“Less has never been as less as this,” the critic Hilton Kramer wrote in a scathing review of Richard Tuttle’s first mid-career retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1975. The exhibition of unassuming works—including dyed, irregularly shaped canvases laid on the floor and thin wires pinned to the wall—was so poorly received that it led to the firing of one of the museum’s top curators.
Tuttle, however, is having the last laugh. The US artist and his traditionally marginalised media are the subject of three simultaneous exhibitions worldwide. A joint exhibition in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall and at the Whitechapel Gallery in London focuses on the artist’s use of textiles. Meanwhile, the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Maine is hosting the first retrospective of Tuttle’s prints.
The 40m-wide installation in the Turbine Hall—a combination of fabrics dyed midnight blue, deep red and bright orange and hung from the ceiling—is the artist’s largest work to date. It is also the first textile of this scale the Turbine Hall has ever seen, and the first installation since the venue temporarily closed last year to accommodate the construction of the Tate’s Herzog & de Meuron-designed expansion.
Inspired by India
Tuttle has worked with, collected and studied textiles for much of his career. In 1967, he created his first major series, a group of unstretched, shaped and dyed canvases that could be put on the floor or hung on the wall. “It was clearly not an ordinary painting, but something that was consciously a textile,” says Magnus af Petersens, the chief curator of Whitechapel. The works also distinguished him from his macho, industrial sculptor peers, such as Richard Serra and Mark di Suvero.
Tuttle developed the fabric for the Turbine Hall—a unique combination including rayon and natural fibres—in collaboration with a textile factory in India. The process gave him a renewed appreciation for the craft. “The fabrics we designed could not be more precise,” Tuttle says. “I am in awe of what a real textile designer does.”
The artist was particularly interested in creating a fabric that blended the manmade and the natural. “He is not nostalgic about pre-industrial textile production,” says Achim Borchardt-Hume, the head of exhibitions at Tate Modern. “He’s more interested in the space textiles occupy culturally.”
In 2012 and 2013, Tuttle spent ten months as a scholar and artist-in-residence at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles. When the designers in India used a technical term he did not understand, he looked it up in the Getty’s library. His scholarly understanding of textiles informs a new publication, to be released in conjunction with the Tate and Whitechapel exhibitions. The book is expected to go beyond the traditional catalogue to focus on the history of textiles, and will feature photographs of his personal textile collection.
Like much of Tuttle’s work, the Tate installation “doesn’t refer to anything or look like anything else, and it isn’t about anything else—it is a self-sufficient object that requires you to take it on its own terms”, Borchardt-Hume says. Though the scale is unprecedented, the artist does not consider the work a departure. “The Turbine Hall is like being given an extremely large lens to look at what you have always been looking at with a smaller [one],” Tuttle says.
The Whitechapel retrospective also toys with scale. The exhibition, which contains work spanning five decades, is not organised chronologically, but rather “intuitively”, based on how the works relate to one another visually,
Af Petersens says. “It can be a small work on a large wall or the opposite,” he says.
A glimpse into Tuttle’s mind
The exhibition will also feature new drawings and sculptures that offer a peek into Tuttle’s mind as he refined his design for the Turbine Hall. These “look nothing like how the Turbine Hall piece will look”, partly because of their modest scale, but they demonstrate how Tuttle arrived at the colour palette and texture used in the large-scale installation, Af Petersens says.
Many works in the show—including The Wire Pieces, a series Tuttle began in 1972, comprising a narrow string wire pinned to the wall and traced thinly with graphite—push the boundaries of what a textile can be. The building blocks of the medium, from a piece of thread to a simple line, are laid bare. “As a colleague said: ‘It is a textile in the way that a monochrome is a grid of just one square,’” Af Petersens says. Such works embody what makes Tuttle so divisive, according to the curator. “People are more provoked by small things than bombastic things, because they demand you look at them.”
• I Don’t Know, or the Weave of Textile Language, Tate Modern and Whitechapel Gallery, until 6 April 2015; Richard Tuttle: a Print Retrospective, Bowdoin College Museum of Art, until 19 October