Down to the wire


He hangs his work in odd positions and uses irregular lighting, but what you see is what you get with Richard Tuttle - yet still some people just don't get him, writes AIDAN DUNNE

TRIUMPHS is an unlikely title for an exhibition by the American artist Richard Tuttle. Just as unlikely is that the show, at the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin, can only be described as major in scale and scope. Tuttle is known for his small, casual-seeming, quietly idiosyncratic works. They are on the whole subtle and self-effacing rather than triumphalist. They are artless in that they don't proclaim themselves as art with a capital A, and they're usually fashioned from workaday materials, from scraps and offcuts of particle board, Styrofoam, cardboard and tin, for example, rather than such high-art materials as bronze and steel.

A bit like the man himself, though, they can incorporate little theatrical flourishes, such as swipes of fluorescent colour, or striking assemblages of found objects. In Dublin to install his show, and to make a couple of site-specific wire drawings, Tuttle was quiet and neutrally dressed except for one detail: the fairly bright blue of his suede shoes. He removed them in the gallery the day before the opening and, in white-stockinged feet, set about making the wire drawings.

To do so, he considered the wall in front of him for a moment, then looked up at the chandelier. "That's Waterford Crystal, isn't it?" he asked Michael Dempsey, the curator. "It's a pity they've gone." He squared up to the blank wall and drew two diagonal lines, forming an angle. He took a pin hammer from his back pocket and tapped in a nail, wrapped the end of a reel of florist's tape around it and painstakingly unrolled the wire, following the path of the lines he'd drawn.

He concluded with another nail to hold the wire at the far end. The tension of the rolled wire pulled it away from the drawn line and the wall in loose coils, though it was held at each end. Tuttle began making wire drawings in 1972; in an informative catalogue essay, Thomas McEvilley says they identified him as a conceptual sculptor in the way they signal a move away from material to immaterial. Each wire drawing "has at least three embodiments of the same line in different substances - a pencil line, a wire line, a shadow line."

As for the show's title, Triumphs, Tuttle writes: "Augustan culture was very much on my mind, where one thing could be seen in many different ways - the result of civilisation, and to this day, the mark of civilisation." And Dublin is, as Louis MacNeice put it, the "Augustan capital of a Gaelic nation". Tuttle wanted to show again a piece he'd originally made for the Douglas Hyde Gallery in Dublin in the 1980s, called Cycles. It was shown vertically, but he wanted to display it horizontally, which is what happens at the Hugh Lane. Cycles is a series of shaped, painted panels that rolls along, so to speak, like a parade or a procession. Tuttle thought of the form of the triumph, "a subject revived and made popular by Petrarch", the 14th-century Italian poet, whose Triumphsbecame a hugely popular subject for artists and printmakers.

Tuttle set about making a couple of Triumphsof his own for the show. There is a kind of logic at work here, in that things connect, though it's not quite logical in any causal sense. He plucks at various ideas and flings them together as he wishes, and that's very much his view of what art is about. It's tempting to say he thinks like a poet. Certainly poetry is important to him, and he's married to a poet, Wei-Wei Berssenbrugge, with whom he often collaborates.

He was born in Rathway, New Jersey, in 1941. He studied design at the Pratt Institute before attending the Cooper Union School of Art and Architecture. In the meantime he began to work at the renowned Betty Parsons Gallery, and had his first solo show there in 1965. He became a good friend of the abstract painter Agnes Martin. While his name was to some extent associated with hers, and other artists such as Ellsworth Kelly, in fact he was nobody's creature and was doing pretty much his own thing from early on.

His own thing took the form of irregularly shaped wood panels, invented ideograms in shaped metal, and fragments of dyed, unstretched canvas, unpredictable, eclectic and hard to categorise, although he has generally been described as a postminimalist.

Not to be taken for granted, he hung his work in odd configurations and positions and used irregular lighting - all traits you may notice in the Hugh Lane.

It took some time to persuade influential observers that he knew what he was doing. The critic Hilton Kramer famously rubbished his retrospective at the Whitney Museum in New York in 1975. Referring to Mies van der Rohe's minimalist dictum that less is more, Kramer wrote that, in Tuttle's case, "less is unmistakably less. It is, indeed, remorselessly and irredeemably less". The curator who arranged the show lost her job. Although, as McEvilley notes, Tuttle's work now features in the Whitney collection.

Depending on your standpoint, Tuttle's work is either easy to get or very difficult indeed. You can warm to what David Colman described as its "deranged crafts project look" or remain distinctly cool. But, more than practically any other artist, what you see with him is what you get. Agnes Martin argued that "we respond to nature, and we respond to art, and some people respond to both, but people can take the nature response for the art response. Many artists confuse the nature response with the art response. It's not easy to be natural and at the same time free of nature - to create the kind of things that nature doesn't." McEvilley mentions his apparent aim to replace "representation with presence".

As Tuttle puts it, his art is reality-based, whereas when people, including philosophers, talk about visual art they tend to think of art as imitation. That, for him, is not reality-based art at all; it's imitation-based. He sees no point in making something that is like something else; it should be itself. "I try to make something so that you see it as real." We should see it as real and, as a spur towards that, novel. If what he does falls too neatly into any conventional categories, he feels it loses its usefulness as art. It should challenge our expectations at every turn - hence his liking for gnomic visual gestures, for unorthodox materials and forms, for odd exhibition layouts and unusual lighting.

"You have to try to mess up the pattern. People have no idea how fundamental art is for me; it always has been. Square one is when you get to the point where life and art become one. A picture helps us to live, and a better picture helps us to live a little better." ...

Triumphs runs at Dublin City Gallery, the Hugh Lane, Dublin 1, until April 10th;