This review of Richard Tuttle’s retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery and at Tate Modern appeared in Dutch translation in Metropolis M (Feb-March issue):
This autumn, two of London’s most illustrious public modern art galleries have joined forces to stage a survey of American artist Richard Tuttle’s textile-based works – with somewhat mixed results. This joint venture consists of a retrospective spanning five decades of Tuttle’s work with fabric at the Whitechapel Art Gallery and of a large-scale sculptural installation made to measure for Tate Modern’s vast Turbine Hall, accompanied by a single lavishly illustrated publication. The latter reveals Tuttle’s wider interest in and connoisseurship of textiles from different periods and cultures, which he has been avidly collecting over the years.
The chosen title for all three elements, I Don’t Know. The Weave of Textile Language, takes the form of a characteristically tentative answer to an implied question: ‘What is it about?’ As Iwona Blazwick, the director of the Whitechapel Gallery, suggests under the heading ‘Neither’ of her contribution to the exhibition catalogue (‘Richard Tuttle: A Glossary’), the artist’s work is neither painting nor sculpture, though it partakes of both. Placed at the outset of a retrospective that eschews a chronological presentation in favour of a more intuitive arrangement, which seeks out affinities between works that often come in series, the exquisite Wire Pieces (1971-74) are drawings in space. A graphite line drawn directly onto the wall is multiplied and complicated by a stray, unruly wire, pinned to the wall above it, and its shadow.
Though one might query the inclusion of these works given the show’s stated focus, the wire is related to the thread, the rope and the string deployed throughout Tuttle’s more obviously textile-based works, protruding from the canvas in the nine-part 1991 Perceived Obstacle series; laid out on the floor in Ten Kinds of Memory and Memory Itself (1973); tightly wound around a painted paper ball in The Present (2004); or nailed to the wall, way below eye-level, in the case of the easily-overlooked 7 cm-long 3rd Rope Piece (1974) – ‘Not a thread too short to be a line’, according to one of twenty-odd poetic texts written by the artist to accompany the artworks. Textile and text come from the Latin texere (‘to weave’), and the exhibition skillfully weaves the two together. But Tuttle’s refined artworks, which demand to be examined up-close (even if it requires bending over or prostrating oneself in front of them), are as much to do with texture.
Timed to coincide with the start of Frieze Week, the unveiling of the monumental Turbine Hall installation was designed to make ‘a bigger splash’. Above all a splash of colour since – in contrast to the subtle, muted hues of the 1967 Cloth Pieces and most of the works on view at the Whitechapel Gallery exhibition – Tuttle’s largest sculptural piece to date is swathed in vibrant saffron and vermillion fabric custom-made in Gujarat’s city of Surat. The pairing of orange and red is a striking, if not exactly harmonious, combination. A third midnight-blue material can be seen in places beneath the red cloth, which generously covers the central vertical structure with protruding disks bulging from its sides like platters, one of which is heaped up with mounds of fabric.
Almond-shaped wedges placed at each end and inserted at regular intervals into two horizontal wooden platforms suspended from the ceiling form wings of sort, framing the central vertical element. These are draped over, here and there, with saffron cloth, stretched out or loosely folded over the edges of plywood, seemingly at random. The overall effect is messy. Reflected in the glass panes lining one side of the converted power station, the horizontal installation looms large over the bridge that cuts the Turbine Hall into roughly two halves, one of which is occupied by Tuttle’s work. Though the artist is at pains to stress that the piece has to do with scale rather than size, his bulky sculpture lacks the grace of the delicate, flimsy offerings displayed at the Whitechapel Gallery. Less is definitely more where Tuttle is concerned.