Richard Tuttle sees the light

Richard Tuttle, Silhouette. Opportunity, 2019, fir plywood, lattice strip. glue, nails, spray paints, 33 × 30 × 2 inches

Contributed by Sharon Butler / Richard Tuttle, who has lived in New Mexico since the late 1980s, recently got an expansive new studio on Mount Desert Island in Maine. Exchanging mesa views for a perch on the ocean, at the very edge of a country on the verge of a nervous breakdown, places him physically on the margin. It’s a position he held in the art world for many years, and he appears quite comfortable there. The new place, where he spent the summer, inspired the body of work that was recently on view at Pace. 

Richard Tuttle, Grand Daddy Blue, 2019, fir plywood, pine lattice stripping, wood glue, spray paints, 28-1/2 × 24 × 2 inches

In “Days, Muses and Stars,” Tuttle foregoes the idiosyncratic presentational strategies that he has explored over the years and hangs the work conventionally, at eye level evenly distributed around the enormous space. Each work consists of a few layers of roughly 30-inch plywood shapes embellished with loose spray paint drawings. He has fashioned layered objects, sometimes with other items attached, that remind me of the debris that I would find washed ashore at high tide when I lived on the New England coast as a girl. Lobster-pot buoys, winter moorings, nylon fishing nets, sea glass, and other items arrived on the rocks, tangled together in what might now resemble completed if distressed recent Tuttle objects. 

Tuttle, however, has always privileged newness, not found or weathered elements that refer to past lives and experiences. The distinctive feature of his aesthetic endeavor is his reverence for the present. His objects, though they may convey a sense of wabi-sabi precariousness, are invariably made of pristine materials that reflect the proximate experience of making. Most of the plywood in these pieces is raw and unpainted, with the wood grain perhaps suggesting distant waves, but Tuttle rarely records a line, shape, or color directly from something he sees in the natural world. If he titles some of his pieces after Greek muses, they depict nothing in the way of books, lyres, or drama masks.

Richard Tuttle, Euterpe (music), 2019, fir plywood, pine lattice stripping, wood glue, nails, spray paints, plastic spoons, plastic, 33 × 30 × 9 inches

In essence, each piece is a formal expression of an idea not about anything that might be represented or referred to in the picture plane, but about the here-and-now of both making and experiencing the work. Tuttle has fixated, in particular, on light and its illusions – possibly prompted by the contrast between ambient light in New Mexico and that in Maine, between the washed-out, high-noon palette of Georgia O’Keeffe’s skulls and the sublime setting-sunlight of Edward Hopper’s New England seaside. Layered slabs of shaped plywood cast shadows, and are inset with three-dimensional stepped elements made of pine lattice strips. These constructs, sometimes painted with flat, bright spray enamel, catch the light and cause the color to shift, one side of the step warm and bright, the other cool and dark. 

Richard Tuttle, Sunday, 2019, fir plywood, pine lattice stripping, wood glue, nails, spray paints, aluminum, metal wire, 28-1/2 × 23 × 2-1/2 inches

He is fascinated by the slipperiness and beauty of color and its relationship to light. While the objects may be about the illusion created by color and its contingent nature, what they signify are not painted effects but real ones, caused by an external physical phenomenon. Exerting as little control as possible within his aesthetic parameters has always been one of Tuttle’s Zen-like preoccupations, and here he manages it brilliantly. 

Richard Tuttle, installation view at Pace

Although his work can seem simplistic and reductive, Tuttle is anything but uninformed or anti-intellectual. He reads and writes poetry, contemplates metaphysics, and explores philosophy, asking questions about and looking for meaning in the world around him. What captivates him is the existential tension between object and illusion, light and dark, fact and fiction. His statement about the new work takes the form of a poem:

The entire
Body of work
Was produced
In the summer

Of 2019
After ar
Duous beg
Ginings where

No consis
Tent forms
Or materials
Took place, dom

Inated, a
Breakthrough
Took place
That showed

Itself as
A zig zag be
Tween two
Surfaces

That let
Light into
A darkness
Much the

Same as
When light
Penetrates
The dense for

Rests of
Maine How a
A little piece
Of light can

Get through
(Or a deer
Can so ele
Gantly slip

Through the
Density) is
Astonishing
And pictoral

The density
Is also pic
Toral In fact
It is known

Just as much
As the light
Penetrating
It All the

Elements of
A picture are
Here So much
So they can mine

Picture making
In ways never
Before possible
It is so rich

In fact it has
To be held
Together by
Humanity

For the au
Diance it is
Intended
To serve

The group
of work called
Stars are this
group The

Group called
Muses shows
The capacity
For portrayal

Each work
Showing each
Of the nine
Muses from

Hesiod’s
Theogony
Not as il
Lustration

But from his
Source Days
Shows the
Ability to

Play and dis
Play from the
Same source,
Love, and light.

Tuttle isn’t depicting the muses in Hesiod’s Theogony – an epic poem about the birth of the gods in the ancient Greeks’ pantheon – but he suggests that his work, like theirs, is an effort to bring benign and agreeable order to chaos. With slyly methodical humility, he gathers all the elements of a picture, including the sense of three-dimensionality created by the illusion of light and shadow, and reassembles them in an unfamiliar form that lets “light into a darkness.” It seems that the light on the Maine coast has struck Tuttle as transcendent, a powerful instrument of love, beauty, and goodness.

Richard Tuttle: Days, Muses and Stars,” Pace, 510 West 25th St., New York, NY. November 12 to December 21, 2019.

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Related posts:
The gap between: “Unfinished” at the Met Breuer
Richard Tuttle reviews I, Augustus, Emperor of Rome
The backstory: Supports/Surfaces survey at CANADA
The Casualist tendency

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