November 18, 2009

From Painting to Hooked Rug: Richard Tuttle

Richard Tuttle, Great Men 2 and Great Men 8, 19 October, 1982, watercolor on lined paper in wooden frame, 9.5 x 14 x 1.75 inches.

I first became aware of Richard Tuttle's work when I wandered into a show of his in SoHo in the early 80s. The front room was full of watercolors similar to these: summary notations, seemingly tossed off the brush with great economy, but with a kind of perfection, like Japanese calligraphic painting. At the same time, there was a refusal to take himself too seriously; painting "Great Men" on ordinary lined paper, and framing in crude pieces of wood. I was so taken with these works––I have to say I fell in love––that I went back to my studio, took out a stack of typing paper and watercolors, and tried to make vivid, simple little paintings. I couldn't do it; I couldn't even come close. It was a powerful lesson in how things that look effortless often need the greatest skill.

Tuttle, Section III, Extension G., 2007, mixed media, 7 x 3 3/4 x 3 7/8 inches

Throughout his career, Tuttle has worked with materials that say "not-art": plywood and foamcore, cardboard and wire. And aluminum foil. He shapes unlikely materials into endlessly inventive forms, and many are insistently small. His project pushes back against the artist-as-hero model, against Art-as-Important. Yet the work inspires with its understated poetic resonance.

Tuttle, Overlap Composition VI (5.14.07), 2000-2007, acrylic on fir plywood, 68 x 24 inches

Much of Tuttle's work fits into Minimalism stylistically, but what I call "funky minimalism", where the forms are loose and the brushwork is painterly. There is geometry, but it isn't rigid. I find these paintings remarkably appealing, charming even, if charming weren't so discredited a word. They feel right.

Tuttle, Drift III, 1965, acrylic on plywood, 24 x 52 x 1 inch

I saw the work above at a Tuttle retrospective at the Whitney Museum of Art in NYC in 2005. It was one of a group of shaped paintings on plywood, simple forms, all slightly off of perfect, with wavering edges and not-square corners. The show was a joy to me, buoyant and alive. (If you'd like to see more Tuttle images, you can go to his gallery's website.) I made the ruglet below as an homage to Richard Tuttle.

Two Arches (for Tuttle), 2007, hand-dyed wool on linen, 7 x 23 inches


  1. I am sure Section III, Extension G., 2007 is a black woman, wearing a wonderful hat, at a bar in Harlem. Don't you think? I LOVE it!

  2. I'm so glad you like that jaunty little sculpture, Betty. The little red egg-shaped form sure has a face-like aspect. It was hard to decide which of that series I wanted to picture; I chose that one because of its use of a common material and its allusive imagery.

  3. wonderful way to start the day, these images and remembering his retro at the Whit., to say nothing of your two arches tribute.