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Richard Tuttle @ SFMOMA

The Hardest-Working Man In The Art World

The exhibit of approximately 300 pieces spanning the forty plus years of Richard Tuttle's artistic output begins with a group of twelve paper octagonals pasted directly to the wall. Barely perceptible they teeter on the edge of being and nothingness. Richard Tuttle is not a master craftsmen or virtuoso painter. He wills his works into being. His personality can be felt in each one of his pieces. It's a quality that separates him from so many of his peers and the reason why The Art of Richard Tuttle will be enjoyed by a broad-range of museum visitors.

Tuttle investigates shape, color and line but abandoned the hard-edged geometry of minimalism of the previous generation of artists. The edges of his plywood wall reliefs from the mid-1960s curve and undulate. No attempt is made emulate the perfection of the mass-produced object. You are constantly aware of a human hand at work.

Much is said about Tuttle's democratic use of materials and no better example of this exists than his shaped canvases from 1967. He dyed canvases, cut and sewed them into geometric shapes and nailed them to the wall. The color is uneven and the fabric is worn, they in no way resemble the perfectly taut, gessoed canvases a painter prepares. Tuttle transgressed the sanctity of the canvas and in the process created these remarkably beautiful abstract banners. Tuttle pushes the limits of what an artwork is without being an ideologue. His works are inquisitive. They ask "what is sculpture," "what is painting," but are not divisive. If the question is "what is art" his work answers with the question, "well, is this art?" Even his most controversial pieces seem non-confrontational. For example, "3rd Rope Piece", 1974, consists of approximately three inches of rope nailed to the wall. It is exhibited at below waist level and literally not-in-your-face. The artist means to challenge an audience's preconceived notions but not without a bit of humor.

In the 1980s Tuttle became known for a group of wall assemblages that are often flirtations with disaster. Made of scavenged bits of wood, wire, cardboard, even bubble wrap they are physically (and aesthetically) a nose hair away from falling apart. These pieces are trashy, primitive, and sometimes sort of ugly. Overall Tuttle doesn't seem to care much for prettiness. His drawings, the foundation of his practice, are not polished like those of Ellsworth Kelly or other artists. They are working drawings. Tuttle eschews the dead end that occurs when an artist accomplishes complete refinement of his craft. Each piece leaves a thread for the artist to follow to the next piece. Each series is pregnant with the possibility of a new body of work.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s nearly twenty-five years after his first solo show in New York, Tuttle's work becomes larger and more complex. Too bulky for the wall the works become floor-bound. Assembled in one dimly lit gallery is a wonderful collection of wood constructions utilizing every conceivable type of light bulb. With their combination of handicraft and methodology of construction-through-accretion these pieces form the basis of the work of a new up-in-coming generation of artists like Sarah Sze and Phoebe Washburn.

In the last ten years Tuttle has pared down his work, returning to the low relief form that marked the beginning of his professional career some forty-years ago. He was included in the 1999 Whitney Biennial, a show of artists the vast majority of which are half his age. He has maintained relevance and integrity in an industry that rewards youth and vanity. The meaning of "The Art of Richard Tuttle" encompasses more than the artworks of Richard Tuttle. It is the art that is the man himself, a survivor, a patron saint, and the hardest-working man in the art world.

The Art of Richard Tuttle @ SFMOMA
exhibit runs: 7.2 - 10.16
Mon - Sun: 11am -6pm
Closed Wednesdays
Admission: $10