Tuesday, January 17, 2006

More about Tuttle

In 1977, just about thirty years ago, I left an Alex Katz lecture at Brown University in disgust. He was all business man, all merchant, and I had no stomach for it. I had very intense ideals about art and a bad taste for money. I was reeling. Was this what it was all about? Was this what I had to look forward to as an artist in America? What were my options? Would I be holed up in some institution like my old teachers. I had graduated from RISD six months earlier and I was looking for something. I have a son who is a painter and six months out of school and I see it in him. It is a tough time. Terrifying freedom. Terrifying. Forget two roads in a wood. Try, looking up from the bottom of a very deep hole in the ground. This was not paper/plastic, this was God please send me a sign. It has been my experience that we always get one.

As if by some magic from the Magus a man was standing outside the lecture hall. He looked like a hillbilly. He was hard and withered in appearance, like a smoker, wearing a cheap flannel shirt, the kind that is printed, not woven, and maybe a hoodie and some bad jeans. He was standing under a sign that said Richard Tuttle. I might have said hello or nodded but walked past him into the List Gallery and what happened next changed my life forever. I have never been more excited by an exhibition before or since. Maybe a visit to the studio of Leon Polk Smith.

In this vast gallery space were almost invisible little pieces of shaped paper partially stuck to the wall, below eye level, with watercolor on them, and then pencil lines that left the paper and traveled close by onto the walls. They usually had his fingerprints on them, which was curious. How could his hands have been that dirty? Anyway, I was thunderstruck. Dumbfounded. I looked at each one closely and then again, and then went out and approached the man under the sign. It was Richard Tuttle.

We spoke for a long time. Mostly I listened. He had a lot to say. People poured out of the lecture but we kept on. He spoke quietly so I had to lean in and direct an ear towards what he was saying. One of the things that I remember him speaking about that evening was that there are diamonds everywhere and people are picking up garbage. He also said I looked like I was living under a cloud. Eventually he was expected to join the school president for dinner, so I walked him there and he told me he would rather have dinner with me, and that he was sorry to have to end our conversation. Then he gave me his address in New York.

And so began the only real mentorship I ever engaged in, and it was by accident and it was intense. It started out with a heated correspondence and then a year later, with his encouragement that included putting me in touch with his landlord, I moved to New York. I did not, as it turned out, take him up on his offer to dig in on 11th Avenue, a wasteland at the time. Instead I moved in with my brother on Central Park West, and he didn't approve.

And there you have it, really. Approval. What I soon discovered was that he didn't approve of a lot of things. He made up his mind hard. He called it being severe. He was probably the most thoughtful and intelligent person I ever knew, but he was also incredibly judgmental, even mean. After a while it got to be too much. He thought I wanted a mentor but I didn't. I was thinking friends. The friend thing is funny of course. It has gotten me into trouble a lot. Just wanting to be friends when people think and sometimes are even afraid that I wanted more. To be friends means a lot to me. I never knew much about it and wasn't very good at it. Coming from a divorced family that split everyone up, and having moved around so much, going to thirteen different schools before college, and then even transferring in college, I just knew about being on my own.

Richard went to the trouble of trying to teach me about a lot of things. If we talked about art, it was more about what goes on between the lines, and I liked that. I still do. His biggest obsession was pride, and for good reason, he had a lot of it. He worked me over with it, because I had it too, of course. Everyone does, but it was easier for him to deal with his own by focusing on me. He would question everything. The stamp I put on a letter. It was filled with pride. It was the one the postman gave me, but that didn't matter. That never got in the way of a lecture. He would read so much into it. If I accepted that stamp, then I was guilty. Apparently I should have been more sensitive and asked for another. I have been very careful about stamps ever since, but I am still limited by what is available, and for this I am tortured(not).

Another time he gave me grief for the jacket I was wearing. It was below zero and I had gone to meet him on 11th Avenue and walked there. I borrowed my brother's orange parka because I didn't own anything warm. I think I still got frostbite. But he chided me for the orange jacket. It was pride. I should have frozen. It didn't matter that it was my brother's coat. He had made up his mind.

And that is what this is all about. A mind made up. The good and the bad of it. Richard Tuttle made up his mind like no one I ever met. It is in his work. It takes a shape, it follows a line, an edge, a color. He makes up his mind. In art that is nine tenths of the law.

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