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Richard Tuttle, “Village VI, No. I, 10,” 2005. Illustration board, mat board, acrylic, pine, glue, corrugated cardboard, paper, wire, marker, graphite, glue sticks, and nails, 14 x 11 1/2 x 2 1/4 inches. Photo by Cathy Carver.

Chris Maybach‘s film, Richard Tuttle: Never Not an Artist, was made in 2005 on behalf of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art as part of their retrospective of Tuttle’s work (which also came to the Whitney Museum in New York.) But after several conversations this weekend about art and comprehension—or the lack of it—and being inspired by my friend George Wingate’s very Tuttlesque sensibilities, I watched the film again last night. This is, for me, a 30 minute sermon about what matters most in art making.

A few highlights:

Tuttle offers this, very matter-of-factly, without bitterness or bite: Of the art interested public, only one in ten gets my work.

When Tuttle was working as a gallery assistant at the prestigious Betty Parsons Gallery in the early sixties, Betty told him that the abstract expressionists were painting the expanding universe. “When I heard that it caused me to consider taking the other position and to work smaller.”

“When I come into synch with the art thing that I am carrying around, I am free from myself.”

Cornelia Butler, an art critic who has written about Tuttle’s work, talks about how critics keep looking for a language to contain his work. “His work resists it.”

Roy Dowell, head of the Graduate Fine Arts Department at Otis College of Art and Design, made the point that Tuttle is not a minimalist. “There is just so much there in his work.”

Dowell also asked the question, “Where does Tuttle get his confidence?” which, given the simplicity of his aesthetics and his approach to materials, is actually an interesting question. But the fact that he has it is essential, clearly.

A few geniuses are likable humans as well. Tuttle is one of those for me.


Carbon Dioxide Ice in the Late Summer

Fan and Dust Devil in Deuteronilus Mensa

Jumbled Terrain in Ius Chasma

There are mornings when language just isn’t of service to what is happening in the interior landscape. So it is ironic that in the language-centric world that is most online environments, the “out of language” still sneaks in. So thank you to my Twitter feed for taking me to an extraordinary site and the source of the images above, HiRISE, High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment: “Explore Mars, one giant image at a time” from the University of Arizona.

As for an appropriate language compliment to this feast? Quotes from Richard Tuttle. Consider it a kind of language version of a musical score for viewing.

In our culture, imitation-based experience dominates reality-based experience. I find this an awful thing. But there are artists who know from the bottom of their souls that art is about the experience of reality. The reason we have art is because you can’t get a real experience from the world.

Time and time again, the intellect robs the creative.

In our culture there is a job for art, because we can’t experience reality anywhere else.

The three things that interest me are the silence, the interest, and the invisible. The quieter side of things. The subtle emotions.

An artwork is actually an accounting of all four elements, though no artist, no matter how hard they try, can bring them in perfect balance. They are arranged subjectively, finally.

When I think of the particular similarity between my work and that of Matisse, I like to think that in both you see water washing away the tears of life, but in his case that brings you to earth; in mine, to the air. is literally the idea of a finite thing having an infinite range of appearance or expression because of its inseparable relation to other things, which is what water is — its relation to other things.

Where the wall meets the floor is a special kind of zone. It’s a de-militarized zone. I’ve always hated plug-in art, because, at its best, a Flavin piece, it implies a whole stretch of dependence and very interesting questions about the link: artwork and society. I’m not interested in this. It’s already been done so well. The question is, what the light is in a piece. In those pieces the key thing is “shadows.” Here, something inside the piece is making the shadows. It’s about having discovered another dimension into a piece. The solution here is to plug into something outside the artwork.

For someone to ask me what is beauty—I really don’t have any idea. Trying to do what it is I want to do, I think, eliminates, or tries to eliminate, beauty as much as possible. If it comes back or it happens naturally—the way you put a coffee cup on a table…. Beauty is somehow a trail you create through your work that’s left behind like a snail leaves its ooze. Where you’re going has absolutely nothing, nothing, nothing to do with beauty.

Pyrre, from a new series of paintings (Graphite, gold pigment, wax medium on wood panel)

Thoughts worth sharing by two artists I admire:

Art is a guarantee of sanity. That is the most important thing I have said.

–Louise Bourgeois

What gets an artist out of bed is the possibility of actually making something with infinite meaning.

–Richard Tuttle

Thank you to Nicole Page-Smith and Jerry Saltz for bringing these up. They are two worthy mantras for the start of any day.

Richard Tuttle, artist and wisdom worker

From time to time I have observed how protracted, focused work in the studio can leave me feeling a particular kind of tightness. It could be described as a slow motion contraction that has moved me away from that elemental sense of expansion and playfulness that should always be present.

This proclivity can be remedied by a number of techniques, and here’s one to add to my list: The San Francisco MOMA has assembled a cache of video interviews with or about Richard Tuttle, any of which take me right back to the reason I started making art in the first place. Whether he is talking about his small work or his use of language, Tuttle is the best human reminder of what is magical, enchanting and beguiling about making something out of nothing. In one of these short video clips he says, “Art is a kind of food, a food for the spirit”. Just hearing him say that, with no pretension, artifice or posturing, moved my set point higher, wider, lighter.

And referencing my post from two days ago, I think of Tuttle as an episodic narrativist–his is a wild adventuresomeness with an overarching connection to meaning. And yes, happy endings.

BTW, I’ve written about Tuttle a lot on this blog over the years since he is one of my all time favorite artists. For a listing of those postings, go here.

Photo: Richard Tuttle

Thanks to my friend David Novak for alerting me to this link.


Richard Tuttle, an artist I hold with deep regard, loves textiles. A few years ago he was asked by curator Mary Hunt Kahlenberg to put together a show of 25 Indonesian ceremonial textiles. His choices as well as the commentary captions he wrote—referred to by him as “love letters” to each of the pieces—were published in a small book called Indonesian Textiles.

The conversational style of the book’s text is refreshing, and I am moved by the passion both Tuttle and Kahlenberg bring to the topic. For Kahlenberg textiles are numinous, with spiritual and aesthetic qualities:

Is it the preparation of the materials, the spinning and dyeing of the yarns, the stretching of the warp and interlacing of the weft, the individual motifs, or the overall composition? Brought together, these elements of process and design produce a construct that is not immediately recognizable to many in our western culture…But how does this laborious process lead to a manifestation of spirituality of feeling similar to those expressed in western art? Do our preconceived notions of manual skill, along with its integral repetitive and obsessive aspects, preclude emotive and spiritual expression?…

The textile’s motif is the most apparent communicator with the spirit world, translated in the form of ancestors…constrained by the grid of weaving, these complex characters and ideas are simplified and become abstractions. In this process they are reduced to their essentials.

Tuttle’s insights wander into, around and through the making of these pieces. He points to how many contemporary artists have been influenced by handwoven textile design including Carl Andre, Eva Hesse, Fred Sandback and Kiki Smith among many others.He feels that their interest in the process and the product reflects an almost political message, finding in these pieces an emotion that would be silenced or lost otherwise. “At the very least,” Tuttle writes, “they bring awareness to a structure that becomes more and more invisible as it transfers the physicality of the hands to the cerebrality of the head.”

I also was stopped by this metaphysical aside, suggested by Kahlenberg’s Indonesian mentor: “The warp is what is given in life and the weft is what happens in life.” Well played.


What a treasure trove is Robert Ayers’ blog, A Sky filled with Shooting Stars. Earlier this week I posted a few extracts from Ayers’ recent interview with Larry Poons. Digging a bit deeper into Ayers’ archives, I have found fascinating interviews with several other significant artists. It is now clear to me that Ayers has a gift at pulling information out of artists that others just don’t know how to access.

Case in point is Ayers’ interview with Richard Tuttle. Conducted concomitant with Tuttle’s show, “Memory Comes from Dark Extension” at Sperone Westwater in 2007, the discussion touches on the exquisitely understated but dauntingly powerful pieces that embodied the sepulchral whiteness of SW. It was a show that knocked me out (and one that I wrote about here.) That exhibit was more intimate and personal than the brilliantly arms flung wide retrospective of Tuttle’s work that traveled the country in 2005/2006, and an extraordinary flowering of giftedness as a follow on to his controversial but now legendary first retrospective at the Whitney in 1975 which garnered this unforgettable condemnation from Hilton Kramer: “In Mr. Tuttle’s work, less is unmistakably less. It is, indeed, remorselessly and irredeemably less. It establishes new standards of lessness.”

Ever since that Whitney show in 1975, Tuttle has been on my *IGLEYD* artist list. So it is even more extraordinary to find how deftly Ayers can pull such rich material out of Tuttle.

Here are a few excerpts from the interview:

Ayers: Richard, this is a beautiful show. But your work is not concerned with beauty, is it?

Tuttle: Eastern philosophers talk about the illusion of the world. I feel very sympathetic to that, because you know in an instant if a person is involved with appearances or reality. There’s a whole huge structure out there that gives high marks for appearances. Then there are the people who are involved with what’s real. By far the vast majority of people’s lives are involved with appearances—even most art is just appearances. People are literally swept away by appearances.

Ayers: But you believe that you’re working with reality rather than appearance?

Tuttle: In our culture there is a job for art, because we can’t experience reality anywhere else. And the experience of reality is absolutely fundamental to human existence. My job is to give the best possible visual experience. I try to raise the bar on the visual experience so that people can enjoy their lives. I get to thinking a lot about motivation—the purest motivation should result in the best visual experience. This is the first show where I think I’ve really connected with this motivation. It takes a lifetime to achieve one’s work. Art is not an overnight career. You can’t face your own desperation until after a long time.

Ayers: How did you go about making this show?

Tuttle: A show is so mysterious. You can make a show with two pieces, or you can make a show with a thousand pieces. But this much I know—there has to be unity…In this show I reached a point where I saw very clearly that there’s breadth and there’s depth—those are the polarities that can be expanded in an artwork. For myself as a maker, I have to choose. Do I go broad or do I go deep?

You can read the entire interview here.

Richard Tuttle, artist extraordinaire

*IGLEYD: “I’m gonna love everything you do.” (pretty much)

“Cold Mountain Studies 10” (1988-90) by Bruce Marden

Having just gone through a stack of recent art periodicals—Modern Painter, Art on Paper, Art Papers, Art Forum—I can categorically say that the number of times I felt connected to (compelled by? curious about? impressed with?) the art being written about or advertised is at a lifetime low. After a while you feel like a lonely dingy, trying to keep from capsizing while the noisy regattas, festooned and extravagant, barrel past. Ahoy! Any other small craft out there?

It may be that all the art regattas are being pulled ashore, now in storage until the next good breeze season is upon us once again and we are through this particular patch of bad weather. Dingys are all season vessels, too small to notice or worry about. And there is something to be said for that durability and agility.

For the first time in quite a spell, today’s Times brought news of two shows in New York that feel dingy-friendly: The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, at the Guggenheim; and Pierre Bonnard: The Late Interiors, at the Metropolitan. Both shows are up until April 19.

The influence of Asia on American art is a fascinating topic and one that I have studied for some time. The Transcendentalists were digging into Asian spiritual traditions as early as the 1840s, with accounts of Emerson and Thoreau reading the Upanishads and the Bhagavad-Gita. Japanese prints made their way into American visual consciousness, many by way of Paris-based artists who were captivated by a different concept of pictoral space as portrayed in Ukiyo-e wood cuts.

That meme’s influence has continued, showing up in a wide variety of facets of American art. And it is an influence I resonate with deeply—one that features the meditative, the mysterious, the nonlinear and nonrational.

And Bonnard. He’s the colorist whose work never ends in pleasuring the eye. One of Bonnard’s signatory flairs was his insistence in placing a stripe or patch of bright orange in every painting. He is, after all, the master of the secondary palette—those colors that result from mixing two primary colors—the purples, the greens, the oranges.

Here is an excerpt from Holland Cotter‘s review of the Guggenheim show:

Asian influence seeped into American painting a bit later, after scholars like Ernest Fenollosa and artists like John La Farge visited Japan. In the show you can see the fashion for it catch on and spread, in Whistler’s inky 1870s nocturnes, in Arthur Wesley Dow’s turn-of-the-century Japanese-style prints, and in the spiritualizing work of artists who lived closer to Asia in the American Northwest: Morris Graves with his luminous images of birds and Chinese bronzes, Mark Tobey with his calligraphic “white writing.”

Tobey’s art is sometimes taken as a precursor of gestural abstraction in New York. And the case for linking some forms of Abstract Expressionism with Asian writing has been made and unmade many times. With its lineup of Pollocks, Motherwells and Klines the show pushes the argument forward again, though without adding anything startlingly new to it.

Instead its surprises come from the West Coast. There’s a gorgeous painting by Sam Francis, who lived for a while in Tokyo, of what looks like a lotus on fire. Lee Mullican’s “Evening Raga” has the note-by-note shimmer of Indian music. And his friend Gordon Onslow-Ford, a spiritual omnivore who painted on a ferryboat in Sausalito and wore “visionary” like a campaign button, offers a kind of abstract version of “Starry Night,” all filigree webs and wheels.

By the time this piece, “Round See,” was done in 1961, John Cage had been painting, composing and proselytizing his customized version of Zen for years. A section of the show is dedicated to him, or rather to a concept he embodied, one absolutely central to Asian culture: the idea of lineage, the transmission of forms and knowledge from mind to mind.

Cage developed his aesthetic of chance operation in part through study with the Zen scholar D. T. Suzuki, and shared what he learned with contemporaries like Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. A Rauschenberg combine called “Gold Standard” (1964) was slapped together in a matter of hours on a Tokyo stage as Cage watched.

But Cage’s creative DNA also passed on to a generation of younger, Zen-tinged, Neo-Dada artists who used the group name Fluxus. Work by several of them — Nam June Paik, Yoko Ono, Alison Knowles — is assembled near Cage’s, along with a ready-for-the-future-travel suitcase packed with Fluxiana.

Traditional Zen painting is black and white. By contrast, Tibetan Buddhist art comes in vivid colors, which made it naturally attractive to artists and writers taking drugs in the 1950s and 1960s. Some are indelibly identified as Beats. Jack Kerouac, with sketchy bodhisattvas and a manuscript slice of “Dharma Bums,” is one. So is William Burroughs, whose esoteric cut-and-paste work called “The Third Mind” gave the show its title.

Where an artist like Harry Smith fits in is harder to say. Chronologically he was a Beat. But his short animated films blending Tantrism, Theosophy, Orientalist Pop and Alastair Crowley, all to a cool jazz score, don’t feel period specific. They could be hippie ’60s. They could be by young artists today. (It’s important to note that the show barely touches on Islamic Asia, specifically on Sufism, in which Mr. Smith was interested.)

There are a number of free-radical types like him in the show, which is one reason it has a patchy, scrapbookish look. Even the section devoted to Minimalism resists the sort of uniformity that art history, ever straightening and cleaning, tries to impose.

Ms. Munroe [the show’s curator] finesses the problem by inventing a category she calls ecstatic minimalism, which covers expected figures like Robert Irwin, Ad Reinhardt and Richard Tuttle, but also admits personally expressive works like those of Agnes Martin and Yayoi Kusama, and makes room for excellent artists like Natvar Bhavsar , Zarina Hashmi and Tadaaki Kuwayama, so seldom seen in big mainstream shows that they’ve barely been slotted at all.

Into this charmed circle Ms. Munroe also brings abstract artists working with sound and light, like Jordan Belson, James Whitney and La Monte Young. Whether you call Mr. Belson and Mr. Whitney optical scientists or psychic magicians, they are fascinating figures, very much in line with the Guggenheim’s own history as a museum of non-objective art rooted in diverse cultural and spiritual traditions.

As for Mr. Young, he and his “Dream House,” with a 24/7 drone and trippy lighting by Marian Zazeela, have long since become underground institutions. First installed as a permanent environment in his Manhattan home in 1962, then used for performances with his teacher, the Hindustani raga vocalist Pandit Pran Nath, and now reconstituted at the Guggenheim, “Dream House” forms a natural bridge to the conceptual and performance art that brings the show to a close.