid of the canvas that holds the paint in and on its surface. The grid in another context had at this time (late sixties) become a central and rather more portentous concern of high-end minimalist art. Pieces like Purple Octagonal, 1967, or Ladder Piece open up the hard faux-industrial edges of minimalism to the ability of textile and cloth to express a very human vulnerability and scale. These works feel thrown around the space, close to the ceiling and low to the floor. They escape the rather inward looking and framed doodlings or the more fussy and theatrical contraptions of later works selected.
‘Slacker Art’, ‘Crapstraction’ and other manifestations of what might be called the provisional trend in painting/sculpture have been well and truly played to death in the last 10 years. Tuttle’s influence here is easy to see. But his best work has less to do with frustrating audience expectations, some notion of failure or theatrical nihilism, and more to do with exploring the inner logic of a work’s necessary development through the expressive potential of the most unexpected materials and use of colour and space. At his best he finds, in the given histories and conventions of painting and sculpture, a springboard into unfamiliar, poetic and psychologically charged territory. I think this survey show suffers for being just one part of a three-pronged project (a book and a massive a Turbine Hall piece at Tate being the other two). I was left wanting a more comprehensive and challenging retrospective of Tuttle’s work in this country. And I guess that can’t be a bad feeling to have!
John Bunker, October 2014
Richard Tuttle: I Don’t Know. The Weave of Textile Language is at the Whitechapel Gallery until 14 December 2014 and Tate Modern Turbine Hall until 6 April 2015. All photos ©Richard Tuttle, Courtesy Stuart Shave Gallery/Modern Art, London, and Pace Gallery, New York