Free the line, free your mind
December 7, 2005
Over the course of an hour-long conversation, Richard Tuttle manages not to mention even one of the nearly 100 of his art objects being installed, or lying in boxes, at the Aspen Art Museum. And as Tuttle is engrossed, in his internally focused way, on such abstract concepts as joy, generosity, nothingness and, especially, freedom, the individual works seem almost beside the point. So it never occurs to me to refer to them, even though they are inches away, in every direction you look.There is, however, one piece of art from his past that Tuttle does bring up. In kindergarten, in his native New Jersey, Tuttle and his classmates were given crayons and told to draw. “I thought, ‘This is the first day of my life,'” Tuttle, now 64, recalls of the experience.”I looked at all the other drawings – flowers and the sun in the corner of the paper,” Tuttle continued, about that kindergarten exercise. “I thought mine was the best, but I also thought I lost some innocence. The teacher put up all the other drawings, but not mine.”I ask Tuttle what his drawing was of, and he sweeps his hand to indicate the whole body of work represented in the Aspen Art Museum exhibit, “It’s a Room for 3 People,” mostly drawings and mixed-media works in string, cardboard, wood and paint; almost all of it emphatically modest in scale and ambition. It is easy to see the kindergartner in the near-naivete of the work. “It was just like this,” said Tuttle, who is typically described as a post-minimalist. “Yeah, it’s everywhere. It’s a simple gesture, but a gesture of happiness, a love of life, in this very simple line. And that’s been my work ever since.”
“It’s a Room for 3 People” is simple even by Tuttle’s standards. The exhibit, first shown at The Drawing Center in New York City late last year, features four separate rooms, or “villages” in Tuttle’s description (a term he has grown to dislike). Each village contains, more or less, an array of objects on the walls, a sculptural piece or two, and an empty wall. The planning for the show, some three years in the making, coincided with preparations for “The Art of Richard Tuttle,” a full-scale retrospective that opened last month at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art. Seeing the retrospective as something of a mediated artistic experience, he conceived “It’s a Room for 3 People” as a pure artistic expression.”That’s a case where the artist hands over the work to an art historian – a really difficult thing to do,” he said of the retrospective, which covers a nearly 40-year career. “So I wanted to do an exhibit that is the maximum thing, what you’d call an artist’s exhibition. The Drawing Center is the maximum scale of an institution that can do the maximum of an artist’s show. That’s what I wanted – the max.”Tuttle’s definition of “the max” includes a catalog, titled “Manifesto,” that is an unwieldy complex of inserts, foldouts, divisions into “abstract” and “concrete,” and an interview, printed in straightforward black-and-white text, between curator Catherine de Zegher and Tuttle. “Manifesto” proposes such questions as Why Can We Not Draw Motion? and Why Can We Not Draw What We Cannot See? and provides variations on the answer: Motion Can Be Drawn When Drawing Is All That Drawing Can Be.
Tuttle says he still feels connected to that kindergarten artist he once was. At the time, he was drawing without reference to anything that had gone before, without connection, even, to the typical kids’ doodlings that his classmates were tapped into. “It’s a Room for 3 People,” like all of Tuttle’s work, is meant as an expression of, and even commentary on, that experience of freedom, of freeing up art.”The whole show is a thing where, we’ve accepted this canon about what drawing is,” said Tuttle, who earlier this year was honored with the Aspen Art Museum’s first Aspen Award for Art, and whose work was included in the Art Museum exhibit, “DesignArt,” this past summer. “The whole show is directed to freeing drawing from the canon.”Tuttle believes the basics of drawing are commonly thought of in overly restrictive terms. A line, for instance, is fine – so long as it’s put to a good use, as in making the sun or a cloud.”In first grade, that’s the first message – a line is something you draw a tree or a face with. So drawing becomes subordinate to representation,” said Tuttle, who splits his time between homes in New York’s Tribeca neighborhood and New Mexico. “But drawing can be primary. In that sense, a line can be free from subordination. “At one point, Tuttle proclaims that he “can’t be linear.” This seems true; one abstract thought connects to another and another, which might explain why eye contact also seems nearly impossible for Tuttle. His thought process involves constant deep thinking and scanning the horizon of ideas. So it is a natural transition when Tuttle moves from freeing drawing to more general concepts of freedom.”So it is about drawing, but about being primary, freeing drawing from being about anything but itself. And then it becomes politically charged – because we can be free from being subordinates of business, or someone else’s interests,” he said. “Normally, what we do think of is limited or constrained by what our parents told us, or what the world can offer us at a particular time. If drawing is freeing, it can get you free of all those things that confine you. That’s why artists want to pursue this ‘freer.’ Artists in general are always involved in bringing freedom, and that’s why they’re generally attacked. Any why, when they introduce something new, they’re generally attacked.”If you see a line that’s free, or a drawing that’s free, you would like to be that free.”Tuttle has had more than his share of attacks. A New York Times review of his 1975 Whitney show was so scathing as to have become infamous in the annals of art criticism. It shook him, but only for an instant.”There was a moment I really hit the bottom,” he said. “I thought, if what I’m doing is nothing, then everything is nothing. I knew everything couldn’t be nothing. So I came up. If this potentiality is nothing, then there is nothing. So I might as well do what I’m doing.”
Dressed all in black, talking about nothingness, his hair disheveled, Tuttle can appear from a distance as driven by dark, deep thoughts. But after speaking about drawing in quasi-revolutionary terms, he decides he has been too negative and confrontational, and makes one of his conversational leaps. More important than communicating theoretical concepts, he says, his art is meant to uplift.”I care much more for someone coming in and seeing something beautiful, something that makes their day,” he said. “That’s better than all the didactic stuff. My thing has always been that art is for everyone.”In fact, Tuttle would like to see everyone embrace art, of all kinds, on a level that he doesn’t presently see. Art can be the prescription for a world ailing with constraints, misery and spiritual poverty.”You’re dealing with a culture that’s very anti-art,” he said, referring most likely to the United States in the Bush II years. “I find, for example, that people who don’t have art in their lives have miserable old ages. Because art is a positive force. And if you don’t have a positive force in your life, you get overwhelmed by the negative.”To go from this kindergarten kid whose teacher wouldn’t put up his drawing to being called a master – what is that all about? It’s about some kind of positive energy.”For four decades, Tuttle has poured that energy into constructing a profile of his creativity. It’s not about being in the art market, a topic that bores him.”I’m trying to show other people what my creativity is – what it is, how it is. It’s demonstrating a certain kind of generosity,” he said. “I’d love somebody to do that for me. But I can’t expect everyone to take this as seriously as me.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org