We may resist art because it’s not good, or because it is good and hasn’t taught us how to see it yet. Particularly in the face of shrinking attention spans – so much art to look at, superficially accessible via a few clicks – one suspects Richard Tuttle is aware of the risk he runs, in his Whitechapel retrospective, by presenting a steady flow of what looks, at first, like short-circuiting fussiness, idiosyncrasy and askew composition: in short, by actively inviting our resistance. A first tour of these 40 works from 1967–2014, elliptically arranged, might offer few handholds and plenty of itchy-brained unease. Only when, near the end, we reach The Right Side of Summer (2003), overlapped red and blue chipboard planes fronted by a jaunty assemblage of blonde wood, ice-cream-pink springs and a funky grid of wiring, do we get a three-minute pop single. (Tuttle, as the resplendent little room of his old works in Hauser & Wirth’s 2013 ‘Re-View: Onnasch Collection’ reminded us, can do this kind of colour/texture/scale alchemy in his sleep.)
The Right Side … ends up being the work whose effect is quickest to fade, mainly because it irradiates pleasure zones so cleanly. It’s an outlier in a show which, you ideally realize through the murk, has emphasized a sand-in-the-Vaseline aesthetic from the haywire punctuation of the title – ‘I Don’t Know . The Weave of Textile Language’ – onward, and that quietly tips its hand midway through the first room, with Perceived Obstacles (1991). Here, on nine wide lengths of raw canvas, geometric shapes (intersecting cuboids, a parabolic arc filled-in with sky blue and watery mint) partly conform to pencilled grids, while seemingly straining to escape them. I don’t particularly care that Tuttle made them for a friend who was dealing with a problem, just as I wasn’t really interested in reading the opaque poems scattered throughout the show, notwithstanding the evident parallel between woven words and woven textiles, frayed syntax and frayed edge. The Perceived Obstacles’ sense of structural off-ness can be learned from, though. They signal that subversions of aesthetic nicety are precisely what Tuttle is after.
That said, not every set of wrongs makes a right. Tuttle, in his risk-taking, can risk preciousness: the show’s opener, Systems VI, White Traffic (2011), which strenuously huddles all manner of objects (yellow girders, red balls, fibreboard rectangles) around a suspended bundle of black synthetic mesh, leans so theatrically on the latter being some kind of allegory for mysterious energies that you get tired looking at it. Especially when in your peripheral vision are his immortal Wire Pieces (1971–72), thrilling, tetchy conversations between bent wire, its shadow and drawn lines on a white wall. They’re brilliantly reductive, materialist, gnomic things and, like his earlier ‘Cloth Pieces’ (1967) and the floor work Ten Kinds of Memory and Memory Itself (1973, ten lengths of cord subject to daily rearrangement), they’re framed by the show’s title as almost-language, an alien alphabet – a move that plunges them into a tingling perpetual present where they’re always about to signify.
If we come away from the Whitechapel admiring Tuttle’s sense of difficulty as gift, his commission for Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall is another matter. The eye takes in a long wooden structure: 15 connected sections of plywood shaped like a cross-sectioned aeroplane wing, draped intermittently with orange material; at the midpoint is an anomalous form, stretching down towards the floor, angled platforms jutting from it like a set of alien diving boards. This is covered, sumptuously, in crimson fabric and sits like the errant full stop in the title it shares with the Whitechapel show. To consider this a sentence, though, is to defuse a work that doesn’t want to be defused, that wants to remain – as it literally is – suspended; between ground and ceiling, between humble textile materials and grand architectonics, between painting and sculpture, object and language.
But Tuttle’s Whitechapel show has already asked us to be analytical of gut feelings, and his Turbine Hall work doesn’t unfold, doesn’t grip. It’s hard to shake the impression that it hit budgetary snags: the wooden skeleton satisfies strongly in volumetric terms, but the skimpy draping of the orange perplexes, and not in a good way. Establish a practice as eccentric as Tuttle’s and, in theory, every offbeat aesthetic choice might be recouped, but what counts, after a due interval, is whether you want to stay or go, and what stays after you go. ‘Scale is individual and the opposite of size’, Tuttle writes of the Turbine Hall segment of ‘I Don’t Know’. I left Tate Modern thinking of Section VII, Extension K (2007): one of the smallest works at the Whitechapel, it features a tiny ‘painting’ on a hand-sawn wooden armature, its splashes of bright colour on black almost completely redacted by a papery sheet of balsa. It’s smaller in size, bigger in scale than the Turbine Hall work. Why? I don’t know, and I don’t mind not knowing.