Richard Tuttle / My Birthday Puzzle @ Modern Art / March 31 – May 13, 2017

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Richard Tuttle, Releasing: Biologically Poor Endings, IX, 2016, quarter-inch birch plywood, canvas, crayon, acrylic, graphite, acrylic gesso, nails, 68.6 x 66 x 3.5 cm, 27 1/8 x 26 x 1 3/8 ins, courtesy Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London

There was a time when Richard Tuttle’s understated assemblages were considered by some commentators to be so insubstantial as to be an affront even to minimalism. Better to be made of nothing at all than to be made of almost nothing, they might have said. It might have been the almost-there fragility of his assemblages to which they took exception, cobbled together as they seemed to be, out of the most commonplace craft materials such as string, glue, fabric, scraps of timber, and acrylic paint. At a time when minimalist art was predominantly the slick, machine-made product of an extended process of intellectual refinement, Tuttle’s unkempt art school project rejects seemed outrageously unsophisticated and unfinished.

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Richard Tuttle, Releasing: Biologically Poor Endings, VI, 2016, quarter-inch birch plywood, aluminum flashing, canvas, graphite, acrylic, spray paint, nails, 86.4 x 86.4 x 15.9 cm, 34 1/8 x 34 1/8 x 6 1/4 ins, courtesy Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London

But Tuttle’s work has outlasted the exhausting exaggerations of the greater portion of minimalist and conceptual art, with their shared requirement that we place our very human instinct towards sensuality, visual stimulus, and the imperfect edge on hold in the service of a cold idea. And yet I reflexively use the word minimal to describe the economy with which Tuttle uses his very mundane materials. His work is sometimes shockingly reduced in its construction; barely applied paint marks on unprepared offcuts of timber, fabric, and paper, balancing against panel pins or dangling from a length of twine. Tuttle’s minimalism is difficult to pull off, relying as it does on the ability to exploit that energy which is produced at the very beginning of the process of making something. Where most artists would keep adding layer upon layer, reworking and transforming, Tuttle appears to say – That’s enough – repeatedly with each component he adds to his constructions.

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Richard Tuttle, My Birthday Puzzle, exhibition view, Modern Art, 31 March – 13 May
courtesy Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London

It can be slightly confusing to talk about Tuttle’s work in relation to, or indeed in opposition to, either minimalism or conceptual art. This reflex of association arises from the fact that Tuttle emerged onto the art scene while these two movements were in full swing. When looking at the assemblages the artist has been producing consistently for decades, it is more useful to go further back in time to find an aesthetic with which Tuttle might share artistic territory. The delicate collages of Olga Rozanova from around 1916, or Kurt Schwitters’ assemblages of the same period, demonstrate equally well what can be done with so little. The work in Tuttle’s recent show at Modern Art in London was visually denser than much of the artist’s previous work, with more emphatic marks and busier surfaces, but still with his trademark lyrical economy.

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Richard Tuttle, Pressing: Hole in the Head, VII, 2015-2016, styrofoam, metal, colored felt, heat-sensitive quilting backing, fabric paint, white glue, bond paper, enamel paint, acid-free museum mount board, metallic paper, acrylic, day-glo gouache, nails, 64.8 x 92.1 x 5.1 cm, 25 1/2 x 36 1/4 x 2 1/8 ins
courtesy Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London

Lyricism in language and the economy of poetry, have also been of importance to Tuttle’s art. Married to the poet Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Tuttle has collaborated with writers and other visual artists in the past on text-based works – but strangely, he sees the processes of writing and making artwork as two entirely distinct, even incompatible disciplines. The thought processes involved in producing one would be of limited use in the service of the other, according to the artist. What is common to both a certain type of poetry and Tuttle’s constructions however, is economy of expression. Poetry lends itself to this kind of reduction – the careful arrangement of words, with an allowance for their power to imply or to signify multiple things in the world, resonating with our memories and experiences. To speak about poetry in this way may be to risk a claim of something intangible in language. And to claim a lyricism running through both art forms can threaten to send us into the nebulous category of spiritualism. But when an artwork is so reduced, it is understandable that we start to draw on our reserves of memory and association.

Tuttle’s constructions are disarming in their simplicity; like a throw-away remark that has long-lasting consequences. And their lyricism is undeniable. They are beautiful statements in paint, paper, and fabric, with all the intangible associations an artist might care to risk.

Richard Tuttle at Modern Art

200 words #16 / Patricia Treib

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Patricia Treib, Hem, 2015, oil on canvas, 167.5 x 127 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Kate MacGarry, London.

Speaking about the difficulties involved in producing a painting, Georges Braque said “I don’t do what I wish, I do what I can.” It seems a starkly pragmatic observation from a painter commonly known for having co-authored the wildly inventive language of Cubism. The reality behind Cubism’s apparently haywire grammar however, was one of hard analysis, careful observation of the physical world, and patient construction on canvas.

The idea of constructing a painting out of fragments of reality arguably reached its apotheosis in Cubism, but is taken in a sharp new direction in the canvases of Patricia Treib. I like to think of Treib’s work as sumptuous minimalism. Many of her canvases are built on a simple conceit linking painted gestures and abstract motifs to the process of assembling a garment. It is one of those enviously concise ideas which make other painters wish they had come up with it first. In Treib’s hands the paintwork manages to be lush but not overwhelming. The compositions are as fresh as cut grass, but never facile. These abstract arrangements appear to have been executed quickly. And yet they evidence a process of analysis by the artist which is undeniably paced and reflective.

200 words #14 / Uta Barth

 

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UTA BARTH, In the Light & Shadow of Morandi (17.03) 2017. Face mounted, raised, shaped, Archival Pigment print in artist frame, 48 3/4 x 52 3/4 inches; 123.8 x 134 cm, Edition of 6; 2 APs, Courtesy the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York

The concept of the artist as researcher is at odds with the more popular notion of the artist as creative medium; someone gifted with vision which is unique and unavailable to the average person except through the artist’s revelatory powers of expression. The writer John Berger identified Picasso as the latter type of artist. By denying – the causal connexion between searching and finding* -Berger finds Picasso as much a hostage to his own vision as we are.

Through years of quiet research into visual perception, the photographer Uta Barth has been searching and finding, and since the late 1990s she has been using exclusively as material the fleeting modulations of light and shadow which occur throughout the day in her apartment. Whilst Barth didn’t set out to impose this working limit on herself, by observing effects of light and shadow on the simplest expanse of wall or the fold of a curtain she quickly realised that she had unlimited visual material around her.  Consequently, there was – no point in going out to seek that out.

Infused with what Berger describes as a spirit of research, Barth’s latest series pays homage to the work of another patient observer, Giorgio Morandi.

Uta Barth at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery

*John Berger – The Success and Failure of Picasso, 1993, New York, Vintage, p.32.

200 words #13 / John Baldessari

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Miró and Life in General: Relevant, 2016
Varnished inkjet print on canvas with acrylic paint
243.1 x 125.1 x 3.8 cm
No. 19359

From their apartment on the 30th floor of the Shelton Hotel in New York in 1925, the painter Georgia O’Keeffe and her husband, the photographer Alfred Stieglitz, looked out at the same view. On one side they witnessed the emerging city, and on the other, the low-rise profile of the East River. They captured these in much the same way. Yet O’Keeffe’s painted images and Stieglitz’s photos stand distinctly apart for us.

John Baldessari sees no good reason why painting and photography should have separate histories. Born in 1931, Baldessari came to maturity as an artist in the 1970s; a period of dramatic reconfigurations involving art theory and practice, and far removed from the limiting machismo of Abstract Expressionism. Baldessari has also worked as a teacher since the late 1950s, including a two decade involvement with CalArts. Of his philosophy of teaching, Baldessari states that he wanted to keep the “…wall as low as possible between instructor and student…”*. This is a strategy that has ensured a two-way exchange of ideas. As an artist, Baldessari keeps us looking at the exchange of meaning between the painted and photographic image and text by virtue of his even-handed treatment of all three.

John Baldessari interviewed by David Salle

200 words #12 / Bradley Walker Tomlin

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Bradley Walker Tomlin (1899 – 1953), Number 12, 1952, Oil on canvas, 66 x 48 inches, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY, General Purchase Funds 1963

Regardless of how many convenient artistic groupings have been contrived by critics and commentators, the activity of painting has always been a personal one.  Working on the fringes of a tendency in art, and being passed over by the first wave of public recognition can be a blessing, allowing an artist to be re-evaluated without the background noise which attends the appearance of a new movement or style. In his final years, Jackson Pollock was paralysed by the weight of expectation about where he would go next with his work.

Other more peripheral figures in the Abstract Expressionist movement such as Hans Hofmann and Bradley Walker Tomlin produced what were arguably their strongest paintings later in their careers. From the late 1940s up to his death in 1953, Tomlin made an unprecedented series of canvases typified by a trademark calligraphic mark distributed with remarkable assurance across the canvas creating a complex balance. His exposure to the less imagistic strand of Surrealism helped inform the artist’s late style. Tomlin’s attachment to the mark of the brush may have looked retrograde at the time next to Pollock’s innovations, but the intelligence and poise of these late paintings place them beyond lazy categorization.

Abstract Expressionism @ Royal Academy of Arts /September 24, 2016 – January 2, 2017

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Jackson Pollock, Blue poles, 1952 , Enamel and aluminium paint with glass on canvas, 212.1 x 488.9 cm, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation ARS, NY and DACS, London 2016

“At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act…”

Harold Rosenberg – The Great American Action Painters / 1952

A lot is made of the theatricality of the act in the term action painters. And indeed Harold Rosenberg’s reading of what was happening to post-war American painting, as typified by the statement above, emphasises the existential encounter of the artist with the modern world, and the individual as a protagonist within a dramatic event. It is an interpretation which might seem to encourage a one-way reading of the Abstract Expressionism movement, starting with a moment of schism and considering only what came after to be of relevance. Abstract Expressionist artists, alternately referred to as Action Painters, are sometimes portrayed as fugitives from the past, as though they had performed a jail break and were now desperate to erase their past. Whilst American painting from the 1950s on did perform radical reappraisals of traditions and produce breathless innovations in artists’ media, in the scale and delivery of the painted mark, and in content, it did so with profound awareness of what had come before.

There are several characteristics of some Abstract Expressionist painting that have become synonymous with the movement as a whole. Some of these characteristics, in no particular order, are: large scale of both the canvas and the painted mark, an all-overness to the distribution of the marks on the canvas, and -in part due to the tendency of an ‘all-over’ treatment of the surface to preclude the accumulation of marks in one area of the canvas- the absolute absence of anything which could be thought of as representational. The fact is that these characteristics are not to be found systematically throughout Abstract Expressionism, and in many cases they are nowhere to be seen.

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Mark Rothko, No. 15, 1957, Oil on canvas, 261.6 x 295.9 cm, Private collection, New York     © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko ARS, NY and DACS, London

There was certainly a shift towards large scale canvases from the 1950s onward. Not everyone however worked on such a large scale, at least not all the time. Jackson Pollock’s experience of working under the Mexican muralist David Siqueiros at his Union Square workshop may have informed the artist’s eventual jump in scale. His move out of the city to a larger barn space in rural East Hampton also afforded Pollock the freedom to work as large as he could imagine at the time. On balance though, many of Pollock’s canvasses are surprisingly small. Not everyone super-sized their act. The artist Richard Prince beautifully sums up the quiet intellect and discipline of Willem De Kooning’s canvases when he describes him as “…the guy who spread his arms and said that’s all the space I need…” (Richard Prince – Artforum summer 2011)

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Willem De Kooning, Woman II, 1952, Oil, enamel and charcoal on canvas, 149.9 x 109.3 cm, The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller, 1995 © 2016 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London 2016. Digital image © 2016. The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence

As for markmaking, there was undoubtedly a level of innovation in how artists actually got the paint from the tube or the tub to the canvas; innovations which have continued to inspire painters since. Pollock again, with his substitution of brush for stick dipped in enamel paint, has come to represent an anarchic rupture with the past. This is an interpretation which has served to limit the reading of AbEx to one of a movement which disavowed all that had come before. The origin of Pollock’s trademark gesture probably lies again in the artist’s experience of splashing paint about for the energetic Siqueiros. What is not evident until one is standing in front of the Pollocks gathered together for Abstract Expressionism at the Royal Academy is the quiet care the artist put into his marks. Every inch of the surface is considered and equally weighted, and the only evidence of anything random and uncontrolled is the dispersion of the edges of the viscous paint marks after they have hit the surface. Pollock was very much engaged with recent developments in European art. He saw the movement of major figures of European modernism to America as “…very important, for (the fact that) they bring with them an understanding of the problems of modern painting.” Of the two artists he admired most, Picasso and Miró, Pollock professed to be “…particularly impressed with their concept of the source of art being the unconscious.” (Jackson Pollock quoted in ‘Jackson Pollock / Energy Made Visible’ by B. H. Friedman, Da Capo Press 1995)

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Arshile Gorky, Water of the Flowery Mill, 1944, Oil on canvas, 107.3 x 123.8 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2016. Digital image © 2016. The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource/Scala, Florence

The all-overness which is sometimes thought of as a prerequisite for truly AbEx painting is also something which is not apparent in many of the artists in this survey show at the Royal Academy. Whilst De Kooning did super-size his brush work, his thick shafts of colour coalesce to form figures and landscapes. The debt to figuration, or perhaps better termed representation -since even an abstract mark forms a figure of a sort on the canvas- is one that is common to all of the artists under the heading AbEx.

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Franz Kline, Vawdavitch, 1955, Oil on canvas, 158.1 x 204.9 cm, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Claire B. Zeisler 1976.39 © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2016. Photo: Joe Ziolkowski

The painter Robert Motherwell spoke of “…the anti-intellectualism of English and American artists…” (Robert Motherwell ‘The Modern Painter’s World’ – lecture delivered at Mount Holyoke College, Massachusetts, August 1944) and it fits a crude reading to suggest that the arrival of AbEx signalled a reconciliation of a Euro-centric tradition of intellectualism with a more Anglo-Saxon suspicion of that which appears opaque or obscure. This sense of a certain moment involving an encounter between the old and new world, and a subsequent dramatic rupture, does not sit comfortably with the nuanced and sometimes contradictory evidence of influences and interests which form the biographies of each individual AbEx artist. John Elderfield (Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art from 2003 to 2008) suggests that “The idea of fitting into some historical inevitability was a great force behind what (Barnett) Newman and (Mark) Rothko and Pollock did. They saw themselves as gathering momentum from the past and really pushing forward.”  (John Elderfield speaking about Willem De Kooning in Artforum summer 2011)

The narrative of Abstract Expressionism as a movement which was solely forward-looking is an inaccurate one. As Elderfield states, there was a continuity between the past and the then present moment in which these artists found themselves. Without momentum the movement would have foundered. It is no coincidence that one of the artists in the current Royal Academy show who had the most developed connection with European modernism, Hans Hofmann, was also one of the most influential teachers of painting of the 1950s and 60s in America. (Having emigrated from Germany to the US in the 1930s,  Hofmann went on to influence the development of a generation of American painters, including Lee Krasner.)

Abstract Expressionism at Royal Academy London runs until January 2, 2017.

200 words #11 / Dale Chihuly

Spanish Orange Black Macchia with Sable Lip Wrap, 2006, 19 x 36 x 25″

“The Macchia series began with my waking up one day wanting to use all 300 of the colours in the hot shop.” Dale Chihuly describes the origins of one of his most iconic series of blown glass objects in characteristically down to earth terms. Chihuly always speaks about his work with reference to the processes involved in its production. The instability of blown glass, and the technical requirements involved in controlling it in its molten form, dictate the final product to a far greater extent than most other media.

Even though the Macchia have the appearance of vessels, they are in no way functional. With an undulating lip marking the aperture between a vibrantly coloured mottled outer surface and a raw, almost organic interior, they could also be seen as tropical coral vividly imagined in glass. The tendency for blown glass to create billowing, rounded shapes reminiscent of some naturally occurring forms is an almost unavoidable result of the way it is produced, and the Macchia series is perhaps the most uninhibited expression of this. Like Jackson Pollock exploiting the viscosity of enamel paint straight from the pot, Chihuly allows the inherent organicism of his medium to dictate the results.

www.chihuly.com

Clip from Chihuly over Venice on Vimeo