Richard Tuttle

by Bob Holman

Richard Tuttle, On the Earth — In the System, 1992, watercolor, graphite/paper, 7 × 5". Courtesy of Mary Boone Gallery.

This interview ends at the door to Mary Boone’s gallery, where Richard Tuttle dangles perilously just inches above the floor. I’ve seen people walk into the room, glance around and leave, thinking it’s a roomful of Cage’s silence—layered invisible art. That’s the way it is in 1992, as quiet meaning begins to be heard, poetry joining painting in the mix.

Bob Holman Isn’t today the day you were supposed to go back to Santa Fe? Did you look at the tickets finally?

Richard Tuttle It was the kind of thing where today was the last day we were to be here, so I assumed that was the day we returned, but the last day is the day before we return . . . .

You’re a poet married to an artist, I’m an artist married to a poet, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge. I’d like to talk about what it is to live with an artist who works in the other side of human capacity. There is such a difference between verbal and visual. When I’m with Mei-mei, who is a poet, my verbal language disappears, I can’t even put two words together. When I wasn’t yet living with Mei-mei, I couldn’t go that far because there’d be no one around to support me if the telephone rang or the dry cleaning came in. Now I have somebody around who still has words when I go into my visual.

BH But everybody talks about the poetry in the work of Richard Tuttle.

RT A lot of it is speculation about what “it” is—whether or not language is really at the base of visual art or whether language came along and made such an impact that it changed visual phenomena completely. And whether or not one can re-trace that. On the first real painting that I made in New York, I wrote out three different texts from the philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, and then painted them out. At the time I thought, okay, I’m going to eliminate language from my efforts to communicate. But as I went on I saw that there had to be words there before I painted them out. In a way, words were the structure in which I made the decision not to use words.

I do some writing myself; I have a sense of what a real writer is, and I have a sense of how hard they work—and I love them for that. And then I feel I have to write, and that this must be a tremendous insult to a person who really is a writer. I have a very hard time reconciling those feelings. Recently, Mei-mei said that with a writer, it happens on the page, there’s a magic that occurs. But in my case, it’s just this internal stew that’s rolling around and around, and occasionally a phrase will come out—and that’s what I’ll write down. But what’s exciting to me is if I can just catch anything in this great mass that’s turning, turning around. You see, it’s a world apart from language, I mean, the way a real writer would use words.

BH It sounds like choreography. “I would like to use a child’s hiccups held far off like water dripping as a component of my frame.”

RT One of the reasons I responded to Mei-mei’s poetry was that I wrote some stuff that was similar—and she agrees that it’s similar—like two people who come from the same town pronounce a word in the same way. The way each one uses the word is totally different, but it retains something of the place it’s from. And being a student of creativity, one wonders where does this stuff come from? Inevitably, you’re forced to try to figure that out—to make a critique. All that I’m saying, is that in some cases, where Mei-mei’s work is coming from and where my work is coming from, seems to be similar.

BH “They took me to the little town where they were working, because I asked them to take me. To my left was an old porch, with long roof boards going away from me and two-by-eight rafters perpendicular to them and the falling down house. The light was descending to my right; narrow cracks between the boards cast a ring of parallel bright lines across the rafters, which seemed precise and gay.”

RT Whose writing is that?

BH You have to guess.

RT (giggle) Is that you?

BH No, that’s Mei-mei.

RT Oh, from an earlier work.

BH From Heatbird. Before she knew you, but it reminds me a lot of you, these are your boards placed in perpendiculars in your room. There’s also a little town here, too, the little town we’re talking about. I’m thinking of your installation, Ten Kinds of Memory and Memory Itself, the way that you lay string down as line, as an act of writing. That’s why I mentioned choreography. Were those performances, the way you created on the spot like that?

RT Marcia Tucker had a group meet. Because I had said that I believed these string pieces could be made by anyone, she thought it would be a good idea to try—that it would be possible to communicate how to make them. It wasn’t completely satisfactory. But again, that it wasn’t satisfactory didn’t really prove that memory . . . memory, itself, is a connection between people—that’s why the title seems so right. Individuals can be involved in different kinds of memories. But memory, itself, might be thought of as a collective of all those kinds of memory, something that can be shared by all people. It’s not about collective unconsciousness or that we can all act in one way. The nature of my work has always been the same: certain people see my work, and it looks perfect to them. It never seems to go outside to a large audience. But I must maintain that someday everyone will be able to see this, because it’s a kind of universal. One reason I like to work abroad is that it allows me to meet people who have an immediate relation with my work that oversteps all kinds of national, cultural, environmental boundaries—this is a kind of universal. It also could be my “idea” of history. I would like a kind of history that says, okay, there are ten kinds of memory and at some point they fuse or transform themselves into “history itself.”

Richard Tuttle, installation view, 1974.

BH The immediacy you feel when you’re traveling, being forced into that locus, certainly carries over to the way your pieces change within a space. Space changes them. Space creates the pieces. You name your pieces after the places you are when you’re working on them.

RT There’s one case, around the turn of the ’80s, where I was using watercolor on lined notebook paper. I would prepare very hard for an exhibition, and then arrive and just throw that all out. (laughter) And make new ones in that place. Anything that you pursue dissolves. I might have been pursuing “site,” or “site specificity,” and so wound up being involved in light—the way light is different in different places. But when you actually are in the most heightened sensitivity (and awareness) of that, you realize that perhaps there is no such thing as “site.”

BH Wooooo! That was close.

RT Close? No, you laugh, because I don’t believe in anything and I don’t want to contradict that! That something can be done is what’s interesting—and that whatever it is that can be done, has no connection, not even with light—that’s something that interests me more and more at the moment. I made this portfolio called Plastic History using three texts, two from the 17th century and one from the 20th century, and I serendipitously chose Beuys for the Twentieth. I used the text of an interview he did in London, where he spoke about how contemporary man is no longer connected to material. His argument is quite convoluted. However, the last line of his text is, “Now, man walks alone.” Meaning that we don’t walk in any connection, any relation, to material. Shocking, most of us still think we have these connections and want to depend on them, but they really aren’t there. The truth is, we are not connected. This so-called “site” specific work—artists are saying there’s no connection with site, it only looks as if there is. You have to state the enemy in order to defeat the enemy. When you look at Richard Serra’s sculptures at Larry Gagosian, where are you? You’re nowhere. That’s what he’s saying. He’s not saying, “These are two pieces at Larry Gagosian. How perfect the proportion.” Who cares?

BH Well, there in the middle someplace we were about ready to negate the possibility of art, it seemed to me. For awhile, your pieces and your materials, were getting thinner and thinner and thinner. Almost dissolving, almost disappearing. And then there reached a point, somewhere around the string pieces where it became dimensionless. And then you started coming back. The center point of the gyres was touched, and now it seems to be getting thicker and thicker. Light itself is incorporated in your work and the rejection of the detritus or the allowing of the work to metamorphose into nothingness seemed to reach that whirling center and spin out. Words are appearing in some of your pieces, not behind them. Is thicker better?

RT It’s this effort to make one world out of disparate parts, so to speak. Some of the parts recently are text. But even though there’s more material, it tends to be “real” junk, mostly fragile, easily destructible work. The contradictions—I can’t even put up with them at times! I go completely fanatical, for example, about the height of the piece . . . . In the ’80s, late ’70s, everything I did was concerned with a center point. I don’t think that anyone knows what that center point is. That could, in the end, be its greatest attribute—it exists, but no one can know what it is. It began composed of two elements: the lower half was involved with the concrete physical potential, and the higher potential was concerned with illusion, with “expressive” capacities. And so you combine the two . . . . The nature of working with that point was that I hated it. I hated it and tried to escape it every day for twelve years. And then in the end it separated into those two points again. When they separated I felt that I could take drawings from the late ’70s, for example, that were turning yellow and beat up, and put them in a specially designed frame, so they would no longer be held under the strictures of height, etc.

BH Was that a moment or was it a dream? Was that a satori when those points individualized themselves?

RT I don’t know. I might make a group of drawings—and then comes the question, how are you going to show them? And then the brain—or cognition—somewhere recognizes the exact height . . . It’s in my brain, but it’s as if it’s still not from me; it’s there from the outside. Or maybe it just formed there because ten drawings made that number, that height. The struggle between whether mind (and matter) should be given freedom or should be controlled these years of effort are reverse satori, where you’re trying to make some kind of satori happen. So when I say, please hang this at 60 inches, while most people think I’m trying to enslave them, to make them do something that they don’t want to do, it is really about an effort to keep the mind free.

Richard Tuttle, Relativity in our Society, 1990, wood, wire, mesh, cedar branch, electrical wire, light bulbs, paper, and masonite, 73 × 23". Courtesy of Brooke Alexander.

BH The sculptures on the wall have different components; sometimes they’re very fragile. I noticed one installation in Europe where they weren’t plugged into the wail sockets. You ran a beautifully gaffer’s-taped cable along the corners where the wall met the floor. Was that just different electricity?

RT Where the wall meets the floor is a special kind of zone. It’s a de-militarized zone. I’ve always hated plug-in art, because, at its best, a Flavin piece, it implies a whole stretch of dependence and very interesting questions about the link: artwork and society. I’m not interested in this. It’s already been done so well. The question is, what the light is in a piece. In those pieces the key thing is “shadows.” Here, something inside the piece is making the shadows. It’s about having discovered another dimension into a piece. The solution here is to plug into something outside the artwork.

BH At Mary Boone’s gallery, you plug right into the wall.

RT The first light bulb pieces, I called Sentences, because they have a period, the plug. Where they make contact with the electrical system is the “period” of the system. Is the period a part of the sentence, or is it not? The pieces are connected to the world the way a sentence is connected to the rest of language.

BH “Who gave the insects and spiders the right to leave experimental sculpture?"

RT (laughter) That’s a speculative question. I asked that in connection with Gonzales’s sculpture and, in that text, talk a little about insects. Insects take on the spirit of a place; insects are also fabulously beautiful. I talked to a biologist recently who said that 70% of the living material that is in front of us is actually outside our sight. The insect seems the threshold to that world. People don’t like to look at insects. I saw in Gonzales’ work, forms which have an open, amazing efficiency in terms of mass, structure, movement, in the space they’re supposed to occupy, in what they’re supposed to do. There is a similar connection in my work, what’s most radical is that there’s something leading something else . . . .

BH Did Gonzales lead Picasso?

RT To me, both Gonzales and Braque led Picasso. The real ideas came from their sensibility, the kind of passion—they tended to be integrally quiet personalities. What Picasso did was give them confidence, charisma, extroversion. They needed that as well. Gonzales is one of those artists who has left a heritage that’s unbelievably rich—but at the same time, when his work was over, it went underground—moving along in history like an underground river. Gonzales is a revolutionary-who-stormed-the-barricades. Those self-critical revelations that Gonzales left are marvelously useful, funny, visual links to the insect world that I wrote about.

BH I do think “amazing efficiency” is something that you’re up to, along with always working in the eleventh hour. Try this one:

Make nets fire wave and run off into lines, thicken into surfaces. Net the nets. Make veils blow, soft folds fall, make cotton drip and water gush. Curl up air, soft and white, through thousand candle power arc lamps. Then take wheels and axles hurl them up and make them sing. Mighty erections of aquatic giants. Axles dance mid-wheel, roll globes barrel, cogs flare, teeth find a sewing machine that yawns. Turning upward or bowed down, the sewing machine beheads itself, feet up. Take a dentist drill or meat grinder or car track scraper. Take buses and pleasure cars, bicycles, tandems and their tires. Take lights and deform them as brutally as you can, make locomotives crash into one another. Explode steam boilers to make railroad mystic, petticoats, shoes, and false hair. For all I care take man traps, automatic pistols, the tin fish in the funnel. Take in short everything from the hair net of the high class lady to the propellor of the S.S. Leviathan always bearing in mind the dimensions required by the work. Now begin to wedge your materials to one another.

Wanna guess? This guy is also up to that something, that efficiency. Schwitters. Das ist Schwitters der, ja. He’s a great poet. People don’t read his writing; they all think it’s Ursonate. He really wrote a recipe for . . .

RT . . . Playing with the locus solus. (phone rings)

Richard Tuttle, Two or More III, 1984, bubble wrap, wood, cardboard, wire, and acrylic paint, 30 × 18 1/2 × 7". Courtesy of Blum Helman.

BH So Richard has shuttled off to the telephone, is trying to figure out how to run the fax machine, and what we’re trying to do now is make him write in air the text that the Schwitter’s energy has unleashed. Okay, he’s coming back . . . .

RT I had a show at the Hanover museum, where the majority of Schwitter’s estate is. Partly why they invited me to that show was the connection between Schwitter’s work and my own. Occasionally, you see something and it opens a world that you really feel you’re taking in. I’m interested in how the end of this century makes parallels with its beginning. I have the feeling that we are in another classical historical period, as the archaic, and the classical and the baroque and the rococo. It began in the 1820s or so. The last historical period ended when the American Revolution and the French Revolution ended, and then there was a brief period of romanticism before you got a new archaic period, which was Corbet and Corot, the so-called Realists. If you look at their paintings compared to, say, what we’re doing now, they look the opposite, they look rococo. Because of the sophistication that was built up in the last period, we couldn’t naively just begin with a rough or raw archaicism; it had to be a very sophisticated archaicism. (laughter) And time and time again, what we call Modern Art—the birth of Modern Art, say with Fauvism, Cubism—because it looks like a birth—we want to call it the archaic form of "Modern Art." But it’s in fact a baroque form. Impressionism was the real classicism of this period, and we’re winding up now with the rococo—and many, many interesting things are happening. The way the individual relation to art and art-making seems so burdensome, by a plethora of styles and ways of group art-making. The important thing is that it doesn’t look rococo; it wouldn’t be true to this dynamic if it looked like what it is. It’s supposed to look like what it isn’t. So this kind of feeling, of things not being on their feet, forms. The knee is bent, and you don’t know if the shin’s gonna support the weight, is the way things look at the moment. It’s rococo. I wouldn’t believe this myself, if I didn’t make a group of work that followed that progression. I made wire pieces that broke down into that order, the first ten were really archaic.

BH Would that be like Auden? The sophisticated archaicist?

RT Yeah, according to my theory, Auden would fall into the baroque period. All baroque has this intent, the archaic and baroque really want it all. Auden is the perfect example of wanting the archaic. I mean all of them, that whole group, Isherwood . . .

BH So, the 48 wire pieces, the first ten would be archaic. The next ten . . . ?

RT Twelve: Classical. But again, I assure you these pieces are something I made. It’s a very particular thing when you make something—I’m not doing it intellectually.

BH You mean when you were making those wire pieces, you were not intentionally codifying the entire history of art?

RT Absolutely not.

BH Oh, Richard! What were you doing with all your time? Not thinking?

RT Getting free of intellectual energy. Time and time again, the intellect robs the creative, so I’m to believe that those wire pieces are as close as I’ve ever gotten to pure creative energy, you hear this pattern start off . . . . (raucous laughter) The creative is pure and separate and as high intensity as possible.

BH Hey, Richard, I had a thought while you were on the phone, maybe this is the time to bring it up ’cause we have to come to this fitting conclusion here. I just thought: The center point is Beauty.

RT The first thing we did on this trip to New York was go up to Baruch College to see the show, The New York School. It was astonishing—the works from that period of people who all shared the same ideas! The ones that failed—looked weak—are about beauty. I’ve felt this way for a long time—for someone to ask me what is beauty—I really don’t have any idea. Trying to do what it is I want to do, I think, eliminates, or tries to eliminate, beauty as much as possible. If it comes back or it happens naturally—the way you put a coffee cup on a table . . . . Beauty is somehow a trail you create through your work that’s left behind like a snail leaves its ooze. Where you’re going has absolutely nothing, nothing, nothing to do with beauty. In that show at Baruch College, there was one wall with a Pollock, a Kline, a DeKooning, and a Newman—they were all black and white. It was remarkable to see that each artist had his own black. I don’t believe you would be able to see so clearly the particular black that each of those artists had if they were involved with beauty—they were beautiful. It was beautiful to see. I made a joke about Franz Kline, because you could see, amongst those four artists, that his black had a kind of elegance and stylishness, where he would be the one to make the liaison with fashion. Tony Smith once told me that among all those tough New York artists, Kline was the one to seek out the editors of Vogue to make the 10th Street-Conde Nast link. His black had that swank elegance—but he was pursuing something other than beauty. The other day I was re-looking at an old piece in my studio, and it occurred to me to think a little bit about the sublime—the Romantic’s connection to beauty. And again, I didn’t understand. I respond to John Constable’s line, "In my whole life, I’ve never seen anything ugly." The line also applies to anything beautiful.


—Bob Holman is a poet and host of the Friday Night Slam at the Nuyorican Poets’ Cafe.

Site-Specific Work
Art history
Installation art
Fall 1992
The cover of BOMB 41