Art has been “ending” since modernism began. Artists have regularly created work that seems to define a point past which art cannot go—and then, presto!, the rabbit is pulled from the hat once again. End-of-art art typically infuriates moralists. It’s often fey and highly aestheticized; it can have an inside-baseball feel, as if it were created for a self-appointed elect. When Whistler rubbed a few luscious tones together instead of making a realistic picture with a message, John Ruskin, in 1877, famously wrote that he “never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.” (Skeptics have had much the same feeling about the contemporary painter Robert Ryman when he lays white on white.) Today, the most delightful upholder of the “Is that art?” tradition is Richard Tuttle, our most artfully artless of artists.
Tuttle even had his own Whistler moment in 1975, when an exhibit of his at the Whitney created an uproar that probably led to the firing of the curator Marcia Tucker. At that time, Tuttle’s art—he’d been making “lines” out of wire and hanging rumpled cloths on the wall—looked shockingly naked, or at least not dressy enough for a museum. A bit of wire passing as drawing? The retrospective of the artist’s work that opened last week at the Whitney Museum of American Art closes that art-world chapter. Tuttle’s work may still have an “Is that art?” look, but it’s no longer shocking. Many viewers are now accustomed to unusual forms or materials, and, no longer fearing that they will be “had,” can look at his art apart from the heavy hand of politics and art theory. It seems remarkable that his work created a fuss, for Tuttle has a modest, corner-of-the-eye sensibility. He makes subtle, whimsical, and tender things.
Organized by Madeleine Grynsztejn for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, “Tuttle” contains varied work made over 40 years, including drawings, sculpture, painting, and assemblages. David Kiehl’s installation is both open and intimate, which is a good idea: Tuttle is at heart a kitchen-table miniaturist whose art withers in big sterile rooms of the kind usually found at the Whitney. The show begins with his wall-size work Letters (The Twenty-Six Series) from 1966, in which typographical characters that aren’t actual letters rise like floating sculptures, playfully opening up the idea of visual and literary meaning. In the late sixties and seventies, Tuttle also made hundreds of eccentric drawings—inspired, serious doodles—on paper that was often torn from notebooks, and made rough-looking but poetic sculptures. At first glance, all such work appeared highly theoretical in spirit and typical of the post-minimalist interest in “process.”
It was certainly art-smart. But it’s a mistake to overemphasize the theoretical character of Tuttle’s art. He is actually one of the most visually oriented artists of his generation, in his way a peacock formalist. He will sponge a subtle tint onto certain sections of white wall to enhance the effect of a particular piece. He makes nothing by rote or rule, instead judging everything by eye. If the paper is torn from a notebook, the little holes on the top of the page will matter visually to the composition of the drawing. His famous “wire pieces” may indeed re-present a new form of drawing, but it sounds pompously abstract to say so. Those particular works, which mix wire, line, and shadows, look whispered upon a wall. They are a kind of fantastical (and Whistlerian) ephemera, and they play with illusion and reality with trembling poignancy.
Despite the formal character of his work, Tuttle, unlike Whistler, does not create an air of aristocratic exclusion. His feeling for scale and his love of eccentric materials (even Styrofoam has a say) are democratic and inviting. Very often, people in his shows smile. In this exhibit, as you turn a corner, you will come upon some “floor drawings” in which a line will run up a wall from some object placed at floor level, ranging from an abstract painting to a little white balloon. Everything around you seems personal, handmade, tinkered with. A small painted construction or assemblage by Tuttle looks like a present he made for someone that morning, a kind of throwaway to be kept.