The following essay was written in Spring 2018 in partial fulfillment for coursework with Dr. Richard Shiff in the Art History Department at The University of Texas at Austin as part of a Master of Architecture focusing on Interdisciplinary Studies. 

Material Language

Richard Tuttle and the Art of Matter

In art form ‘strives’ toward matter.
Alois Riehl1

1 Riehl, Alois. 1925. "Bemerkungen zu dem probleme der form in der Dichtkunst." In Philosophische Studien aus Vier Jahrzehnten, by Alois Riehl, 283. Leipzig: Quelle und Meyer.

´In der Kunst ´begehrt´ die Form nach dem Stoffe.´

Alois Riehl (1844-1924) was a Neo-Kantian Austrian Philosopher. Not to be confused with Alois Riegl (1858-1905), the influential Austrian art historian whose conception of the Kunstwollen and the haptic/optic qualities of art formed the basis of his aesthetic principles.

The words we use for things – nouns and, more properly, names – seem to refer to our conception of the thing; its formulation in our mind or, more concretely, the feedback we receive from apprehending its form in the world. This allows us to speak of immaterial things (ideas, concepts, and feelings) with a lot of the same language we use to describe things with a physical presence. For instance, if I say the word “table,” you may have an idea in your mind about a table that is different and distinct from the table in my own mind. But I would venture to guess that, broadly speaking, they share many of the same properties. Tables are flat, consisting of a slab or surface being carried by supports (perhaps four legs), and have the capacity to carry other things, offer the possibility for people to sit around it, to hide under it, or even to stand on it. Your table may be a coffee table whereas mine may be a dining table, implying a function even before articulating one. If you have imagined that your table to be a specific material, I suspect that aspect came after the form was already established in your mind. Speaking about a real table, with physical properties, prompts first our conception of the table– its form– and secondarily considers that this real table about which we are speaking (or sitting at, hiding under, or standing on) has a material presence. Form seems to precede matter in the very ways in which we cognize and communicate. It is perhaps best summed up by Descartes’ cogito ergo sum. The conundrum is that thinking is nothing without language, and language is nothing without arbiters of the language: people, physically, of matter. In the work of Richard Tuttle we are confronted by an alternative approach to this formal basis for language. In his works, we see a striving toward an evolution of form into a new material language.

In the proposition of a new material language, Tuttle’s work is centered around a need for the materials he uses to express themselves non-linguistically through him. The tenuous presence of each final piece points simultaneously to the fragility of the materials used and the gesture specific to Tuttle’s body. The humble nature of his materials such as wire, paper, textile, plywood, latex paint, material scraps, etc… underscores the commonality of material as a basis for human experience, but the uniqueness of each piece is contingent upon the particularity of Tuttle having been the sole negotiator of the raw material and its external form in the world. If a formal language is based on a conception of semiotics as an interplay between signifier, signified, and referent, then it begs the question if Tuttle’s material language is subject to the same division. Paradoxically, an attempt to codify the structure of a material language into written language undermines the very notion that it could communicate something nonlinguistic, but a series of implications might suffice to approximate what can be gleaned from communicating through material. For Tuttle, material is language; and language is material. Still, words come up painfully short – for where we begin is exactly the same place that we end: Tuttle’s material language is perhaps only understood by him.

Fig. 1

Fig. 1
Richard Tuttle
1st Paper Octagonal
Paper and starch paste
approx. 54 inches, orientation variable.

In the collection of Philadelphia Museum of Art. Promised gift of Keith L. and Katherine Sachs

In considering some of his most successful works – the Octagonals – he usually titles the pieces according to a sequence of words in which the first word is the piece’s most salient physical property, followed by a word which refers to its shape or form. If the piece belongs to a series the first word would be its placement in the series such as 1st Paper Octagonal [Fig. 1]. As for the most descriptive adjective, this is simply the name of the material being used or, in the case of an ambiguous material to a layperson – such as canvas – he may simply title it according to its color – an optic quality that could be applied to any number of materials, but which nonetheless is inherent to the canvas itself. Purple Octagonal [Fig. 2], for instance, is made from dyed canvas in which the canvas is simply the setting for a dye, the primary material of the piece which distinguishes it from the vast archive of paint-on-canvas pictorial works throughout history. The dye though wasn’t applied so much as embedded in the canvas – a process of assimilation that is only possible because the dye and the threads of the canvas speak the same language; the viscosity of one integrates with the thread structure and absorptive capacity of the other.

Fig. 2

This minimal act is one where the materials take precedence over an expressive gesture of the artist and instead finds its form through a repeated shape – the Octagonal. As is the case with all of his Octagonals, the irregularity of the shape eliminates the possibility of forming a directly accessible formal image of the piece prior to apprehending it. Individual preconceptions about shapes condition us to associate a mental image with their names through their regular Platonic or Euclidean iterations. A regular octagon is immediately known by anyone who has ever seen a STOP sign. But in calling the shape an Octagonal, rather than an octagon, Tuttle subverts the expectation of the viewer to visualize a regular shape in his/her mind prior to seeing the material presence of the actual piece – for what image could a person possibly have of an octagonal prior to apprehending its specific physicality? The many formations of the Octagonals combined with the numerous materials used to realize them reiterates the sense that the particularity of the form is subservient to the material used to construct them. When each Octagonal is as irregular as the next, no hierarchy or judgment of craft enables one to be regarded as superior to the next. Instead, they each belong to a body of work defined primarily by what is most unique to each one – its material. White Cotton Octagonal [Fig. 3] is first and foremost a piece of white cotton whose size is delimited by the format from which the cotton is readily available. The angles and lengths of the sides of the shape are not as relevant as the manner in which the cotton is raised above the wall to form subtle bends and undulations in the fabric which seem to correspond directly to the shape’s vertices. It is through these irregularities – not the uniqueness of the shape – that codifies the material language of white cotton.

Fig. 3

In 1st Paper Octagonal, the bonding paste imperfectly applied to the wall reveals undulations of a more localized variety: because of the consistency of the adhesive, irregularities of surface pressure and uni-directional application reveal creases where the paper was not adhered consistently. These irregularities comprise its paper-ness, which is an entirely different expression than cotton-ness. Additionally, despite the whiteness of the paper and the requirement that the wall to which it is adhered be white, the viewer enters into a merging of two distinct material types in these Paper Octagonals. Whereas the canvas and cotton Octagonals require a third element (nail/wire brad) to attach it to the wall, the paper is applied directly to the wall through adhesive wherein the paper becomes the wall through its coplanarity and adoption of the wall’s surface texture beneath. We see a similar concentration on the wall surface in the Wire Octagonals. In 12th Wire Octagonal [Fig. 4], we are confronted by a perimeter. Unlike the other material iterations, the wire octagonal simply outlines an octagonal-shaped portion of wall because wire in its most naturally available format – unlike paper, cotton, or canvas – does not cover a broad swath of surface area. Whether dealing with the 12th Wire Octagonal or the 11th or 10th, etc… the unique presence of the piece is determined by the ways in which the wire irregularly stretches from one brad to the next; and in these cases, by the surface qualities of the wall which is suddenly framed by a precarious wire boundary.

Fig. 2
Richard Tuttle
Purple Octagonal
Dyed canvas
54 13/16 × 55 ½ in. (139.2 × 141 cm).

Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, gift of William J. Hokin, 1982.69. Photo © MCA Chicago.

Fig. 3
Richard Tuttle
White Paper Octagonal
cotton cloth
overall: 104.8 x 88.9 cm (41 1/4 x 35 in.)

National Gallery of Art
Dorothy and Herbert Vogel Collection

Fig. 4

Fig. 4
Richard Tuttle12th Wire Octagonal
Wire and brads
43 3/4 x 42 inches (irregular)

The Museum of Modern Art
Gift of Renzo Bagnoli

In his more renowned Wire Pieces [Fig. 5] as well as the series of string drawings entitled Ten Kinds of Memory and Memory Itself [Fig. 6],Tuttle removes his shoes to attune his body to the environment through a haptic bond only intermediated by the fabric of his socks.

Fig. 5

Fig. 5
Richard Tuttle
Installation view of Lower West Gallery at Pulitzer Foundation
Wire Pieces
Wire, brads

Fig. 6

Fig. 6
Richard Tuttle
Ten Kinds of Memory and Memory Itself
string; installation view
Acting as a sort of conduit for the materials to find form, Tuttle channels the energy of the particular setting from his feet through to his hands and their actions with the material. The result is a quasi-performative work that produces an artifact from the “kind of experience that cannot be repeated.”2

Fig. 7

Fig. 8

The Wire Pieces are composed of three distinct material gestures: a hand-drawn graphite line on the wall in one of 48 possible configurations; a wire filament which is secured at the beginning of the graphite line with a nail, then stretched and formed according to the contour of the graphite line until it reaches the other end of the line, at which point it is secured to another nail and the excess wire is trimmed off; and thirdly of a shadow cast by the wire onto the wall. Two basic material gestures that give way to a third – for light and shadow are indeed a part of the material world. While the pencil line and the deformed wire index Tuttle’s hand and body directly, the shadow only indirectly registers his hand at work. Additionally though, the pencil line indexes the specificity of place by registering the inconsistent texture of the gypsum wallboard on which it is drawn; the wire indexes the tension in the wire and its reaction to gravity – an empirical registration of place - as it is cantilevered in its uncommon shape from each nail; and finally the shadow responds to the specificity of the particular lighting condition in the space where it is installed, although shadow and light – like gravity - presuppose specificity. As empirical characteristics of every environment, gravity and light are two kinds of forces directly responsible for our abilities as viewers to entertain the possibility of seeing the work, let alone for Tuttle to create the work. Simply put, they are inescapably part of every material environment that we are likely to inhabit. Each part of the Wire Pieces acts as an interplay between a specific person in a specific place (Tuttle as he installs the piece in situ) and the empirical forces which govern the existence of the universe. Remarkably though, the similarity in appearance of the wire, the pencil line, and the shadow exhibits a unity, where only the optical intensity of the mark varies – three different qualities doing three different things read harmoniously as though they were of the same substance.

2 Tuttle, Richard. 2016. "Staying Contemporary." art21. Ian Forster. July 22. Accessed April 2018.

Fig. 7
Stills from video clip of Richard Tuttle installing Wire Pieces

Fig. 8
Stills from video clip of Richard Tuttle installing String Pieces

It is through material that Tuttle is able to approximate or allude to something which is nonmaterial, namely emotions and spirit. If linguistic communication (internal/cognitive) requires the basis of a physical (external/material) referent for the system to be developed, then working backwards, perhaps physical (material) communication is the byproduct of a metaphysical unity – a series of emotional references that are closer to a raw state of being or harmony. This metaphysical unity or spirit underlying Tuttle’s material language could also be considered the Kunstwollen behind his work. Alois Riegl expands upon this term in his text, Kunstindustrie, “All human will is directed toward a satisfactory shaping of man’s relationship to the world, within and beyond the individual. The plastic Kunstwollen regulates man’s relationship to the sensibly perceptible appearance of things. Art expresses the way man wants to see things shaped or colored, just as the poetic Kunstwollen expresses the way man wants to imagine them.”3 At the mercy of a world and series of materials expressing themselves through him, Tuttle is also at the mercy of the Kunstwollen, which does not so much express his internal desires as it simply underlies the way things are. As an artist who has maintained an active practice since the mid 1960’s, Tuttle’s motivations have surely evolved over the decades, but consider his words from a 2014 interview with the Louisiana Museum:

3 Riegl, Alois. 2003. "Kunstindustrie." In The Vienna School Reader: Politics and Art Historical Method in the 1930s, by Christopher S. Wood. New York: Zone Books.

This is one of the classic distinctions between feelings and emotions. There are certain feelings that I have that I think are special or unusual, valuable. And I would like other people - or, as it were - to give them to other people. But that’s not art. People are responsible for their own feelings […]. But generally speaking art is about emotions; the difference between emotions and feelings. An artwork is of course an accounting of a visible world; but it’s equally an accounting of an invisible world.
For the health of society, we have to invent a system that produces freedom. […] we need freedom and so does society - and the way it works is that the artist does something that society would never do, and slowly brings it in.4

4 Tuttle, Richard. 2014. "Richard Tuttle: Artists are Like Clouds." Louisiana Channel. Edited by Kamilla Bruus. Marc-Christoph Wagner.

Fundamentally invested in the role of an artist in society, Tuttle has developed an inverted process from the typical notion of what an artist does, namely to give form to a medium or material. “There’s art, and then there’s the art of making art.”5 For Tuttle, the unknown (for which we can only have emotions) and the freedom of the individual to undergo such feelings are the open ended motivations behind his art and rather than giving them a form, he is giving them a materialization – which has an open-ended form. “I’ve always thought of form as an open thing […] Shape is not something that’s known; it’s something that’s unknown. My work is trying to deliver a message saying that form is in fact open, not closed; it’s a natural bizarreness becoming subversiveness.”6 Ultimately Tuttle believes this is an egoless approach – using a repeated shape or material enables him to automatize certain parts of his process and bypass the aesthetic in the resolution of his work. But this is a different kind of automatism than that of the Abstract Expressionist generation. This automatism is an internal mediation of connecting with the universal – a universal impression directed inwards, whereas the Abstract Expressionists were primarily concerned with an outward expression of a subconscious inner world. This is critical to understand that Tuttle’s material language is, at its core, an artistic act that serves him. But as it deals with universal emotions and feelings, it is inherently democratic and aims to facilitate a viewer’s connection with those universal truths.

5 (Tuttle, Staying Contemporary 2016)

6 Donovan, Molly. 2006. "Richard Tuttle and the Comfort of the Unknown." American Art (The University of Chicago Press on behalf of the Smithsonian American Art Musuem) 20 (2): 102-125.

Verbal language is not my forte, but I strive for truth in the same way as when I’m doing my visual work. I think it’s great to get to where the artist is able to do something that is not aesthetic, that’s clearly pointing to the future. It takes real genius, a real gift, and a lot of hard work to do something that is not aesthetic. So I would tend to guard against anything that is in opposition to that direction, including the marketplace, which would honor aesthetic issues far more than they would ever honor non-aesthetic issues. The serious artist has to live in the face of that reality. That’s another contradiction, because the only way you can live in the face of those realities is by having a powerful ego, but you’re actually trying to make something that is egoless. Those polarities bring you close to life, or what it means to be alive.7

7 Ibid, 117-118

Closer to life, for Tuttle, means closer to a unity of physical life and a more primordial metaphysical existence. As someone who is comfortable in the unknown, this is the purest form of existence for him. But it is important to remember that if an egoless expression is the intent of the art, then his identity is completely consumed by his own physicality. Michael Polanyi’s remarks on tacit knowledge illuminate Tuttle’s dilemma: “Because our body is involved in the perception of objects, it participates thereby in our knowing of all other things outside.”8 While it is evident that the material nature of his own body comprises his essential existence, he is a living paradox in his desire to reside in the “unknown.” If Polanyi’s claim is that the body aids in knowing all other things outside of it, then Tuttle’s work is seemingly an attempt at communing with something inside him, but which is universally acknowledgeable. Performing the work is a test to see if his body can aid him in his desire to not know anything more than he has to. A crude manipulator of his humble materials, a more skilled craftsperson might find a way to more accurately scribe the wire of his Wire Pieces to the graphite line; but in the process of nurturing those skills and cultivating a craftsperson’s mentality, Tuttle risks knowing too much – and if he knows too much, the work would begin to communicate predetermined (linguistic) meanings. “A lot of my work is about not being able to do something well. It tries to locate itself in a place where an appreciation of craft is not necessarily a part of appreciation of a piece. I mean nobody could tell me how to do the craftsmanship of the piece. It comes really from the inside.”9

            But to posit any of this as certifiable knowledge that is derived from the patently physical properties of the material undermines Tuttle as an artist and his entire body of work. What can we know about his Rope Pieces, Wood Slats, Kinesthetic Drawings, or any of the multi-material sculptures he began constructing in the 1970’s and 1980’s? In the end, the body of work serves his persona as an enigma. It is evident he is a body and his body performs art. For an artist solely concerned with material properties, we are left with a lot of emptiness and uncertainty about his work. As for the rest of the story, perhaps Tuttle says it best, “But I think I don’t know. I am kind of comfortable with not knowing.”10

Max Mahaffey
Spring 2018

8 Polanyi, Michael. 1966. The Tacit Dimension. New York: Doubleday & Company.

9 Tuttle, Richard. 2009. "Reality & Illusion." art21.Edited by Jenny. Interviewed by Susan Sollins Chiurco. Wesley and Nick Ravich Miller. May 14. Accessed April 2018.

10 Tuttle, Richard, interview by Chris Martin. 2005. "In Conversation: Richard Tuttle." The Brooklyn Rail. The Brooklyn Rail, (January 21):