The Failure of Opera: Thoughts on Richard Tuttle

One pleasant Sunday morning, memorable only by my unusual joie de vivre, I made my way down to the Hugh Lane with the sole intention of seeing the Richard Tuttle Show.

On entering, I found myself confused: for someone so familiar with gallery spaces, this seems nonetheless to be a typical enough experience. The Hugh Lane seems to exacerbate this tendency; Harry Clarks’ windows here, Francis Bacons’ farce of a studio there, some nice oil paintings, but where exactly is the Richard Tuttle? And so I missed that left turn up marble stairs, which would have brought me neatly into the realm of post-minimalism. Instead, I continued on through, past the Harry Clark chamber and into the main galleries.

Here, I was faced with a sea of mostly elderly people, all keenly facing the center of the room, where a baby grand was set up. What is going on here, I asked myself. I thought I’d read Caoimhin Mac Giolla Leith was giving a talk here on Tuttles’ work, but at the end of February I had thought. And plus, though I’m yet to see him speak, I’m fairly certain that he tended to do so sans piano.

Picking up a sheet from a stack of print outs, I learned that we were waiting on an opera recital. More specifically, Wagner, Brahms: the lyrics were printed in German, with their English translation alongside. And so I sat down, seizing hold of this flicker of serendipity, and listening for an hour to this cataclysmic, somewhat terrifying roar. Feeling shaken, I left this din for the relative safety of Richard Tuttle.

By safety, I do not, in any way, mean comfort or ease of understanding or even simplicity. Not at all; rather, I mean only to imply that hyperbolic sentiment, which seems to me basically the backbone of opera, might be – no, definitely would be – harder to locate in the work of Tuttle. This quietude is what gives the work its specific quality, its seemingly unabashed wonder in the actualisation and process of process.

To deem the show a manifestation of a career long preoccupation with drawing would not be, I do not think, an act of simplification. On entering the show, with some relief it must be said, one of the earliest pieces in the show faced me, ‘Wire Piece’, from 1972. Curiously, alongside this date was the text, “Executed in Dublin, 2010.” The piece itself comprised a wire assemblage, a singular length of cheap wire, which jutted out from the wall, twisted back on itself, coming to rejoin the wall once again. Another line was also traced, a sister line drawn directly onto the wall in graphite. The works’ simplicity is startling even now. But to apprehend the piece is only to do so in space; the act of looking is bodily, spatial. Therefore, shadow comes into play and the lines of wire and graphite, once static, come to waver and fluctuate reciprocally. To call this a drawing seems only right – what is drawing if not a singularly bodily process in time and space? In this way, it seems, the viewer assumes the role of the artist by apprehending the work.

Richard Tuttle ’44th Wire Piece’ (1972), not the work shown at the Hugh Lane

Now to the second note of interest, that statement, “Executed in Dublin, 2010.” Alright, but this piece is supposed to be from 1972. If a work is remade every time it is shown, re-performed, in a sense, what does this say about the work of art in general? Tuttle apparently remakes the works by memory, a kind of muscular memory that allows him to recreate them pretty much verbatim. But never, I suppose, completely verbatim. And yet, though the remake differs from the original, it ceases to matter; the message or essence of the artwork is conveyed through reproduction of the process, though this remains a wholly fallible process. To be open to the (re) execution of an artwork prevents that work from becoming estranged from the artist or the world: it remains malleable, open and at the same time utterly beguiling. For an artwork that is constantly remade surely disrupts understanding of what an artwork should be.

And that was only the first piece of work. The show mostly comprises later work, with a handful of early works thrown in for good measure. Tuttles’ means of working does not really change all that much, though perhaps the later work diverges slightly from the simplicity of the earliest examples on show here. The works forefront materiality links past and present: a casually noted, non-exhaustive list of materials include mount board, aluminum foil, coloured pencil, glue, Styrofoam, acrylic paint, nails, screws, wood, carton paper, pigment, plywood, string, tape, balsa, plastic picnic paints, gold leaf, watercolour, ink, graphite and gouache. As I said, this is a non-exhaustive list; in later works a plethora of haphazard materials come together in series after series of works that seem to transgress the margins of both painting and sculpture.

Which seems to me why drawing seems the most fitting locale for their idiosyncrasies. Drawing is a minor, wholly preliminary (or secondary) activity, an activity rarely perceived as an end in itself, even now in the aftermath of its widely felt resurgence. When is a drawing finished? When it is no longer needed? In Tuttle’s work there appears to be an acceptance of provisionality, of the fragmentary and incomplete. The works appear consistently as in a state of making or un-making, and the inexactitude as to where they lie on this scale is what keeps them alive and vibrant. In the 1972 Catalogue for Documenta 5, curated by Harald Szeemann, Tuttle stated that to, “make something that looks like itself is […] the problem, the solution.” What is implied in attempting to create something that looks “like itself”? It is, I think, to present the work, only, merely, outside of a motivation towards representation. Tuttles’ works are things in themselves, truly, not whole, not finalised, but always in a state of shaping and reshaping, execution and re-execution.

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