Thursday, January 26, 2006

Bows Art

Stacey Parks, my wife, has taken a space in Cambridge on Bow Street. It has large windows and looks out at the Lampoon Building at Harvard. She plans to open a space for art. An art space. I've been involved in a few since I was a boy on Via Margutta in Rome, and I suspect things have changed a lot since I ran my last gallery on Newbury Street ten years ago. It was called Gallery 28 and it was just across the street from the Ritz. It wasn't really a gallery, but an art school exhibition space that showed the work of artists from Boston and New York for the most part. Occasionally it included faculty in the shows, which was nice for the school.

I guess what I'm getting at is that exhibition spaces like the ones I've shown in or directed have long been absorbed into our ever-widening consumer culture. Alternative spaces are an anachronism. Part cliche, part joke. Everyone is excited that she is doing this space, but sometimes the reaction is all about business. Will it succeed? How will you pay the rent? Cambridge is not a good place to try to sell art. It never occurred to Stacey that she would be selling art, just showing it. I remember when I opened my second "alternative space" in Providence, RI(The Cleveland Gallery), and I jokingly told the Providence Journal art critic in an interview that if I ever sold a piece it would be like Christmas. That was the headline, of course. What I was suggesting was that it would only come once a year. My assistant did sell some pieces while I was out.

Even in Provincetown, on whose outskirts we spend our summers, everything is commerce. I was approached several times by one of the more prominent spaces about either partnering or taking over entirely. The talk was always about selling. Now don't get me wrong, I understand that an artist needs to sell his or her work, maybe, but art is not about commerce. That aspect to art, if it has such an aspect, just NEVER interested me, and I was poor most of my life. Professionalism in the arts is almost oxymoronic, and even embarrassing, but it is the norm in New England. It is anathema and even considered naive to think of art in non-commercial terms.

Yankees are nothing if not practical, and it is not practical to think of art in non-professional terms. Amateurism is rank. Of course I couldn't disagree more. But no one makes art for the love of it, or even the fun of it anymore, and what good is that? (I was just speaking with my friend and rare book dealer John Wronoski about this very subject yesterday, about art made by writers and writing done by artists, and how much more interesting that can be--and this will be the real subject of this or the next posting). We get something akin to a coffee cup now. Shoes. Newbury Street in Boston is all about hair and shoes, and that is Boston. A friend of mine, Martin Mugar, was reviewed in the arts section of the Boston Globe today. On the front of the section was a big spread about beads. A picture the size of a bus. His work was blurbed in the back with a postage stamp for an image. This is a world class artist. So it goes. The blurb funnily enough reduced the work to just that, fun, but in a demeaning way. As though Jackson Pollock was so fun with all those squiggles. Embarrassing. But such is Boston. Which is why Stacey is opening a space in Cambridge. Maybe some Europeans will wander by and understand. Art for art's sake in America. How refreshing. That was what her landlady said, and she is French, naturally.

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.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Richard Tuttle

Richard Tuttle has been in the news lately. Cover of Art in America. Whitney. And why not?

The man has always been something of a mystery. Especially to himself. Watching him connect the dots through his work is like listening to someone talk to themselves. You don't understand what they're saying, and for the most part you don't want to because it's private and personal. You accept the mystery. You like the mystery. You like that there is a mystery, and in the case of Richard Tuttle, that's just what you get.

The work looks like it might be intellectual and beyond you. If it is beyond anyone it is not because it is intellectual, however. It is because it is personal. It is emotional. Perhaps. There really isn't a word for it in english. Which suggests that I know some word in some other language. I don't. I'm just not ruling it out.

The work is difficult for Tuttle, and, by most people's standards, often painful. Is it complicated? Absolutely! But in the simplest terms he can find. He was never a minimalist, however. The guy is resolutely individual. The group is too glib. He makes Thoreau seem like a frivolous social butterfly.

First and foremost the work dances the razor's edge. Originality and freshness are so important, essential, everything really, that the challenge is, again, often painful. Sometimes the frustration when the work falls short is palpable. So why does he let it out there when that happens? Who knows? Maybe in the end that says more than if he nailed something. Maybe failure is more interesting than success. Maybe success, again, is too glib, too easy, not to be trusted. To him I was always the beautiful Addison Parks, taking the easy way out. What can I say, I grew up in Rome, he grew up in New Jersey. You cannot escape these things. I am always becoming Rome. He New Jersey. And he has made it a better place, while I have only danced around it, I suspect.

Tuttle has probably always enjoyed the role of idiot-savant. The work has that bewitching quality of keeping you guessing: it is either absolutely brilliant and sublime or just really dumb. But once you accept his genius you are still in danger of overinflating the experience. You can end up guilding the lily by assigning too much or just more than the "lily" will bear. Poetry is the thing closest to this work. The domain of the ineffable. If you can get there, or better, live there, you'll be fine. Because that is what this work locates, and that is where it lives. You can't get there be studying it, by being smart, by figuring it out, by trying to get on top of it, or even eating it. It is absolutely more about what you don't do than what you do do. DO-BE-DO-BE-DO! But you don't have to DO anything. Just let the work do it all. Of course that is doing a lot. I suspect you could dance with it, just as long as you let it lead.

After all, it is all energy. Poetry in color and shape, line and mark and texture. A voice finding itself in these things. Tuttles listens very hard. And that is good. And we can thank him for that.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Hard Drive

Some of us come into this world encouraged to fly. Others get squashed or blocked at every turn. So it goes. What happens as a result is that we adjust our innate drive accordingly. The flyers find it easy to surge into high gear. The squashed learn that their one recourse is to choose reverse. Reverse is hard to squash, hard to block. The flyers got a yes and give a yes. The squashed got a no and give a no. The flyers fight for possibilities. The squashed fight for the right to be wrong; because it is the only power they've ever had.

These are two sides of the same coin. Determination and stubborness. Force and resistance. They are essentially the same force but just moving in different directions. Determination moves forward. Stubborness moves backwards. There are stubborn individuals with the force of Alexander The Great, but their wheels are spinning in reverse. We all know people like this. It is just a question of changing gears. Getting out of reverse. Putting their bad beginning behind them, claiming their individual freedom, and demanding nothing less than a yes for themselves.

This is hard. Hard is good. Drive is what gets us to the top of the mountain, and getting there is more than half the fun. No one has to be climbed over to do it. It is not about being on top of the mountain or on top of anyone else. It is about the challenge and possibilities. The view and the stimulation. The growth and the becoming.