“And here is the seventies room,” explained my tour guide. As we entered the enormous stark white gallery, I was overcome with uncontrollable laughter. During the 1970s, artist Richard Tuttle was a minimalist to a fault. His tiny plywood cutouts and one-inch strips of rope, which were all nailed to the wall well below eye level, were hardly enough to fill one of the massive gallery spaces at the Museum of Contemporary Art. But I think that was the point. Tuttle’s latest exhibit, “The Art of Richard Tuttle,” displays the artist’s work over four decades, with one room dedicated to each. If the tour is taken in chronological order—from the 1960s to the 1990s—it is easy to understand Tuttle’s process and view the outcome of his forty-year experimentation. But if you happen to wander into a gallery out of sequence, you’ll be bombarded by the aforementioned white space or a collection of sloppily painted trash sculptures. “He’s kind of like your crazy dad who spends a lot of time collecting shit,” explained a friend who had previewed the Tuttle exhibit before me. “If he hadn’t been discovered as an artist, he’d probably just be some crazy guy who spends a lot of time in the garage.”
As one has to expect with 1960s contemporary art, Tuttle’s early work is based so much more on concept than product—a theme that became integrated into almost all of his work to follow. In the beginning of his career, Tuttle began experimenting with shapes and created a series of fabric works that are monotone and have no specific orientation, allowing the person who installs the work to decide how the piece will be hung. This allows the pieces to be reinvented every time they are moved to a new gallery.
In the 1970s, as previously mentioned, Tuttle became an extreme minimalist. And while doing so, he created tiny cardstock sculptures, which are currently glued to the walls at the MCA. The paintings defy the basic rules of framing, as they contain strips of paint that extend beyond the work and onto the wall. Such is the same with Tuttle’s wire sculptures, which are essentially one- to two-foot pieces of soft wire wrapped around nails at various points on the wall. But Tuttle takes such a simple structure and explores the 3D nature of an object attached to the wall and the way it casts a shadow by drawing thin graphite lines underneath it on the wall and causing the viewer to question where the shadow ends and the pencil marks begin.
In the early 1980s, Tuttle seemed to abandon his minimalist beginnings and took his sculptures to the extreme. He created trash art that could have only been regarded as “art” in the eighties. His early attempts consisted of pop cans and twigs nailed to plywood and splattered with primary-colored paint, embodying that old concept that anything can be art but failing to make a coherent statement beyond that. By 1988, though, Tuttle had once again found his direction. Although he continued with the trash art, his themes became much more cohesive and simplified. He began framing his drawings in identical frames and hanging them together to create a series of smaller pieces that could be installed as one unit.
This universal theme carried him into the 1990s, when he created my absolute favorite work, “Replace the Abstract Picture Plane.” This twenty-piece work is a series of plywood squares, all painted with two solid colors—one on each vertical half—and hung so that they suspend slightly from the wall. They are each surrounded by simple frames, which are larger than the actual work. Individually, not one of the paintings is incredibly convincing. But to view all twenty en masse is quite powerful.
In this final room of Tuttle’s exhibit, it is easy to see his various experiments throughout the years come to fruition and create some astounding work. There are pieces Tuttle has created throughout his career, especially during the late 1970s and early 1980s, which are easy to dismiss as bad art. But if you shift your mindset and realize that each one of these pieces is part of an overall process, experimenting with materials, tones, sizes, locations and the general boundaries to which artwork is typically supposed to adhere, it is hard to imagine any single piece standing alone. This massive exhibit demonstrates that Tuttle’s openness to experimenting with absolutely any aspect of art that had been pre-defined trumps the final product most of the time.
“The Art of Richard Tuttle” shows at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 East Chicago, (312)280-2660, through February 4, 2007.