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Eccentric Attractions
by Mark Van Proyen
"The Art of Richard Tuttle," July 2-Oct. 16, at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third Street, San Francisco, Ca. 94103

"Elmer Bischoff: The Late Abstractions," Jun. 8-July 30, 2005 at John Berggruen Gallery, 228 Grant Avenue, San Francisco, Ca. 94108

Ah pity the po’ fool that has to write about Richard Tuttle’s current retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, because that fool has to come to terms with a project whose very essence is a graceful refusal of all terms, especially those that default to preexisting taxonomies of power and credibility. Perhaps our fool will get stuck doing a piece of writing about how hard it is to write about Tuttle’s work, maybe even going to the extensive library of failed Tuttle-writing efforts to take stock of the long list of previous attempts at same, attempts that always seem to run aground on the fallacy of cataloging those many things that Tuttle’s art is not while conceding that they are all in some small way factors in what it is.

The short version of that catalogue might include keywords such as "specific objects" and "post-minimalism," but only when we get to the word "fun" does our fool’s path become clear, for it is the spirit of fun that is most significantly invoked by Tuttle’s work, earmarked as it is by a dizzying array of material strategies that are all devoted to "circulating a kind of charm," to closely paraphrase a statement made by the artist. And thus, we come to our fool’s working definition of fun: a momentary victory of engaged immediacy over goal-oriented purpose that still manages to linger in a way that invites onlookers to do the same. Encountered in any one of its many natural habitats.

Tuttle’s work is indeed fun of an elegant and rarified type. But when encountered in a major museum retrospective supported by a 394-page catalogue, the fun gives way to a kind of obsession with reliquary specimenification, which is to say that our rightful experience of the delightful nebulousness of Tuttle’s project becomes too-quickly subsumed into other, less fun imperatives that range from institutional marketing initiatives to the need for staging the four decades of Tuttle’s oeuvre into a developmental sequence that obliquely pertains to an ill-defined idea of a "Tuttlegeist." The net effect is akin to seeing a huge collection of rare butterflies displayed as the raw material for entomological delectation. By virtue of their refusal to engage in most of the more obvious falsehoods that run under the banner of art, one might be led to think that by some kind of default, Tuttle has managed to reveal some kind of truth.

Curated by Madeline Grynsztejn, the SF MOMA’s extensive exhibition features slightly less than 300 more-or-less discrete objects, including a great many works on paper and a generous array of artist’s books. Well over half of these works date from the first decade of the artist’s career, which was the subject of a controversial survey curated by Marcia Tucker at the Whitney Museum in the fall of 1975. These earlier works tend to be the most interesting in the current exhibition, in large part because they were buoyed along by their proximity to and dialogue with the work of those many other artists that is still lumped together into Robert Pincus-Witten’s awkwardly coined category, Post-Minimalism, a movement that could best be described as representing a shift from the "specificity" that was famously advocated by Donald Judd to a kind of willful "particularity" (or "peculiarity") that saw political utility and narcissistic reward in making painting-sculpture hybrids whose chief virtue lay in not looking too much like other things.

Among these earlier pieces, Tuttle’s series of monochrome works on stained, unstretched canvas stands out for the way that the works in it create casual yet concise bridges between formalist and para-typographical shapes -- thus saying something about the way that the late 1960s shift from late-modernism to early post-modernism was really about a shift from forms revealing their own essences to forms understood as conceptual building blocks from and with which a complex signifying system could be built.

Particularly striking in this regard were a series of large untitled Octagonworks on paper that were executed in 1969 and 1970 -- these subtly iridescent works were pasted directly onto the walls of a passageway that connected two separate galleries of the current show, and could have been missed entirely by any museum visitor who was in a hurry to take in the entire exhibition (museums are attracting many such visitors these days). Those more attuned to subtle nuance would see the shift in iridescent reflectivity of these works’ surfaces, and take appropriate satisfaction that their interest was more in the proverbial going rather than the getting there, this being an attitude prompted by most of the work in this exhibition.

Tuttle spent much of the late 1970s and early 1980s doing quirky works on paper, many of which sport clumsily made frames of irregular dimensions. It is in these works that he most completely reveals himself to be the artful dodger par excellence, as his casually inscribed shapes always run the gamut between notation, description and graphic organization. Gradually, his work began to make more and more use of thin slices of raw plywood, which was oftentimes stained, cut and combined to form elaborate and ornate works that seem to owe quite a bit to the improvised biomorphism of artists such as Jean Arp and Joan Miró, not to mention the post-1975 work of Frank Stella in his baroque phase. Casting themselves as delicate chamber music versions of Stella’s exercises in mock-grandeur, Tuttle’s hybrid assemblage works of the 1980s seem to reach out to the work of well-known San Francisco artists such as Robert Hudson and William T. Wiley.

The difference between Tuttle and these contemporaries lies in the even-more casual insouciance of his works from the period, which, despite the sanctifying effect of their musicological enshrinement, still tend to seem as if they were quite literally hanging together by a thread.

*     *     *
I have been haunted by Elmer Bischoff’s late abstractions ever since I first encountered them exhibited together in spring 1975. Since that time, I have struggled to figure out how they might relate to his much more well-known figurative paintings from the late 1950s and early 1960s, and I have tried to see how they might relate to the work of other painters working within and beyond the San Francisco Bay Area at the time of their execution (1974 to the time of Bischoff’s death in 1991).

An obvious model of comparison is provided by Richard Diebenkorn’s shifts from figures to landscapes and then on to his late Ocean Park abstractions of the 1970s, but Bischoff’s late paintings are not the fruits of such a logical evolution. Rather, they are best understood as examples of the work of an artist who sought to completely re-invent himself as he neared the end of an already illustrious career. Phillip Guston is everybody’s favorite example of such an artist, but the similar courage evidenced in Bischoff’s transformation has engendered a long hush from critics, who tend to come right out and say that they don’t "get" the late works.

Judging from the 17 large works included in the exhibition under review, the time for hush is over. This was exceedingly well-chosen selection, and I was shocked to learn that none of them had ever been previously exhibited. Bischoff switched to acrylic paint in his late work, but these paintings still clearly show the chops that he evolved using oil for three decades. Their typical palate consists of high-keyed colors that are partially buried under subtle skeins of translucent white/blue/gray, seeming to be vibrant (albeit mysterious) entities emerging out of one of San Francisco’s characteristic fogs.

The shapes themselves seem to be simultaneously connected and disconnected like so many electrical components located in an old-time circuit or, more to the contemporary point, like so many bio-mechanoid organs of artificial provenance trying to cohabitate in and with a vestigial natural body. It is easy and instructive to compare these late works to the abstractions of Wassily Kandinsky, a painter and theoretician who made much of the relationship between painting and music -- certainly many of Bischoff’s passages directly recall both the early Improvisations and late Compositions of that early innovator of abstract painting.

But to extend the painting-as-music analogy, we can see Bischoff’s work going for a particular type of bracing dissonance, at once soaring and rapturous in the spirit of late 19th century Romanticism and atonally polyphonic in the vein of 20th century composers such as Arnold Schönberg and Oliver Messian. Perhaps the most impressive things about these works is the way that they are exceedingly pleasing to look at without being in any way ingratiating.

Given that recent abstract painting has had such a hard time straying from the endgame strategies of the pattern and the monochrome, Bischoff’s late works now should be closely looked at by younger painters looking for a path from finality to possibility.

MARK VAN PROYEN is associate professor of art history, painting and digital media at the San Francisco Art Institute.