Natural History: Richard Tuttle’s Prints
“Wonder” and “beauty” by now are clichés we’re bound to encounter when discussing visual art. How else is one to talk about it, but to opine what’s wonderful? One obvious, however difficult, answer would be to describe what one naturally sees. As Heraclitus tells us, via his curious philosophy, nature has a passion for hiding from us. With this in mind, it’s helpful to remember that even what’s defined as “natural” can be in itself an enigma; think of the eerily exact still-lifes done by countless artists throughout time. Parmenides later says that all of what’s real is alike, and that furthermore, if you find something real here, you’ll likewise find the same amount of it over there. Open to all influences, artists have found more to attend to than what’s plainly visible. And so, what’s difficult about this? Artistic independence bears its garbage as well as its gifts. Thanks to assiduous contemporaries like Richard Tuttle, whose works are motivated by both nature and imagination, viewers can throw off the visual strain of having to guess at what they’re seeing, and simply admire Tuttle’s objects for what they are.
With such an unrestraining ontological setup as the above, we can agree that what artists have to work with has no limit, and art is really a game and nothing more. In this game, the only thing to do is discover and understand — or, in the case of Richard Tuttle, to simply ask questions. Artists have always the problem of showing what it’s like to live during the time of art-making. It’s here, where very little makes sense, we can appreciate works by artists of the current milieu; here and now you can really say whatever you like. Richard Tuttle says and makes whatever he pleases. His is a polarizing endeavor, but certainly worthy of anyone’s time when done with such a steady and varied output as evinced by the new publication, Richard Tuttle: Prints, published by JRP|Ringier.
In this book, perhaps in reply to our aforementioned Classical philosophers, Tuttle reminds us that “to learn what something is, you sometimes have to reference what it is not,” a statement telling of his ever-quixotic process of making art. The book’s publication was occasioned by the exhibition “Richard Tuttle: A Print Retrospective” at Bowdoin College Museum of Art from June 28 through October 19 of 2014, and it demonstrates Tuttle’s sheer prolificacy and his bent for the mechanisms and outcomes of printmaking. The book is organized chronologically by exhibition, from 1963 to 2014, and from its beginning through the duration of Tuttle’s career, he makes no bones to remind us that what we’re seeing may not be what’s actually there, and questions the acts and objects we’re often to understand as being Art.
Throughout Prints, it’s difficult to discern whether a reproduced work of Tuttle’s is a drawing, a painting, a silkscreen, a woodcut, a sculpture, or a collage: a trait of diversity which remains at the center of his oeuvre. Stating that “a print is not a drawing,” we can be grateful to Tuttle and the editors for giving us examples of just what is a print. Even in the Classic example, Tuttle is making connections and analogies to the print process, such as “when Homer has Nestor ask his men to choose between fighting the Trojans or dying on their way back home, their choice is a space for a print.” To guide us along, we are given statements from the artist himself, like the dictum that “science exists to resolve problems; art is there to raise problems.” Tuttle’s approach to art is often eccentric and always investigative, to the bafflement, bemusement, and excitement of his audience.
One especially puzzling series from Prints, consists of seven woodcuts printed in colors, entitled Galisteo Paintings (1993). These prints, based on delicately painted watercolors done by Tuttle in Galisteo, New Mexico, were “translated” in the process of the woodcuts being printed. This series is an example of how Tuttle’s process is never limited to one definition or specific outcome, as it “conflates both the printing and painting techniques.” These prints appear as watercolors of flowers and birds, and the process of their making is startlingly imperceptible.
Now more than ever are categorizations like “Minimalist” or “Post-Minimalist” fitted best out the open window, and Tuttle seems to know this well. For his chosen medium of printmaking, the printing plate’s function is to deliver “information as a pen does for the writer,” and Tuttle allows a view into this work as being comparable to language, specifically with the surprising connection the book draws: through the transformation of drawing into print via its plate, a “translation” is taking place. These prints ask questions, raise them, and are meant to be dialogues in print without language.
Editor Christina von Rotenhan mentions (in a nod to Tuttle’s being an artist through-and-through) his “residing in border zones,” when interestingly, he uses even the borders and “empty” spaces in the way that one could view the spaces around letters in typography as important rudiments of the composition. Tuttle sometimes includes all parts of the printing press machinery as elements for the final object. One section of the book features a 1998 exhibition entitled “Edge,” inspired by botanical prints from the 18th century. Here, the intaglio printing plate’s edge is seen embossed on each finished print, thus obscuring “our understanding of the order of printing and the emergence of the printed images,” and making an allusion to an actual frame within the borders of each print. Funnily enough, these dynamic and colorful lines appear less botanical, and more like sketches for needlepoint in fragments. One could stare at these particular works for hours, guessing at their beginnings and endings, and the junctures at which hues blend and never really come up with any answers, because Tuttle has altogether relieved us of what we’re “supposed” to see in (or even say about) his prints.
If we’re forced to bear the old bearers of beauty, let them be of the Tuttlean stock, which adheres to the poetic rule wherein the art requires as much from you as you require from it. Richard Tuttle’s prints are startlingly neutral; his methods are totally efficient, and yet they have the capacity to lead the viewer from any individual print in a thousand other directions and spaces without indulgence, which would in any case fade. Meanwhile, Richard Tuttle’s exhibitions continue, giving viewers the close-up view of what this book tantalizingly foretastes.
Richard Tuttle: Prints (Zurich: JRP|Ringier, in co-edition with Bowdoin College Museum of Art, 2014). Ed. Christina von Rotenhan. English edition. ISBN: 978-3-03764-365-5, 144 pages, $80