Case Study : Richard Tuttle

"Someone once asked me why I do these pieces.
It’s so I don’t have to make them again.”
Richard Tuttle

Richard Tuttle was born in Rahway, New Jersey in 1941 and has been creating work that feels continuously contemporary since the mid-1960’s. “Tuttle’s work exists in the space between painting, sculpture, poetry, assemblage, and drawing. He draws beauty out of humble materials, reflecting the fragility of the world in his poetic works. Without a specific reference point, his investigations of line, volume, color, texture, shape, and form are imbued with a sense of spirituality and informed by a deep intellectual curiosity.“* 2 In the catalog for Tuttle’s Whitney show in 1975, Marcia Tucker wrote, “The work of Richard Tuttle often shocks viewers with its offhandedness, its modest informality and its rough, impermanent look. Tuttle’s pieces are insistent; their often small size, visual frailty and blatant disregard for the kind of technical refinement found in “major” art stubbornly, even perversely, command attention.”3

In the 1960’s and early 1970’s Richard Tuttle exhibited along side the post minimal artists. These artists preferred revealing the hand of the artist over the machine aesthetic of minimalism. They questioned ideas of permanence, ephemerality, the subject of time, architecture and scale. They also changed the course of artistic production in the years that have followed.4

For this case study I will be primarily investigating the work of Richard Tuttle. During this inquiry, I hope to discover a possible connection between the materiality of Richard Tuttle’s art works, and the current object oriented philosophy of the 21st century? Since Tuttle’s abstract objects do not point to any recognizable symbolic, representational, realistic, narrative, naturalistic or anthropomorphic form, and that each sculpture is just trying to be itself,5 I speculate this gives them a life that cannot be completely known by us and thus reflects the basis of Heidegger’s philosophy reflected in the words of Graham Harman. A philosophy that emerged from our current anthropogenic impact on the Earth’s ecosystems and offers a way of thinking about everything as an object of equal importance where human objects are not privileged over non-human objects.

Richard Tuttle layers and contrasts an all inclusive array of materials to create interdependent and ambiguous forms that explore the relativeness of reality and the possibility of universal meaning that can transport the viewer from the material world to the immaterial. “The artist... always has one foot in the possibility of no meaning and the other foot in the possibility of real meaning, in speculation.”6

From 1967-1972 Tuttle made a group of ten cloth octagonals that were were dyed and stored crumpled in a canvas bag. They could either be installed on the wall or the floor with small nails. Tuttle called the cloth octagonals, drawings for three-dimensional structures in space. After the cloth octagonals Tuttle made twelve white paper octagonals. Each paper octagonal was cut from a pattern and glued directly onto the wall. “These paper works are perceptually so elusive that it is often difficult to see the pieces or, when one does, to determine whether the paper constitutes a light form on the darker ground of the wall or vice versa. The light changes the pieces as much as the pieces alter the light around (or on) them, but they are as much like shadows, defined by their delicate edges, as they are like volumes of light.”7 In a lecture at The Royal College of Arts, Tuttle stated that the paper octagonals were very difficult to make and that he could only make one at a time on the day of a full moon.8 The tension of this work is at the edges and when one feels this tension, one’s feelings for the work can begin; one can sense the constants that lie beneath our perceptions of absence and presence. “...The emptiness I’ve been talking about is actually a comfort. You are comfortable in the unknown... the freedom comes from this emptiness and the vastness of the unknown, because the unknown is infinity.”9

Tuttle remakes the paper and wire octagons every time they are shown. He examines the walls, the colors, the light of the new space and reinvestigates the materials and all the elements as if for the first time. Color itself is redefined with each work and their relationships to shadow, reflection and light reveal new connections and feelings not experienced before.10 Madeleine Grynsztejn, Pritzker, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, says, “They have a kind of life of their own, these works. They kind of live and breathe in the same air and space that we do… even when he’s reinstalling a piece, he finds a way to make it come as alive as it moves from context to context.”11 Or, as Tuttle says, “I do what my work tells me to do, at the same time what the work wants is to deal with being alive.“12

A later body of work titled Systems, VII-XIII, were show for the first time in Tuttle’s solo show at Pace Gallery from September to October 2012. These new pieces show Tuttle’s continuous search to create sculptures that are expansive while retaining their intimacy. Though these “systems” are physically very different from the Octagonals created 40 years prior, his underlying immateriality through materiality remains. “Tuttle’s explorations of line, volume, color, texture, shape, and form are imbued with a sense of spirituality and informed by a deep intellectual curiosity. Teasing beauty out of humble materials, the artist reflects the fragility of the world in his poetic works.”13

Systems, XII looks as if the elements, a metal pole wrapped in red cloth, a wooden beam on a small pile of blue styrofoam, a piece of crumpled white fabric on the wooden beam and raw wooden blocks in a pyramid shape, were casually arranged to create a painterly compositions. In an Art in America review of this work, Gregory Volks writes, “it subtly embraces juxtapositions of elevation and gravity, rigid and flexible materials, revelation and concealment, vivid and subdued colors.”14

Systems, X is tripartite. A three sided wood block with coarsely woven cloth inside which rests on a red painted block. The third part is a thin plywood sheet on legs that forms a low sloping table. Underneath are black plastic bags stuffed with black fabric and on the table is a thick white cloth, with a stick dipped in red paint, jutting out. ”You know what you are looking at is humdrum stuff, but in this very particular arrangement, the idiosyncratic “system” of shapes, textures and colors seems quietly marvelous and frankly sublime.“15

The similar thread in all Tuttle’s work is an insatiable curiosity that is contagious. The viewer is left to explore the materiality of the work, to mentally remake the work and in doing so perceive their subtleties and the interplay between the layers of materials—like the color of a cast shadow on green fabric shaded by red fabric. Tuttle stated that when he selects a color it is redefined as if he had never used that color before. Everything is seen as if for the first time and each object he creates is it’s own and cannot be defined by anything else in the world. “The objects he makes do not, as is his intention, resemble anything but themselves, we are led to assume indeed, to feel distinctly that he is interested in the expression of interior states rather in a reexamination of the physical world… Examples of such nonphysical things, which are part of interior states, are the mental categories of time and space, beginning and end, part and whole, singular and plural, equal and different, cause and effect.”16

Tuttle’s material explorations create complex objects that increase our awareness of them and attract our attention. We become aware of their inner presence and unique life that exists outside of the visitor, object, and participant relationship. Similar to Heidegger’s example of the broken hammer—when the hammer can’t do the job of hammering, it can be thought about from a distance and appreciated for it’s objectness. Harman adds that since our knowledge of the world is illusive, indirect and cannot be fully know—we can reconsider assumptions of human-centeredness and speculate a flat ontology where humans and objects stand on equal ground. 17

The objects of Richard Tuttle, and the “life of it’s own” he gives his works, exemplify this flat ontology. They work to increase the viewer’s perceptual and sensual reality of objects and heighten the viewer’s understanding of the ability of objects to transcend them from the physical to the psychical. Art reflects our world and the links between the artist’s experiences and their works are inescapable. The environmental movements, the awareness of the anthropogene, object oriented philosophy, and our sensitivity to objects seems like a progressive step away from human-centered thinking in order to rebalance our relationship to all things and embrace the knowledge that we are a part of this greater world and not apart from it.


1. Marcia Tucker and Richard Tuttle, Richard Tuttle: Whitney Museum of American Art New York, September 12 - November 16, 1975 (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1976), 

2. Pace Gallery, "Richard Tuttle," (Accessed October 16, 2017).

3. Marcia Tucker. 

4. Tate, "TateShots: Richard Tuttle," (Accessed October 08, 2017).

5. Marcia Tucker.

6. Molly Donovan, "Richard Tuttle and the Comfort of the Unknown," American Art 20, 2 (2006): 102-25.

7. Marcia Tucker.

8. Richard Tuttle, “Visual Cultures Lectures Series - Richard Tuttle: Layering,” Royal College of Arts, 17 October 2014,

9. Molly Donovan, "Richard Tuttle and the Comfort of the Unknown,": 115

10. Marcia Tucker.

11. Madeleine Grynsztejn, "The Art Of Richard Tuttle," Canadian Art 22, no. 3 (Fall, 2005): 63.

12. Tuttle, “Layering.”

13. Pace Gallery, "Richard Tuttle".

14. Gregory Volk, "Richard Tuttle." Art in America, November 13, 2012.

15. IBID

16. Marcia Tucker and Richard Tuttle. 1976.

17. Lucy Kimball, 2013. The object strikes back: An interview with Graham Harman. Design and Culture 5 (1): 103-17.)