Friday, January 02, 2015

Richard Tuttle: Art and the Beauty at the Bottom of Things

Loose Leaf Notebook Drawing, Box 16, Group 6: Drawing 8

by Richard Tuttle

10x 8

watercolor on notebook paper


When I first met Richard Tuttle in 1977, he cautioned me about getting too excited about the fact that we shared similar ideas about life in general, and art in particular. I was in my early 20s and he was in his early 30s at the time. I had never met anyone like him. The things he talked about were just the things that stirred in me, and nobody ever talked about those things, nobody, except maybe my artist mother when I was a boy in Rome.

People, teachers, artists, adults, were always talking about getting ahead in the "world," about technique, about appearances, about success, about making it, about whether things worked. To me this was superficial stuff. Stuff not worth anything. Certainly not worth living for. Or making art for. Or dying for.

I think the Tuttle I met and got to know then was in a funny place, and maybe so was I. He could see that in me. I could see that in him. He warned me not to get too excited about what we were in so much agreement about. He said that recognizing ones own dimension in others was a form of narcissism. But I couldn't help it. I saw it differently. What I saw was a shared vision. What I saw was not a mirror, but a fellow traveller, a kindred spirit, a sign that I was not crazy or alone because of the things I thought and felt and believed. What I saw was an affirmation.

Richard Tuttle (b. 1941) 

False Nexus #11 

signed 'Richard Tuttle' (on the reverse) 

watercolor and pencil on paper in artist's frame 

12 5/8 x 15¾ x 1 5/8in. (32.1 x 40 x 4.1cm.) 

Executed in 1991 

We had nothing else in common. I had been raised in Europe, with European tastes and sensibilities. He was from New Jersey, and mentored by the likes of Betty Parsons, Ellsworth Kelly and Tony Smith. We didn't like the same things. But what we shared was something more important to both of us, something neither of us was shy about.

The way he talked about it was inquiry. He had inquires. He was somewhat clumsy and self-conscious with language. He had to be. He wanted to make it his own. I cared less about that part. That was his pride, not mine. Pride was the thing that he was wrestling with at that time. He was consumed by it. It was where he was, and where he was coming from. The one-person show at the Whitney. The one he had. The one that changed everything. The one that hung over his head like the black cloud he imagined hanging over mine. Everything was pride or of pride or about pride.

Giorgio Morandi (1963) watercolor on paper

No, what he called inquiry I called getting to the bottom of things. That was what interested me. For lack of a better word, call it curiosity. Curiosity was what we had in common. Neither of us were interested in what made things tick or work per se, but what was true. That was all. The results for each of us were quite different because in all other regards we were quite different. We had different make-ups and dispositions and affections, but we were both curious about the stuff at the bottom of life and art.

And yes, that informed our work. Just differently. Tuttle chided me for being guided by beauty, and teased me by calling me the "beautiful Addison Parks." But I grew up on Via Margutta in Rome, and he grew up in New Jersey. I trusted beauty, but as a product of sturdy Yankee stock, he did not.

Beauty meant something divine to me. Divine insight and consideration and inspiration of form, of shape and color, of harmony and tension, of light and texture and mark. Beauty was the instrument of truth and goodness and hope and feeling and dreams and life. It was a vessel and a vehicle and beacon of all that was worth living for. To Tuttle beauty was skin deep. It was all "they" cared about. Beauty was the gulf between us. Beauty was the wedge that drove us apart.

Richard Tuttle

Drawing: watercolor on paper

 8 in. x 10 1/2 

Date: 1980 – 1982

Richard Tuttle was uncomfortable, even angry with anything that smacked of beauty, and as a consequence was always a little angry with me. We were both intuitives. But he begrudged me credit for knowing the difference between the beauty he hated and the beauty he secretly loved, the beauty that came from the heart, instead of from pride. He wanted to change the name. He wanted no confusion. He wanted to be clear. The only beauty that mattered came from some place good inside. I could not have agreed more.

In those days Richard Tuttle lived like a hillbilly, as he liked to say, in a little ramshackled walk-up on Eleventh Avenue with slanting wood floors and stacks of paper and clutter and the occasional priceless Japanese tea bowl lodged on a shelf. This was the man I knew in the late 70s. When he showed me this delicate watercolor of his of such heartbreaking beauty and I said as much, that to me it was so beautiful, he might as well have struck me, because that was what he had felt I had done to him.

He told me that it was pain. That that was what his little watercolor was. I can still see it. But he could see and feel only his own pain. It was the greater pain of course. He knew nothing of mine. He saw only the "beautiful Addison Parks." Not someone who had suffered the death of those dearest, torn from family and loved ones at an early age, constant loss and life-threatening abuse, cruelty, danger, even torture, someone who by some miracle survived being tossed around for as long as he could remember. Someone who by some miracle had found safe harbor in the embrace of art.

Georgia O’Keeffe, Untitled (Abstraction/Portrait of Paul Strand), 1917

Watercolor on paper, 12 x 8 7/8 in. (30.5 x 22.5 cm)

Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe, New Mexico Gift, The Burnett Foundation

Copyright, Georgia O’Keeffe Museum/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York

One of my regrets from that time in New York was when I was in the dealer Joan Washburn's office and she was looking at some my paintings and behind her was a Georgia O'Keeffe abstract watercolor that I could have bought for about a year's rent. It was called "Headache."

A few years later Milan Kundera published "The Unbearable Lightness of Being." Soutine had once painted a side of beef in his studio in Paris until it rotted and stank and spilled blood under the door and drove Chagall to run out of the building screaming that he had been murdered or had killed himself.


Rembrandt had painted that side of beef before him. Michelangelo had sculpted a dying slave of such exquisite beauty that it was love incarnate. Giotto took our breath away with frescoes of a dying Christ. Goya seemed to squeeze pain not paint from a tube. An artist working today like Joan Snyder seems to paint in blood clawed by her fingers. Art has never been a stranger to pain, no, quite the contrary, it has always been its friend.

Joan Snyder, The Fall With Other Things in Mind, 2009, Oil, 

acrylic, papier mache, cloth, seeds, dried flower, 

and herbs on linen, Courtesy Betty Cuningham

And it has always been a gross myth about the "suffering artist," as though being an artist caused suffering. The truth is quite different. Human beings suffer mightily, alone, behind masks, beneath charades, behind facades modest or mansion, inside new cars, on big yachts, in the glare of bright lights, or under a bridge, in shadow's caress. Art is curious about the suffering. Art gives refuge to the suffering. And beauty by no means discriminates against suffering; indeed, it gives it sanctuary. It gives it light. It keeps us together.

I have no idea what Tuttle is like now. What we had in common was a profound curiosity about life through the lens of art. But there is this other thing. Something Tuttle despised. Art love. He despised it like art beauty. No, there was this other thing he warned me about. Art love. There was something pitiful about those artists who professed love. Like they were weak. Like weak like the way "nice guys finished last."

And I was an art lover. Pitiful. Guilty as charged. Yes, it is a dog eat dog world, dog eat dog art world, a kill or be killed art world, and art lovers finish last. I was an art lover, and Richard Tuttle was something else; he was an art predator, and more power to him. But that is a story for another day.

Addison Parks

Spring Hill, 2015

This essay is one in a series of writings on Richard Tuttle relating the author's experiences with the artist from the years 1977 to 1987. 


Anonymous said...

Very honest. M

Anonymous said...

It is indeed the questions that make all the difference! C.M.