Fiber art emerged out of the craft world as an innovative art genre with unlimited possibilities. Yarn, string and fabric of all sorts were shaped into forms. Some were redolent of paintings, some exceeded the limits of traditional sculptural media, while everything in between opened up new and boundless opportunities for expression.
Fiber art gained momentum quickly in the 1960s and early 70s in the facile and explosively imaginative hands of artists like Claire Zeisler (1903-1919), Sheila Hicks (b. 1934), Lenore Tawney (1907-2007), Jagoda Buic (b. 1930), Magdalena Abakanowicz (b. 1930), and Richard Tuttle, a relative newcomer, having been born in 1941. As opposed to Sheila Hicks, who received her MFA from Yale School of Art and studied with Josef Albers and Jose de Riviera, or Lenore Tawney (attended László Moholy-Nagy‘s Chicago Institute of Design), or Abakanowicz, (professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Poland and at UCLA), Tuttle’s undergrad years at Trinity College, CT focused on the liberal arts. While he didn’t have an art background, having taken a job as assistant to Betty Parsons in her namesake Gallery in New York in 1964, the very next year she gave him a one-man show catapulting his career into the vanguard of Minimalism. Such can be the fortune of a few: being in the right place at the right time.
Tuttle began working on paper, and his first works were small monochrome reliefs. He worked in wood and fabric including polygonally-stretched canvases, which he dyed, such as “Red Canvas” (1967) included in the Fabric Workshop’s “Both/And Print and Cloth” retrospective. His work was Minimalist, multi-media and experimental. He often works small, a departure from much of fiber artists’ work, which can be monumental. While small doesn’t mean inferior, Tuttle’s work, in its lack of vibrancy and exploration in color, dyes and patterning, as well as the use of the low-grade household materials speaks to his cool lack of formalism. In pushing boundaries, Tuttle at best mystifies viewers and at worst, provokes outrage. His 1975 exhibition at the Whitney Museum of Art lost the show’s curator, Marcia Tucker, her job after Hilton Kramer slammed the exhibition. Using Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s axiom “less is more,” Kramer, then-art critic for The New York Times, wrote “In Mr. Tuttle’s work, less is unmistakably less….One is tempted to say, where art is concerned, less has never been as less than this.”
Part of the relatively new tradition of fiber art, Tuttle is fixated on similar concerns as his contemporaries: scale, sculptural forms, site-specific installations, clothing-as-form, use, decoration and pattern. While noted for his exploration of color, Tuttle’s colors speak softly. In Tuttle’s “Walking on Air, C10” (2009), in this exhibition, two narrow horizontal cotton panels hang loosely on the white wall with grommets along the top. The panels are dyed with commercial Rit dye in light blue and orange. On the top, an off-center inverted ‘v’ of orange dips into the light blue, while below, a band of orange spreads across the bottom, which is torn at both corners. A ribbon of blue dances across the length of the panel. Its manner of display suggests that of a mother lovingly hanging her child’s camp art on her kitchen wall on tie-dye day. Child-like and inscrutable, need we ask: Is Tuttle talking about impermanence? About lack of pretension? About color? Or are we bringing to the piece more than it is able to give us?
Fiber art has questioned when is it a painting and when is it fiber art, from its outset. In 1968 Magdalena Abakanowicz loosely hung her “Yellow Abakan,” a draped deep orange woven cloth with folds and unraveling ends. Redolent of South American wool ponchos in their mineral-dyed vibrance, her play with form, color, texture and chance is engaging and complex. In Tuttle’s “Looking for the Map” (2013-14) roughly-cut fabric and torn clothing drape over a tenuous wooden structure. Tuttle attempts to play off shape versus draping, but neither is strong enough to hold the dichotomy. Hard vs. soft and geometric vs. amorphous issues comes into play, but there is no tension between these polarities.
Minimalism directed Tuttle’s earliest explorations, however his constructions suggest a roughly-hewn handmade quality, which distracts from their minimal messages. While they deny expressionistic qualities such as vibrancy, paint strokes, or drama, consistent with Minimalist intentions, they don’t hold gravitas with the sleeker, focused, geometric Minimalist works of Donald Judd, Richard Serra, Kenneth Noland, all contemporaries of Tuttle.
Tuttle’s latest fabric art, shown in this exhibition offers a more ornamental approach and comes from the originating exhibition, “I Don’t Know or The We’ve of Textile Language” (2014) organized by the Whitechapel Gallery and exhibited at London’s Tate Modern. Tuttle in his interviews, as in his art, is random, ethereal and often illogical. This exhibition flows similarly, meandering through eight galleries and two buildings. Each floor and space feels disconnected from the rest, holding together through the oversized catalog which paired poems by Tuttle with each work. A scavenger hunt of a show, the prizes are hard to find.
Lacking is energy. Fiber art is at its strongest when it can make one feel human in our desire to touch, to be touched, to soak up the lusciousness of the materials, inhale the vigor of the deeply hued threads, to interact in a way paintings and traditional sculpture can’t: when polarities are electrified, not hung out to dry.
The most effective use of any media in the show is his Japanese kimono works, but here he relies on the craftsmanship of Minamoto Company, Ltd. in Osaka, Japan, to execute his designs. In most other works, the delivery detracts from the engagement with the art. The most engaging pieces are the letter pieces: 26 small, colored, textured works displayed in a horizontal line which are theoretically but not obviously related to the letters. Each piece offers a play of texture, shape and color using small scraps of fabric, netting, paper and/or paint. While the relationship to the alphabet doesn’t carry them beyond perhaps inspiration, the scale highlights their complexity, playfulness and attention to texture against color.
Tuttle’s position as a grand master of Minimalism whose oeuvre defies exacting categorization is strengthened by this comprehensive retrospective of his works at the Fabric Workshop. It may seem sacrilegious to find an internationally-respected and loved artist who has provided the world with half a century of exploration and innovation lacking, yet this reviewer left the exhibition disoriented and craving engagement. The slipshod method of composing his pieces gives off an illusion of not caring, reflected in the Tate show’s title “I Don’t Know.” Sadly, neither do we.
Taking the Tension out of the Fibers: Review of Richard Tuttle “Both/And Print and Cloth” at the Fabric Workshop Museum, May 15, 2015 – Summer 2015
by Robyn Stone