Richard Tuttle: No Way You Can Frame It

replace the abstract picture plane II, 1997. Cast and welded aluminum, marble, 168 in. high. Guido Baselgia / Collection Kunsthaus Zug

All of Richard Tuttle’s work originates in the form of theoretical questions. Is it possible to have an object that is an abstraction yet that can also stand in for some concrete object or concept that already exists? Can any physical object exist as a unique entity and represent an abstraction at the same time? These profound questions are at the heart of the 20th-century debate concerning image-making, the nature of representation, and the notion of the “subject.” Tuttle considers perception in terms of phenomenology, a term which to him includes concepts such as language and history. He is uninterested in any notion of sculpture that excludes the two-dimensional; in his realm of objects, Tuttle uses any form, material, or process. Along the way, he reverses the rigid, highly defined Modernist and Conceptualist paradigms by making the intangible, cerebral, and philosophical into the concrete: materializing thought into object.

For 30 years, his work has been engaged with an attempt to expand the various exclusionary notions defining sculpture and space. For him, every type of construction represents a transformation of nature into culture, thus rendering categorization absurd and inconsequential. He has developed procedures in which the relationship between objects is as important as the linguistic definition of the object itself. Two of Tuttle’s recent pieces, commissioned by the Swiss museum-without-collection, Kunsthaus Zug, concern themselves with these questions of space and representation, dealing specifically with “replacing the concept of the abstract picture plane”: a perverse idea that within standard systems of visual organization would seem to be of concern only to those involved with a traditional usage of materials. The specific question Tuttle asked was: “Why is the abstract picture plane satisfying?” In so asking, Tuttle questions not only the meaning of “abstract” but also of the “real.” Such a question underlines the fact that “reality” and “abstraction” are fictitious models that visualize a reality that can neither be seen nor described but which we conclude exists. The concept of the “picture plane” contains quantities of historical and physical debris which provide an important resource for Tuttle’s overall project. The end result is in deliberate conflict with traditional models.

Pink Oval Landscape, 1964. Painting on canvas and wood, 17.1 x 22 x 2.4 in. Sperone Westwater, New York.

The two pieces tackle the notions that once defined sculpture: an object made out of classically derived materials (stone and metal) placed on top of a pedestal which raised it to or above the viewer’s eye-level. The traditional definition of sculpture requires such an object to have certain distinct characteristics in order to be visible as a sculpture. The “picture plane” or classical field of reference for “sculpturality” limits the visual experience to certain parameters within a three-dimensional arena with particular reference to architecture, the body of the viewer, and a horizon line. There must be a tangible material and formal contrast with surrounding architecture. Lastly, consciousness of the mass of the object, size of the viewer, and scale of the architectural background must play a major role in the overall experience. All of this, of course, relies for coherence upon a kind of subcon- scious terminology most appropriately applied to the two-dimensional, specifically to drawing. The point of these two pieces is the way they do away with distinctions between space “inside” and “outside” and also effectively shatter the notion that there is a crucial distinction made by such language, by a need for terminology like “the picture plane.” This formulation gets rid of the absolute distinctions between what has been the conceptual and the illusionistic, giving each notion a place in a continuum.

Although both bear the same title, “replace the abstract picture plane”, the two objects represented by the single title are totally unrelated visually. One object is outside the museum, directly adjacent to it; the other is inside and completely occupies three stories of space within a circular staircase. Both pieces were fabricated by local craftspeople. The exterior piece represents the kind of conceptual conundrum much beloved by gestalt psychologists: it is a drawing in space; a line taking on physical substance; a diagrammatic idea of sculpture which conflates the notion of “real” space with “virtual” space. It is a marvelous intellectual joke particularly on the material level; this object’s constituent pieces are made from the most traditional and conservative Modernist classical elements. There is an elaborate pedestal consisting of a highly polished marble rectangle bearing the weight of two connected, David Smith-like, stainless steel cubes. Crowning this arrangement, in place of the conventional equestrian monument, are two cast aluminum lines. These pierce the edge of the penultimate cube and soar three times the height of the pedestal into the air: reins without a horse. The shadow cast by this object restates its raison d’être and demonstrates it; both the concrete object and its evanescent double “replace the abstract picture plane.”

Cloth Piece (Pale Orange “M”), 1967. Dyed canvas, 38.5 x 40 in. Sperone Westwater, New York.

The second piece, made from the fabric used for postal worker’s uniforms, gets to the heart of the endless “what-is-an-art-object?” debate. It is without a central aspect, made of repeating elements that twist around the ascending interior space of a staircase. Entirely without overt meaning, it is an experience constituted by a variety of different elements, combining real and virtual spaces and using elements drawn from painting, architecture, and costume. It is both organic and mechanical, a wonderfully clumsy, awkward, witty object like a clown’s giant, colorful shoe. It is an object that makes multiple references to the processes of daily life (mail delivery); to the botanical, in its green, vine-like repetitive structure; to the mathematical (Fibonacci series and other such replicative formulas), in its carefully calculated divisions of space; and to the technological, through its use of highly engineered steel and aluminum elements. This ludicrous, carefully organized, and idiosyncratic object summarizes Tuttle’s evolving confrontation with the notion of the artwork/masterpiece, his ideas about significance, and his contrasting of the “special” and the “everyday.” This piece actively incorporates the space in which it is situated, creating a completely theatrical space meant to be walked through and shared; the space of the viewer and the space of the object are one and the same, seamless and without arbitrary distinctions. This is not an art of absolutes, it is an ongoing process of questioning, investigation, and collaboration with its viewer. It is an art that takes for granted 19th-century notions of the “sublime” and updates them to encompass the pleasure principle. All Tuttle’s work, but especially this piece, is about visual pleasure.

Within the Protestant ethic, pleasure is sin; fear of losing control seems to bracket every unprofitable experience. The therapeutic culture dictates there be a lesson at the heart of any encounter and judges worth by the lump sum of knowledge gained from it. European artists have long valued both knowledge and pleasure and have deftly joined the two in their work. The mixture may be a uniquely European value; “Kopf und Bauch” (“brains and guts”), say the Germans, who especially admire the artist, philosopher, writer, and musician who is capable of such combinations. It is this precise and well-balanced mixture of the intellect and the senses that makes Richard Tuttle’s work simultaneously suspect and admirable. As such, the work represents a kind of artistic practice that was common until about 30 years ago but is today a rarity.

It is difficult to observe this work, let alone write about it; in any case, the critical lexicon contains little vocabulary capable of describing the visual; what vocabulary it has is more likely to banalize than enlighten. One of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s most profound ideas strongly applies to Tuttle’s work: the process of observation destroys the object studied by transforming it into an object with a different nature. This second object requires from the observer a new effort which results in destroying the second in favor of a third. The process continues indefinitely but what it succeeds in doing is “erasing the distinction between meaning and absence of meaning which is the point at which observation begins.”1 This erasure is at the heart of Richard Tuttle’s method of thinking and working and is the main reason why it is so challenging to write about his work.

Tuttle’s work is demanding and evanescent: an attempt to create an “object of ideas” rather than a “merely” aesthetic experience. This kind of art-making is closely related to the literary conception of “the novel of ideas,” in that its raison d’être is philosophical and didactic rather than narrative and entertaining. During Tuttle’s 30-year career, his work has variously been categorized as “Postminimalist” or “Conceptual” and referred to by theorists as an example of the “dematerialization of art” or “sculpture in the expanded field.” Such terminology provides a fairly accurate description of Tuttle’s process yet avoids the central question. Tuttle himself refers to this core directly; he considers his work to be engaged in a search for “a type of beauty that excludes ego…an expression of something beyond words.” He uses elements such as color and odd juxtapositions of materials to demand the viewer’s attention and to seduce the eye, and uses beauty as a kind of visual foreplay, a prelude to engaging the brain. His work evokes sculptor Tony Smith’s statement from the 1950s: “There is no way you can frame it, you just have to experience it.”2

Relative in Our Society, 1990. Wood, wire mesh, cedar branch, electrical wire, lightbulbs, paper, and masonite, 73 x 23 x 10 in. Private Collection.

This work represents one extreme of the two conflicting poles of late 20th-century artistic output: the purely intellectual and sensual as opposed to the socially engaged. To Tuttle, “art is the ultimate democratic practice,” but its practitioners are not democratically chosen. For him, the ability to make significant art comes about as the melding of a peculiar kind of informed curiosity, a bent towards the aesthetic, and a natural physical dexterity. He defines art as “an intelligence formed by a group and expressed by single practitioners.” He is a strange anomaly among the current generation of theory-conscious art-makers-a conceptualist who daily pledges his faith in the object; a maker of solid stuff from ephemeral materials; an urbane and sophisticated artist in the thick of the mainstream-who nonetheless for the past seven years has created the majority of his work in a studio atop a remote New Mexico mesa.

Tuttle’s work is an odd presence on the current scene. Its decorative appearance, unapologetically inconsequential nature, and the way in which it so frankly offers its charm and wit undermine the distanced cynicism that has become habitual for both viewers and art-makers. The work is utterly nothing, barely present, yet it insists upon and emphasizes its importance as a consequence of thought and interaction. Like his Enlightenment forefathers, Tuttle has retained faith in the art object as a major vehicle for complex ideas. Current practice at the millennium’s end entails a tough-guy refusal where the merely beautiful, the poetic gesture, the socially irrelevant are concerned. Objects are expected not to give in to the febrile seductions of appearance, the thing-in-itself; instead they must be “about” a “relevant” something. The allowed categories of these somethings have been diminishing; within today’s academy, “aboutness” limits itself to the Big Four: gender, social issues, aesthetic theory, and popular culture. Tuttle considers these categories overly confining and intellectually vacuous. His aim is to “fight for the object” because “the artist has the responsibility of being present in and for the work.”

Waferboard 10, 1996. Acrylic on waferboard, 38.75 x 14 in. Sperone Westwater, New York.

In “The Poetics of Space”, Gaston Bachelard distinguishes between “an absolute image that is self-accomplishing, and a post-ideated image that is content to summarize existing thoughts.”3 This notion of “self-accomplishing” images is at the heart of Tuttle’s performance as an artist. The work is an end in itself, completely imaginative in the way it offers an absolute and unique vision rather than a “summarization of existing thoughts.” His deep involvement in “process” is ultimately of far more interest than the produced objects themselves, which are to him mere records of a process of thought and physical realization. Although these objects are often decorative and definitely “retinal” (to use a Duchampian phrase) they do not come into existence in the same way as most art objects. They are attempts to create visual constructs from intellectual notions as well as an attempt to insert an imaginative, non-linear, poetic reality into the life of the eye.

Kathleen Whitney is a sculptor and writer. She lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.


1 Claude Levi-Strauss, Triste Tropiques. New York: Atheneum. 1974.

2 As quoted by Hal Foster in The Return of the Real. Cambridge, MIT Press, 1996.

3 Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space. Boston: Beacon Press, 1974.