ABC for/of Richard Tuttle
by Jarrett Earnest
An epistolary interview with Jarrett Earnest, pt.3 P-Z
P is for “Pliny” and “Pearl” and “Process”
Pliny, in his Natural History describes Cleopatra’s infamous act: “Then she ordered the dessert to be served. According to instructions, the servants placed but one dish before her, containing vinegar whose acidity and strength dissolves pearls into slush. She was at the time wearing in her ears that remarkable and truly unique work of nature known as pearls. So while Antony was wondering what in the world she was going to do, she took one pearl from her ear, plunged it into the vinegar, and when it was dissolved, swallowed it.” Thus, she won a bet to consume the most expensive meal in history. I’m interested in how Pearls are a manifest reaction to an irritating problem, but also how Cleopatra’s dematerialization of them was about destroying their social value. How do you think about “process” in your work and its relationship to valuing/devaluing any final object? Are you more interested in the pearl as an earring or as slush?
To me this is a question about simultaneity, reversal, and, ultimately, the power of writing. If Kant hadn’t been more hardworking than us, would we read him? There has to be a receiving subject before the experience takes place, the creation of which is Natural History.
Q is for “Quotation”
“‘He got into a conversation that had started before him,’ said Boris Pasternak of his fellow poet Osip Mandelstam. I quote a great deal because things other people have said or written have become part of my experience and to that extent are there for me to say and say again and are then part of my vocabulary as much as I could possibly invent,” says Bill Berkson in “Divine Conversation.” Obviously, I take this curious form we are engaging in as itself about “quotation” and its role in conversation. Where do you see the conversation you are having with your work as beginning? What do you quote and how?
We have to be able to hear the sounds we make.
R is for “Romanticism”
Your 2011 writing on Philipp Otto Runge shows such a broad and deep understanding of German Romantic painting. I was particularly struck by this description:
There can already be seen in these youthful drawings a preference for hatching down toward the center from the upper right, like soul being brought in and materializing. This happens in the great self-portrait from 1801-02, just enough profile and frontal, in the cheek under his left eye where a strong shadow crosses at right angles. This creates a chaos that is just as difficult to look at as it is to see. It is like breaking the atom, for after the making of this, color will forever be seen separate from light—Romantically! This is how he knew color was about the sphere, its edges darkening, even as they took one further. This was truly the beginning of a new world, can be seen historically or eternally, as such always can. It was important for art, because art is about beginnings, and this was a big one!
How did you first become interested in these artists, Runge in particular? How do you see this work, seemingly so different in form, as connected to what you do as an artist?
What is “the Romantic”? What is “number”? What is the number one? There is always the one something. Even the one one, is not one. There can never be one. That is like the individual, and that is the Romantic.
S is for “Satori” (for Bill Jensen)
In an interview with Bob Holman in BOMB (1992) you described the process of making decisions about exhibiting your work:
The struggle between whether mind (and matter) should be given freedom or should be controlled these years of effort are reverse satori, where you’re trying to make some kind of satori happen. So when I say, please hang this at 60 inches, while most people think I’m trying to enslave them, to make them do something that they don’t want to do, it is really about an effort to keep the mind free.
What does satori mean in the process of making art as opposed to the process of exhibiting it? How has your relationship to Zen evolved?
The practice lies outside satori.
T is for “Touching”
When speaking to architecture students in 1943 Le Corbusier told this story:
“I was 23 when, after five months on the road, I reached Athens as the Parthenon. The pediment was still up, but the whole length of the temple had fallen ... With respectful, restless, wondering hands, over many weeks I touched these stones ... Touch is a second kind of sight. Sculpture or architecture, when their forms are inherently successful, can be caressed; in fact our hands are impelled toward them.”
What role does touch play in your relationship to materials and sculpture? Is soliciting a desire to touch its own kind of success?
When my pet snake, Olivia, compresses and constricts after I’ve been away, it’s real affection!
U is for “Universal”
“The material universe is largely a concept of the imagination which rests on a slender basis of direct sense-presentation. But none the less it is a fact; for it is a fact that actually we imagine it. Thus it is actual in our consciousness just as sense-presentation also is actual there.” — A.N. Whitehead
What do you make of the concept of the “universe,” something that in many ways seems incompressible to me in its sheer inhumanity. In another way is there anything that seems to you “universal” in a non-technical sense—truths, principles, feelings, or experiences?
Art has the dual job of constructing a universal and breaking up the unity.
V is for “Vernacular” (Velvet)
The architectural historian Francesco Passanti argued for the “vernacular” as the glue that binds the seemingly disparate aesthetics of Le Corbusier across the span of his career: “As a conceptual model, this notion of the vernacular was important because it could open architecture to a redefinition. Unlike classicism, which was a closed formal system internal to architecture, the vernacular model insisted on connecting architecture to something external to it, the identity of a society; and it further insisted that such connection be not invented but found. Thus, the vernacular model helped to open architecture to such “facts” as ships and industrial products.
Your work has famously incorporated “low” or “found” materials that are not specifically considered fine art materials. You are also infamously particular about these materials, I heard for instance that you stopped making “wire pieces” when the type of wire you used stopped being manufactured. How does this concept of the “vernacular” relate to your thinking about materials or forms? Is treating objects as “facts,” things that already exist in the world, one way of evading symbolic form or metaphor? Would you ever make an artwork with velvet?
Because I daydreamed so much at school, much of the world I missed I assume to be the vernacular and experience it as if for the first time, and say of it, “Oh, that is what I missed. What would it be if I had been awake?”
W is for “Water jug”
From your answer to “H” I think of you standing in the Met looking at the East Greek pots and thinking of water. (“When I ask what Heraclitus meant when he said each time you put your toe in a river, it’s a different river, and I think of one of the East Greek pots at the Met, as an answer, it makes perfect sense.”) Heidegger famously wrote of the “jug”:
Sides and bottoms are, to be sure, what is impermeable in the vessel. But what is impermeable is not yet what does the holding. When we fill the jug, the pouring that fills it flows into the empty jug. The emptiness, the void, is what does the vessel’s holding. The emptiness, the void, this nothing of the jug, is what the jug is as the holding vessel.
I was struck by how you described your fascination with Greek water jars as the sublime fusion of the “pictorial” dimension of the surface with the three dimensions of the potter’s art. But they are also about “holding.” As a sculptor, what do these objects teach you about space and display? About the relationship between painting and sculpture?
We are a peace-loving nation, yet we have yet to achieve peace!
Are our failures to achieve peace mirrored by aesthetic failures? With each failure do we get closer or somewhere else?
No, I just mean the interior is equal to the exterior.
X is for “XXX”
Supposedly Descartes introduced the sustained use of “X” as a signifier for an unknown quantity in 1637. Obviously two intersecting lines is perhaps one of the oldest and most iconic possible characters, and what excites me about a grouping of three is how it is both extremely stable as a unit and implies a larger chain, which becomes a pattern—diamonds and triangles. It’s purely image—letters, not a word. As a sign it connotes an intersection of sex and death through censorship, a barrier to representing. Have you ever tried to get at something through negation? How do you see the relationship between image and text? How does sex influence your work?
Live fully—from there.
Y is for “Yar” and “Yantra”
Katherine Hepburn as Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story (1940) in a pool and wearing a swimming cap, her new fiancé approaches holding a small boat:
George: Look what your friend considers a wedding present.
Tracy: Why, it’s a model of the True Love, a boat he designed and built, practically. We sailed it down the coast of Maine and back the summer we were married. My she was yar.
George: “Yar”—what’s that mean?
Tracy: It means—oh what does it mean?—it means easy to handle, quick to the helm—fast, bright—everything a boat should be, until she develops dry rot.
I love this ideal of “yar” as the qualities of an effective boat, a lean machine of transportation. I’m thinking too of yantras as particularly fine mechanisms for a different type of journey or passage. You travel so much—what is the effect on you physically, psychically, spiritually? How has it shaped your work and thinking? Or relationships? What qualities make travel pleasurable for you?
Where I can admire the unity of potter and painter in Attic pottery, I can also admire the disunity in South Italian, the painting staying here on earth, and the pot spiraling off to heaven.
Z is for “Zoo”
I looked back at Auden’s anthology/collage to see how he dealt with this awkward ending sequence of letters to find that his collection ends at W for “Writing,” a kind of meta reflection on the whole project. Similarly I’ve arrived at Z for “Zoo”: the zoo as a complex system of display, collected curiosities organized for looking and being looked at. Setting the stage for a certain type of encounter. In some ways now I see our alphabet as a bestiary. Then here is Carl Sandberg:
O, I got a zoo, I got a menagerie, inside my ribs, under my bony head, under my red-valve heart—and I got something else: it is a man-child heart, a woman-child heart: it is a father and mother and lover: it came from God-Knows-Where: it is going to God-Knows-Where—For I am the keeper of the zoo: I say yes and no: I sing and kill and work: I am a pal of the world: I came from the wilderness.
How do you feel about zoos? As machines for transforming living things into artifacts or examples, or as means of conservation? How do they relate to the types of experiences museums structure?“Z” is a new start.
Post-Script: A New Beginning, Or, “what it is like to go through the alphabet with Richard Tuttle”
For the past few months I have been doing an experimental interview with Richard Tuttle for the Rail on the occasion of Systems, VIII-XII at the Pace gallery (September 7 – October 13, 2012). He suggested using the alphabet as a structure, having never met me, and not knowing it would offer the kind of strategic fun that I’m always looking for. I think very deeply about “interviews”—two people trying to honestly communicate their ideas—as an activity, as, even, the foundational act of both art and politics. So much so that I actually see interviewing artists as part of my own artistic work, trying to create a comfortable intellectual place for something interesting to happen, an encounter, a sharing. I saw the format we created as an attempt to rough out an intergenerational “glossary of ideas” reflecting the specific intersection of us as two people with certain concerns.
This whole project almost ended after the first installment was published in the October 2012 issue. In a truly surreal scenario, I was in Las Vegas interviewing Mike Tyson when I received an intemperate stream of messages from Tuttle, written in LAX on the way to Munich, which concluded: “Dear Jarrett, we’ve had a good run. I think it’s time to close, now.” I was shocked and horrified and not because I was inches from Tyson’s face. The trouble started, without me really realizing it, from what I thought was an innocuous question for “H” (which originally stood for “Horizon”). I was very curious about the platforms on which all of the sculptures in the Pace exhibition were mounted, thinking they were very prominent, and noticing that in the catalog the sculptures were reproduced on the floor. This question led to a blow-up. I deeply apologized, not realizing I had hit on something so sensitive. I suggested we continue on, try at least one more letter, and then get together for coffee when we were both back in New York to clear up whatever misunderstanding in tone or intention my email had produced, which Tuttle graciously agreed to. I then sent a new “H,” which appeared in print (“Heraclitus”) and we continued on through “Z.” He later explained that he’d been thinking a lot of the platforms used in that show and wasn’t ready at that time to confront them, and proposed a return to the Pace show and to “our fight,” as he called it, as a way of concluding this interview/project, which to me is a testament to his self-reflection and graciousness.
We met for dinner and a recorded a “post-script” conversation that addressed, among other things, “our fight” over the bases. We began by discussing the generational aspects of our exchanges, and talking about his current process of reading all of Plato and Aristotle in the original Greek.
Richard Tuttle: Aristotle has a new interest because I find that binary—black/white; off/on—certainly has created the computer and this incredible information system, but the question is: “is it going someplace or is it going no place?” For a long time we weren’t in a position to know, and I think now we kind of are. Aristotle, even if you don’t like what he’s saying, is going someplace, even if that is somewhere to rebel against for 300 years. Or you can try and invent a system that is better than that, that’s why he’s stuck around for 3,000 years.
Jarrett Earnest (Rail): When did you decide to go back and read Aristotle?
Tuttle: I must say, I’m not doing it the way most people have done it or would think of doing it in the past, in that I’m half suspecting that the period that Western culture seems to have derived from has in fact reached a conclusion; that Plato and Aristotle are not useful in a lineage or in a developmental kind of way anymore. But they are interesting in terms of historiography and this is a great moment where we can look back at a 2500-year period and see the ideas and how they were formed and developed. I’m the artist in residence at the Getty Research Institute now and I feel aware that the field of art history is one that is very, very fractured with deep, deep divisions. Not only that but there’s been a kind of reversal between the artist and the art historian. This is all evidence of a kind of transition that is taking place. Say in the normal world the artist will do what they do, and the art historian will do what they do, and they have their delicate balance and everything goes forward, but that’s not happening right now. For example, as an artist, if you want to be an artist who achieves great things in art, you can’t do it because the art historians are not doing their job. It’s part of a pump—each side, even though they do different things, work in tandem. It’s not an accident I am at the Getty now because it is the absolute center of art history on Earth. My project there is called “Researching Research” because before I croak, I hope to reach the levels of art that I know are possible. Life is short and valuable and what are you going to do about that.
Rail: Just so I understand: You’re researching, at the Getty, the mechanisms of art history, which at the moment are not working adequately to understand where you think art can and should go?
Tuttle: In the first place, what a lot of people are comfortable calling “art history” is not necessarily what art history is. Also, what art history in the last 200 years or so has decided is its job to do might not be its job to do. There are so many things that are up in the air and exposed at the moment for anybody who really wants to look at things. I was talking with the director of the research center yesterday, who I am very sympathetic toward because as the director his job is to recognize all these different fragmented ideas of art history and to respect them because different art historians within the Getty are using them, but then he has to also create an image that this is a unified world, which is where the idea of “research” comes in, because everybody has to do research. For example, the director asked me if I thought words could be used for art history. People have doubted in the past whether you can use words to describe an art experience, but this question seemed to be if art history itself can use words. I mentioned this question to Mei Mei who right away said “the right words,” which is absolutely the correct answer, but the answer that I gave to him was that the artist who uses their passion in a verbal form can reach from their heart to another heart about art.
Rail: That’s interesting because I feel that it is a professional part of the job for artists now to be articulate publicly, and for many artists its probably better for them to not say anything. What has your experience been with that?
Tuttle: One of the images that I use is that when an artist makes an artwork it has teeth that can bite you—it’s intended to, it’s a wild thing. In the process of things the teeth are removed until it reaches some end thing with no teeth. Now we need to put the teeth back in. Every artwork contains the evidence, source, or origin of those teeth. It’s the conundrum in society that people don’t like to get bitten.
Those answers I gave to those questions, I really worked my but off for those. Maybe to some people they’ll see it. I’d wake up in the middle of the night and I enjoyed them because it created the opportunity to think about certain things I wouldn’t have thought about. In this situation it became interesting because we were also making something. A lot of the answers are like artworks. Some of them are like five words and you go back and it’s almost like a picture. One of my favorite books of all time is The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Basho, because it is prose and poems in this amazing balance. He says a lot in prose and a lot in poetry and each form is clearly exploiting the maximum of what prose can do and poetry can do. Your questions were quite discursive, so much so that there are times I avoided answering anything you asked at all, and others where I answered some. That’s a part of every interview, but I’m notorious because I’m following my own head so I don’t even hear certain things where it can seem like absences. There are certain cases where it seems that I just preferred not to answer, but there was not one part of any question where I had opposition to it. I accepted early on that you have a certain style or a readership which are used to you as an author. It’s just a suggestion to look at it really stripped down to just your questions and those responses which are aimed to say something non-symbolically that has never been said before. As you know, I’ve been concerned with the symbolic and non-symbolic: in everyday communication every single human being struggles all the time to use symbolic means and methods and non-symbolic means and methods and mixes them freely in a sentence in the hopes of communicating. This is part of my research on the early German Romantics, which I maintain is one of the most fertile grounds that has happened in humanity even though weird things have happened and its been discredited, through creativity we can revisit it and regain some of what that was. So you have this artist Johann Christian Reinhart, he made this picture that everybody can look at, and have not only an art response but feel huge satisfaction, beneficence, which is a coming together of a solution of the symbolic and non-symbolic, in terms of one single picture, the likes of which maybe Shakespeare or some hugely gifted wordsmith could do, but most of us are no where near doing that.
I did this show in Bergen and I showed these notebook drawings, an entire year’s work, and I realized that all of those are symbolic. When I showed them they were supposed to be propped with a nail. Paradoxically, whereas I’ve always been trying to get rid of the label, suddenly what I realized I wanted was the label to get bigger and that the label was non-symbolic. That I too have given the world a possibility of a unified picture of the symbolic and non-symbolic being in sync and part of why I could do that was because of this interview. I worked hard on this and I thought as deeply as I could of issues of importance, and that is all reduced into these compact phrases. Your questions are a combination of the symbolic and the non-symbolic, but my answers at best are only non-symbolic. And very often they seem like something’s missing, but they’re intended to do that. We have this interview and we are both sacrificial victims: you’re sacrificing because you are showing yourself and this is your best shot in combining the symbolic and non-symbolic and I’m coming along and offering my best shot at being non-symbolic. And in that you have a very interesting piece.
The symbolic has been used throughout history so long that if you want to say something symbolic—this is the issue, on the non-symbolic side you can aspire to say something that has never been said before, but you cannot do that symbolically because for sure someone has said the same thing.
Rail: If the symbolic abdicates any aspiration of originality, then the best hope is that, in some ways, it manages or is conscious of the things that it is mobilizing from before and that it can do that interestingly.
Tuttle: “Something that’s never been said before” is not necessarily about being original, but it’s saying something about language. A specific idealism that says that language is something that has the power within itself to say something that it itself has never done before. Its so out of fashion, but I think its a very important topic.
Rail: So does sculpture, maybe like dance, have a unique possibility to be both literally non-symbolically what it is, and also be a highly symbolic language at the same time?
Tuttle: We had a fight about the pieces and the bases in the gallery. I realize now that the bases are non-symbolic. And as such they cannot hold the symbolic, so therefore what is on the bases has to be non-symbolic. And there is no distinction between the piece and the base. When I did the show I had this idea of people walking through the pieces. When I first made them, I put them in the warehouse, you can walk right into them and walk around, and it seemed to have fluidity that is exactly lost when they are on the bases. The interesting thing is that it’s not a painter’s eye that can see it, or a sculptor’s eye: it’s an architectural eye—it gets very rarified. That’s symbolic, it’s like pure symbolic, which is another thing you can strive for. So, if in the non-symbolic you can strive to say something that’s never been said before because you believe in language, in this case the symbolic is so pure, and you can experience it as pure. I think that is what those pieces were really about and it got screwed up because of the bases. I’m glad about that in a way because it’s a whole new beginning. If I had achieved that pure symbolic, that would have been an end. There would have been no place to go.