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We Get What We Deserve

By Henry P. Raleigh
ART TIMES March 2006

Perhaps one might recall a fairly long review of eight books that appeared in the December 11, 2005 issue of The New York Times Book Review. The review is an essay, “State of the Art”, by Barry Gewen, an editor at the Book Review. The works cited range from a recent publication, The End of Art, by Donald Kuspit to the 1967 Art and Objecthood by Michael Fried. All of the books reviewed, as could be judged from their titles (What Happened to Art Criticism by James Elkins, Transgressions: The Offenses of Art by Anthony Julius) have nothing good or hopeful to say about the state of contemporary art or the dismal professional criticism that accompanies it.

I was reminded of Gewen’s essay when, in late December, I was passing through the Richard Tuttle exhibition at the Whitney Museum. The floor is divided into fourteen sections representing the bulk of the artist’s oeuvre moving from Early Drawing to Recent Works. And you do move rather rapidly through the sections since there is little to hold you in either admiration or contemplation – well, unless you can get caught up by a three inch piece of clothesline nailed to the wall.  Passing a bewildered tour group standing before a wall of torn bits of cloth I overheard the very serious tour guide say, “These are honest works showing that things are just what they are.” The tour group looked no more enlightened for all this staggeringly profound critical observation.

Curiosity piqued, I picked up the brochure (free) for “The Art of Richard Tuttle” hoping to find an expanded revelation of these work. The introduction gives it away. In 1967, it seems Mr. Tuttle first showed large cloth pieces that were identical to those tie-dyed tee shirts that adorned the hippies in the 1960’s – made the same way, as matter of fact. A critic at the time, Scott Burton, wrote of these works and quoted in the brochure, “It is not possible to say whether a Tuttle is a painting or a sculpture, it uses properties of both and is probably neither”. You certainly can’t beat this for summing up the Tuttle post-minimalist aesthetic. You see, the works aren’t this or that and aren’t one or the other anyhow. That clears it up, all right, and illuminates the Museum’s comment on the small pieces of clothesline stuck on its walls, “…held to the wall by three nails (it) is hardly visible yet is insistently present”. Noting the three nails completes our aesthetic understanding.

The extended Museum commentary struggles on from question-begging gibberish (by including the frame in his art… “Tuttle at once conjoined and confounded the illusory and the real…”) to heroic magnificence (“…the ferocious inventiveness of his compositions are a tribute to (his) individual curiosity, experimentation, and freedom”.). The absurd and the trivial are here raised to a level of splendor, detritus exalted.

The poet, Staley Kunitz, had once remarked (I paraphrase from a lecture of his some years ago) that a culture gets from its art exactly what it deserves. I have to presume that Mr. Tuttle is one of our rewards.

(Henry P. Raleigh, painter and film correspondent for ART TIMES, lives in Southold, NY).

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