Wednesday, April 13, 2011

WING: Tuttle/Seliger/Smith

The following is an essay from the March/April exhibition at the Bow Street Gallery in Harvard Square.

Leon Polk Smith
(1906-1996), Charles Seliger(1926-2009), and Richard Tuttle(1941-) were never Minimalists, but that reductivist art movement dominant in the late 60’s and early 70’s is the elephant in the room at Bow Street; an elephant with wings, funnily enough, that soars around, flits around, and hovers over this tribute to these three great artists.

Leon Polk Smith is credited with inspiring some of Minimalism’s most influential founding members, artists like Agnes Martin and Ellsworth Kelley, who were forever and instantly changed after visiting his New York studio as young artists in 1957 and witnessing the morning light clarity and vitality of his hard edge abstractions. Smith had years earlier distilled his three major influences: Mondrian’s severe geometric matrix; the flat Oklahoma plains of his childhood; and stark graphic images in printed matter, and with them he ascended high over the skyscrapers of the truly modern city he loved so much; they gave him his wings. His modernism was more rooted in a kind of Frank Lloyd Wright pioneer American spirit than as it was the Bauhaus purism of Gropius and Albers imported from Europe. Ultimately his painting was an organic poetry wrought from a Native American past and a passion for a brave new world.

Charles Seliger was like one of those Americans that lived in London and became more American for the experience, the way they say the English in the colonies were more English than English; his particular brand of biomorphic and automatic abstraction only became busier, more complex, more layered, and more ambiguous as Minimalism put its stamp on the art world.  As they pared off he only too gladly piled on, doing what artists do, resurrecting what others cast off. Still, his work also became smaller at that time, which is worth considering. If the Minimalist credo of "less is more" became the rallying cry of a generation; Charles Seliger spent his life proving that "small was big!" Where Minimalism became rigid and cold and mechanical, Seliger offered an oasis of relief on the head of a pin--a lush and intimate universe, an alternative future to an otherwise dehumanized 1984!

Richard Tuttle, on the other hand, took the movement in stride, striding along side it, got the point because it was already inside him, and kept moving; to him it was all matter of fact, part of the landscape; and although many thought him to be one of theirs,  he never was, and never would be, never a joiner enough to be a member of that club that would have him as a member. Not that the group chased Tuttle away, he just planted his work somewhere else, not in group think, but in some personal journey, some profound inquiry, quest if you will, a path wholly defined by the absolute necessity of freedom. The individual and stubbornly American spirit once more! He might have breathed the same air, gulps of Frank Lloyd Wright inspired Tony Smith, gulps of Leon Polk Smith inspired Ellsworth Kelley, gulps of all the artists that ever exhibited at the Betty Parsons Gallery where he apprenticed, including Leon, and Kelley and Martin; but no, he was always artist as individual, riding alone, out on the vast frontier, forever on the lookout for what he called "fresh meat," picking up diamonds where others gathered trash.

And in this they all shared. Always the individual, always the artist, always the poet, always unsinkable in their optimism where life and art were concerned, and always grateful for what art meant to them and the world, fiercely so, because life demands nothing less. And for that Bow Street is very grateful indeed, for them, to celebrate them, to cheer them, to honor them. So thank you! Thank you very much Richard Tuttle, Charles Seliger, and Leon Polk Smith!

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