As Art Goes Digital And Ethereal, What Does The Future Hold For Sculpture?
October 20, 2012
If there comes a day when all art is digital, artworks will subsist in some ether whence they may be conjured to appear and vanish at our convenience. In this new era, I suppose, there will be only two art galleries, which will have swallowed up all the others. Chances are they’ll have names like Pacebook and Googlegosian, and their offerings will be accessible anytime, anywhere. But until that future arrives, some artists will persist in making things that are tangibly, compellingly, perhaps even brutally present—physically and psychologically. That is, they will keep making sculpture.
And they’ll do it knowing that sculpture is the most inconvenient of the fine arts. Tedious physical labor is often involved in its making—not necessarily the artist’s, but still, someone’s. And sculpture is hard to move and to keep: it’s heavy and cumbersome, except when it’s terribly fragile and evanescent and likely to be swept up during housecleaning and put out with the trash. For viewers too, sculpture can be hard to come to terms with, and not just because, as some wiseguy whom posterity alternately identifies as Barnett Newman or Ad Reinhardt once remarked, sculpture is what you back into when you’re stepping away from a painting to get a better look at it. (That’s just as true when you’re trying to take a picture of a painting with a smartphone.)
The digital revolution has given us, for the first time, the image in its pure form, an image without body. The image conveyed by a painting, on the other hand, is always a material entity, however unobtrusive, a particular thing made out of pigments, binders and a support. Sculpture, in turn, is often far more physically obtrusive than painting, and to the extent that it offers a multiplicity of possible viewpoints, it generates many images, but typically none of them are the image of the work. The physical impression a sculpture makes is more powerful than its imagistic content, which seems merely transitory by comparison.
In other words, because of its material nature, sculpture has a hard time finding a place in the material world. The digitization of culture has made this more evident, but it’s long been the case. A visitor to eighteenth-century Rome remarked that one-quarter of its population consisted of priests and another quarter of statues. That’s never been said of a modern city. Maybe the ever more questionable status of sculpture is tied to the dwindling of its religious and political functions. In any case, the sculpture of Richard Tuttle has been haunted, since the mid-1960s, by the sense that sculpture itself might no longer possess a full-bodied presence. Reviewing his first exhibition in 1965, when the artist was 24, Lucy Lippard noted of the flat, wall-mounted objects he was then making in painted wood that, “hovering between two and three dimensions,” they “have an air of indecision that is difficult to separate from their modesty.” Perhaps the critic went too far in portraying Tuttle as a sort of aesthetic Hamlet when, in retrospect, his resolve to work in the narrows between painting and sculpture was a decisive choice that has for nearly half a century resulted in consistently idiosyncratic art. It may look like sculpture more than anything else, but it often incorporates materials seemingly unsuited to sculpture, things that appear without definite form or materially attenuated, such as dyed canvas—displayed flat on the wall, these irregularly octagonal monochromatic works would be called paintings had they been made by almost anyone else—or twisted bits of wire with pale pencil lines drawn on the wall behind them like skewed shadows. Far from indecisive, Tuttle is an artist who has temperament, as it was called in the nineteenth century. His modesty is a form of defiance. His 1975 exhibition at the Whitney Museum so enraged Hilton Kramer of The New York Times that the critic’s thoroughgoing attack on it was supposed to have led to the firing of the show’s curator, Marcia Tucker, who went on to found the New Museum of Contemporary Art.
Nonetheless, physical evasiveness—which is not unrelated to an indifference to declarative meaning, even of a purely emotional sort—has been a hallmark of Tuttle’s art. I will never forget his 1992 exhibition at the Mary Boone Gallery, in which tiny sculptures measuring a couple of inches in any direction were mounted on the walls just above floor level. At the opening, the artist himself, sporting an iridescent green suit, was far more conspicuous than any of his work. But for those willing to look—which meant squatting or getting down on all fours for a toddler’s-eye view—the delights were myriad, and all the more so thanks to the artist’s way of conveying that sculpture can loom large in the mind without being monumental. At the same time, the exhibition could be seen as a sophisticated gesture of courtly tribute: this was a newly renovated gallery space, and what better way to show off Boone’s spiffy virgin walls than with a group of works that kept almost entirely out of their way?
Given this history, I was surprised when I walked into Tuttle’s summer 2011 exhibition at the Pace Gallery in New York City, “What’s the Wind,” to find a series of works built on a scale unusual for Tuttle. These were very tall assemblages, each with a square footprint of seven or more feet, yet still far from monumental. Rather, they were open and transparent, supported by wooden or metal posts anchoring wires from which various colorful abstract forms were suspended. Some were sparse in their composition, others almost rococo. They could have been the jerry-built playground apparatus for a culture in which safety is not an issue, or maybe unfinished Sukkot equipped with abstract piñatas for some unimaginable multiculti Oktoberfest. Yet the six works bore titles whose austerity seemed to belie their festive charm. By calling them Systems, later numbered as I-VI, the artist seemed to be asking viewers to look past the works’ amiable quirkiness to find an underlying, unifying intellectual order. And there was a sense of order to these sculptures, with their four vertical posts serving as something like the points of a compass, giving a clear sense of determinate placement to all the other elements incorporated (with every appearance of spontaneous intuitiveness) into the setup. Clarity and unpredictability, method and multiplicity, deliberation and offhandedness were reconciled.
But to see those posts as compass points meant adopting an impossible, imaginary perspective—taking in these towering sculptures as if from above, a viewpoint that’s easier to imagine with the five large assemblages that dominate Tuttle’s current show at Pace, “Systems, VIII-XII,” on view through October 13. (Systems, VII was exhibited last year at Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London.) These pieces continue Tuttle’s exploration of the expanded space of the first six Systems, but whatever is still systematic about them, it’s no longer the use of the square (for this reason, the title feels less appropriate than it did earlier): the emphasis in the newer works is on the horizontal plane rather than the vertical…