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Poetry commotion

Updated: Jul 6, 2020

A poem in 41 verses across 41 works sounds suspiciously like a curatorial contrivance to shoehorn an odd number of pieces into one place, but in the case of Richard Tuttle’s solo show at the Phillips Collection in Washington D.C., the conditions are entirely his own. Sophie McKinnon takes a look.

Richard Tuttle: It Seems Like It's Going To Be

13 September - 30 December, 2018

The Phillips House, Washington D.C.

The Phillips Collection, a private house which was opened to the public as a museum in 1921, was once the residence of Duncan Phillips and his wife, artist Marjorie Acker Phillips. It offers a small but heady collection of European and American modern art.

Richard Tuttle's exhibition at the Phillips Collection. Photo by Lee Stalsworth.

Senior Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art Vesela Sretenović leads a solid program of work in situ − a challenge, considering the house feels like the home of a grand old relative who has moved all their furniture out. The floorboards creak, the ceilings impose, and the wood panelling is at times so high that paintings look down their noses at you from an inconvenient height. Somehow though, Tuttle’s works have moved in temporarily and are immediately at home. Leaning against walls, occupying mantels, stairwells, and even the corner above an air vent, they are in eloquent conversation with their surrounds. As a viewer, you might almost be disturbing the peace just by moving from room to room.

This is a poem that unfolds as an installation across the entire second floor of the Phillips House, in pieces, rather than stanzas. Tuttle, a seminal figure in the post minimal era of American art and close friend of abstract painter Agnes Martin, often turns his hand to multiple media, from wood relief to fabric and furniture. Raised by his aunt, mother, and grandmother, he often investigates relationships, systems, and equilibrium through careful constructions that hang in limbo between balance and unease. He was embraced slowly by the US initially. His first one-man exhibition in 1975 at the Whitney Museum of American Art (curated by Marcia Tucker, who later founded the New Museum on the Bowery) received a searing New York Times review from then critic Hilton Kramer: 'in Mr. Tuttle's work, less is unmistakably less ... one is tempted to say, less has never been as less than this'.

For someone who works with such a medley of materials, he has incredible buoyancy. The poem verses here are combinations of words or phrases, written by hand in an oversized but perfect imitation of Times New Roman font onto white card with conspicuous ‘cutaways’. The eponymous 41-line free-form poem, It Seems Like Its Going To Be, came before their pairing with 41 corresponding artworks.

Richard Tuttle's exhibition at the Phillips Collection. Photo by Lee Stalsworth.

The objects lend each space a particular character. ‘I speak to a lot of people here’ greets you on the stairwell; below it, two crumpled masses of dark brown paper are attached to a white disc, as though accidentally wall-mounted on the way to somewhere else. In the first room, an elegant swathe of rubber tubing, wire mesh, sackcloth, and the remains of a garden hose hang in quiet repose near a window. The materials are unapologetically the functions they represent − quite literally, the remains of the day − while at the same time lending gravitas to the ordinary. In the next room, a family of poles and rods opposite a fireplace create angles with the floor. Some rest on a strip of carpet. They are mock-structural, reedy and unruly, but also seem to press through to the opposite walls.

An arm’s length away, diagonal clouds give wings to some wriggly paper reliefs, while a meticulous cardboard structure sits on the ground and a green plastic sled faces the floor. ‘About you — and the new world’ reads the verse adjacent. The text plaques are numbered, and mounted out of sequence directly on the wall, sometimes at a distance from their object, other times so close they share an edge. Searching for logic or narrative in the words themselves feels strained − like eavesdropping. They don’t work like that. Their deliberate ambiguity allows a much richer set of associations to emerge, and the brain to be teased a little in the process.

Some of the phrases are deliciously mundane, but recognizable enough to ensure that you are still cognitively along for the ride – ‘just in case you wanted to order’, or ‘I’m goin’ to go wait in the car’ –but then leave you behind, giving way to more elusive descriptors and collocations. ‘is this’ floats in graphite on a piece of torn notepad paper, the perforated top still attached, the two words separated by a weaving S-like form dotted along one side. The statements are perfunctory yet intimate − they suggest broken conversations, provocations, domestic desires, and the subtleties of strangers. Even a deflated bag, inverted and tied at the base, begins to anthropomorphize, say something witty, or gesture at a moment just passed. It is instinctive to want to wrest the words into order, to see clearly the connection between them and the forms they sit with. This does them a disservice, because they belong in the realm of happenstance.

Richard Tuttle's exhibition at the Phillips Collection. Photo by Lee Stalsworth.

Jessica Stockholder immediately comes to mind. Stockholder, a sculptor, installation artist, and kind of assemblage alchemist who has acknowledged Tuttle’s influence on her own work, was once asked to describe how she related to form. She answered simply, ‘It’s really hard to say what abstract shapes mean, but they do mean something.’ Tuttle I feel sure, would agree with both the virtuousness of form, shape, and texture, but also its ability to stand on its own, to be present, and to communicate something inexplicable.

In the final room of the exhibition, works on paper from the Phillips Collection selected by Tuttle feature in a small four-wall hang without much explanation. They provide a bookend to the relationship between Tuttle, this house, and the inquisitive mind that pores over a dreamy Arthur Dove or a jaunty Matisse. Here, the last work, a contorted mix of small birchwood logs and green latex gloves that resembles a mid-explosion ribbon of firecrackers, hangs suspended over verse 41 on the floor: ’Please don’t say anything to him’. This room is crowded though, with the collection pieces forging an unnecessarily tidy finish to what has thus far been a luxuriously open-ended journey of language and image. Exiting the exhibition, which requires a reverse walkthrough, the words call out to you: ‘30. Now I can see it — the other things I saw’.

First published ArtZone #77


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