On a recent afternoon, speaking by phone from the parking lot of a New Mexico doctor’s office, the artist Richard Tuttle talked reverently of Alexander Calder, the 20th-century sculptor of lightweight steel assemblages whose parts turn or sway ever so gently. Tuttle’s works look quite unlike Calder’s: Tuttle’s sculptures are scrappy and sometimes even incomplete-looking, while Calder’s are glossy, gorgeous objects that command attention in a white-cube gallery space. But even Tuttle had to admit, with some degree of awe, that Calder “brought sculpture —modern sculpture—to a climactic finale.”
Then Tuttle paused. “I’m not a modernist,” he continued. “I’ve been against modernism since I began. So part of doing this show was meant to have a modernism-defining Calder take on other significant meanings and take steps beyond modernism.”
Tuttle was referring to the exhibition of Calder’s art that he curated for Pace Gallery’s Los Angeles space. It’s one of two Tuttle-oriented shows on view in L.A. now, the other being a solo exhibition at David Kordansky Gallery that features two new series by him that both contain a connection to Calder’s work. Across the two exhibitions, one can observe how Calder, an art-historical giant, continues to influence all kinds of artists working today, even those whose practices seem diametrically opposed to his own.
Take Tuttle’s recent series “Calder Corrected,” one of the series on view at Kordansky. Tuttle’s barely-there drawings include as little as a few clusters of pencil markings alongside a swatch of painted color. These may not be what you call to mind when you think of Calder’s sleek, arcing mobiles, but for Tuttle, they are intimately related.
“It sounds like I consider myself superior, like a teacher who would correct your pronunciation or something like that,” Tuttle said. “It’s really not about that.” Instead, he continued, “my point is that you can make a task better.”
Tuttle said he considers his Calder show at Pace—and perhaps even his Kordansky show—a primer for younger artists looking to learn a thing or two from a sculptor they think they know all too well.
Typically, it’s Tuttle who’s asked about the young artists he’s influenced. When he received a traveling retrospective in 2004, the New York Times posed that exact question. Tuttle, who’s just as modest as his own sculptures, responded, “Basically I don’t believe it.” Yet he seemed to welcome the possibility that newer generations may have a lot to take away from his sculptures, which have been polarizing in the past, with the Times once running a review of a 1975 Whitney Museum show that was so corrosively negative, it got the institution’s director, Marcia Tucker, fired.
His openness to young artists may come as a result of his unusual path to art-making. Unlike many other Minimalists, Tuttle didn’t attend art school, even though he’s said that he knew he was an artist ever since he was a kindergartener who put crayon to paper. Instead, during the ’60s, he came to the established art world through his mentor, a curator named Sam Wagstaff, and his employer, the dealer Betty Parsons, for whom Tuttle first served as an assistant, then as an artist on her roster.
Tuttle said that being at Parsons’s gallery brought him into contact with work by Abstract Expressionists like Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, and Jackson Pollock, whose work, Tuttle believes, invokes some of Calder’s thematic concerns. But these artists were translating Calder’s ideas for painting, not sculpture.
Calder “was a very unusual artist, because he was trying to tell us something in sculpture,” Tuttle said, “which I find much more difficult than trying to tell us something in painting.”
One similarity between his art and Calder’s is an interest in verticality. “Calder seems to play between nature’s vertical and his own,” Tuttle writes in an essay accompanying the Pace show. “I have been looking for the vertical, but what it is I do not know. I feel I will know it when I see it.”
In tribute to this, the Pace show includes Calder works that rise gently into the air. There’s the nearly-seven-foot-tall Sphere Pierced by Cylinders (1939), a reddish circular form that rests atop a tower-like triangle crisscrossed by wire. It can recall the way that trees grow toward the sun, threatening to block out light, if viewed from a certain angle.
Yet there are also horizontal works that Tuttle has included, as well as less easily categorizable ones. There’s an untitled 1939 sculpture that has a suspended element resembling a heavily abstracted flower, with its petals each depicted as a black blob, and Little Mobile for Table’s Edge (ca. 1939), in which one of Calder’s curled forms is delicately, perhaps even perilously, balanced on its tiny end. And there are mobiles, too, for those in search of Calder’s most iconic works.
Viewers who come to David Kordansky gallery expecting to see something in this vein may find themselves surprised by how little Tuttle’s new works resembles Calder’s. But according to Tuttle, these works may have unexpected, if not unintended, resonances with the modernist master’s art.
Tuttle’s “Black Light” series is a grouping of paper constructions that are pinned to the wall, their surfaces unevenly painted in thin watercolor. Shaped vaguely like Minimalist sculptures that fly apart, these pieces are sometimes accompanied by pieces of Scotch tape and scrawled pencil markings that read “T” or “TOP.” Think Frank Stella’s paintings, if they were deliberately a lot less precise.
Stella once famously said, describing his own steely abstractions, “What you see is what you see.” With Tuttle’s art, what you see is what you see—and also what you don’t see. He said his “Black Light” works, much like the device alluded to in the title, illuminate things that can’t regularly be perceived by the naked eye.
“Black has come to mean lightlessness,” Tuttle said. “Lightlessness is the worst possible punishment for a human being, because even cells in our bodies make light. Lightlessness means those cells are forbidden to make light. That is completely different from black. Ultimately, you see that black can be a source of light.”
And, although it was not Tuttle’s initial purpose when making these works, black also recalls the paint Calder used to cover his house in Roxbury, Connecticut, much like how local farmers have done for generations. In Tuttle’s words, doing so made their barns “luminous.”
“Calder certainly relished that and connected that to painting his sculptures black,” Tuttle said. “In using black to create light, Calder created a free space that had not been seen before. Artists like Pollock realized the complexity of that and also understood that it needed to be expressed in painting.”
Pretty soon, Tuttle was allowing his “lunatic fringe mind,” as he put it, to wander as he spoke—to go far beyond Calder and Pollock and the L.A. shows and even his own sculptures. He expounded about the Big Bang and the pandemic, and expressed his view that light and color can act as guiding forces for what he called “the rightness” of being in this world, which is “what sculpture’s all about.”
“It’s very altruistic and idealistic, but why not?” he posited. “I’m too old to care about what people have going through their ears or not. I’m more interested in what’s going on with the eyes anyway.”