On a visit to the SF Museum of Modern Art, the “Tenth Wire Piece” of 1972 in particular caught my eye. Well, perhaps caught my eye is not really the right phrase to describe my fascination with this piece’s ephemeral quality.
It is nothing more than a piece of wire, much like its surrounding pieces, with a rather crude pencil line drawn under it to approximate its cast shadow. At the same time its real cast shadow lies somewhere It was simple, yet elegant, with a fragile quality as though it were quite of this world and yet it was still rough and unrefined as it was a piece of normal wire.
The commonplaceness of Mr. Tuttle’s materials imparts a very down to earth, everyday quality to the piece, while the ephemeral quality of the work is almost unearthly, as if it bordered reality and non-reality. It exhibits both seemingly contradictory aspects at the same time in complete harmony.
It borders on simply not being at all. The wire traced itself about the wall, like a figure skater upon the ice, and where the wire ends on the wall its cast shadow begins. This cast shadow is a part of the entity of the wire in that it would not exist without the wire, and yet it does not exist at all.
Indeed, its one defining characteristic is absence, in this case the absence of light. Without absence and nothingness, it would not exist. But does it truly exist even though we have something that exists that the dictionary has a word for? For how can anything truly exist when its existence is defined only by the absence of something else? Tuttle has no answers, only more questions and more mysteries. In this case the artist sees fit to not only refuse to answer our questions, as an inferior artist would, but leaves the viewer with more questions. How can this discussion get any more mysterious, one may wonder. Not only is there a cast shadow on the wall, but the artist traced another shadow in pencil. The shadow, an unreal and ghostly entity, now has a real counterpart, only it isn’t really because the pencil form is only an attempt to codify this nonbeing into our own reality. It is merely a symbol, though as a symbol it is more real. It is a symbol for a nonreal entity. There is a delicate quality to this pencil line, though more permanent than the nonbeing it represents, it still maintains an aura of fragility, as though it will disappear at any moment. I like this piece as my intellect told me that there was a real work of art here, while my instincts told me that there was absolutely nothing. Like the memory of a pretty face, it fills the mind with an intensity exceeding reality, and slowly fades into oblivion.
In contrast to this rather fragile, ethereal work are Tuttle’s collages. Among them is the monumental piece “Inside the Still Pure Form,” made in 1990. This is a collection of works that comprise of miniature sculptures made with wood bits that Tuttle found about New Mexico and painted abstracts nicely framed.
Perhaps what got my attention most was the raw primitivism of the wooden sculptures. They were crudely nailed and whitewashed in such a manner as scarcely a kindergarten child would be proud. At times I found myself bracing myself, hoping Tuttle was not being self-consciously bad. No craft, no burden of previous experience gleaned vicariously through study of artists who came before. Only Tuttle and the raw power of his artistic imagination to create something that had not yet been thought of before. It is as though he is writing out his thoughts in reality. All this raw primitivism juxtaposed with the refined abstracts, all nicely framed, as though challenging the viewer to dare to categorize. It isn’t a painting, as the abstract expressionists would have created a painting in eras long gone.
And yet it isn’t quite a sculpture. The piece defies categorization; it succeeds on its own terms. Individualism is at its heart. I can almost hear the crude relieves declaring to the more refined paintings, “I may be ugly, but by my will I exist to do as I please and only to please me and no other while you exist only as pretty decoration for some grandmother dreaming of her prime in an era long dead. Your ideals no longer speak to me and are irrelevant.”
Not just this piece, but I saw the entire exhibition as a manifesto of modernity, breaking with the links of the past and bravely marching forward into the future. It was about pushing the limits of what stuffed shirt curators could call art, even going so far as to question why those stuffed shirt talking heads should be the curators of culture when the artist should be. As the artist Tuttle says that his art is art and, therefore, he can use everyday objects that one would not normally consider art. Perhaps a good word to describe the art of Richard Tuttle is humble. It is not humbling in the way a cathedral can make many fall to their knees in adoration of God. Rather, it is humble in taking our everyday experiences and showing them for the works of art that they are. If there is art in found driftwood and pieces of cardboard, then there is art in every day of this gift that we call life. Tuttle’s is the art of the common man, taking art out of hallowed halls of cultural institutions and putting it back within the grasps of the masses. It is the common man waving his fists at the hegemony of the art establishment that speak in an elitist code and exclude many miracles of life from being labeled art.