"The Art of Richard Tuttle" recently opened at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. After seeing the show, those who think of him as a rather obscure minor figure will probably continue to feel that way. Fans will probably respond with a satisfied, "I told you so." Regardless, there is one thing that both groups would agree upon -- no one collects Richard Tuttle with an eye on getting rich.
Tuttle can be classified as a "collector’s artist." When his galleries sell a work, it tends to stay put. He’s an artist that dealers and collectors rarely speculate on. You would expect this to create pent-up demand when a work comes up to auction. Not necessarily. On the one hand, Letters (The Twenty-Six Series) catapulted Tuttle into the big time by selling for an incredible $1,054,500 million (Sotheby’s evening sale, May 2002). Yet, when Ten Sided Pale Orange Canvas, a prime 1960s shaped unstretched canvas, came up at a reasonable estimate of $180,000-$220,000, it was mysteriously withdrawn from the auction (Sotheby’s evening sale, Nov. 2004). A similar work, Cloth Piece, brought $142,400 in May 2003 at Sotheby’s.
But you don’t have to spend six figures for a Tuttle. One can also buy a work for very little money. The exquisitely minimal Point Drawing No. 24, was sold for only $4,800 (Sotheby’s day sale, May 2003). At that price, I like the idea of buying a Tuttle. In fact, if you wanted to form a collection of established artists who produced quality works on paper for under $10,000, Tuttle would be a logical candidate.
As for the work itself, its strength is its hand-made quality. With the exceptions of Martin Puryear and Robert Gober, few well-known artists seem to fabricate their own creations. Tuttle is an artist who makes things -- a throwback to the days when kids carefully, but not too perfectly, built model airplanes; often, the finished project was flawed -- a little too much enamel here, a sloppily applied decal there -- but because of these imperfections, the toy had an undeniable charm. Tuttle operates in this realm. The difference is that his work’s imperfections and areas of incident are intentional and quite sophisticated.
Here’s where it gets a little dicey. Prior to viewing the current Tuttle retrospective, I felt indifferent about his work. When I emerged, I felt the same way, but with a newfound appreciation. I especially liked the paintings on raw wood -- the ones that were only partially painted. I also enjoyed his most recent works -- small wooden panels with all sorts of urban flotsam and jetsam dangling from the surface.
But then, about an hour after leaving the museum, I had completely forgotten the experience. The work didn’t stay with me. It was as if I had viewed a show of art "lite." That’s not to say that Tuttle is a lightweight. But the work’s ephemeral and, at times, nonsensical qualities ultimately keep it out of the big leagues.
Sure, if you see a certain poetic beauty in Tuttle’s creations, by all means acquire one. But if you think his work will rank esthetically and financially among the first tier of Minimalist artists to emerge from the 1960s (Judd, Andre, Ryman, et al.), think again. Chances are, Tuttle’s achievement will be rated somewhere above artists such as John McCracken, John McLaughlin and Fred Sandback, but a little below the paintings of Robert Mangold and the sculpture of Walter de Maria and Jene Highstein.
Ultimately, as I look back on the Tuttle retrospective, the work that summed up his career for me was called Rope Piece. It consisted of a three-inch horizontal section of jump rope, nailed through the center to the wall, and installed about three-feet above the ground. I thought to myself, It took a lot of guts for an artist to present this as a finished work of art.
But just as quickly, I shrugged and thought, Whatever. It is that "whatever" quality that enthralls Tuttle’s supporters and troubles his detractors. With art seemingly getting more expensive by the month, I can’t see investing in Richard Tuttle (though I can see collecting him).
RICHARD POLSKY is a private dealer based in San Francisco. Questions or comments can be directed to him at Polskyart@msn.com