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Everything Tuttle does seems to be asking the same questions: What's the smallest thing you can do in a picture or with an object and still lift it out of the realm of the ordinary? What's the smallest conceptual pressure that can be brought to bear on something and still have it qualify as art? Questions like those, and the humble, perishable works they can lead to, are enough to send some people running for the exits. And it's true that if all art were like Tuttle's, the art world would be a place too delectable to bear. But at his almost immaterial end of the creative spectrum, Tuttle operates in delightful ways. A picture like 20 Pearls (12), from 2003, with its lozenges of black and its mustard-and-gray smear at the center, reduces painting to a few simple forms and gestures, attaches no compensating theory and still holds the eye with its ramshackle decorative charm.
When Tuttle first began showing in the mid-1960s, he was usually understood as a minimalist. He made shaped wall reliefs and floor pieces, typically painted in a single color, or two or three adjoining forms, each a different color. They obeyed the minimalist law that art should be a thing that can be apprehended all at once, with no painterly composition and a minimum of visual intricacies. But resolute minimalists like Donald Judd and Robert Morris were also busy expelling from art anything that resembled meaning, any reference to biological form or emotional states outside the work. From the start Tuttle was different. He wanted people to associate things he made with things they knew. He gave his works yielding names that invited the mind to attach larger meanings to even the simplest of signs, such as Storm for a dark blue panel that sits atop a white one of the same size, like a stormy sky on a flat horizon.
That kind of work gave Tuttle the insight crucial to his later career: that meaning could be achieved with the bare minimum of means. It paved the way for later pieces like New Mexico, New York #14, in which a looping form is superimposed on an irregular rectangle with a flap that resembles an envelope. In a sense, it is an envelope--what looks at first like a minimalist abstraction is also a yearning road picture, a conflation of the circuit Tuttle travels between his homes in New York and New Mexico and the letters he writes to keep in touch with friends in both places.
Tuttle's small-scale aesthetic doesn't always translate well into larger formats. In a not-quite-sculptural work like Six--a palisade of sticks, some of them shrouded in cloth hoods--the scrimshaw intricacy of his little wall pieces is lost, and not much comes forward to compensate. As metaphor, the piece is illegible, and as an assemblage of materials, it's not much. But so much else of what he does is choice. If this is "less," let's have more. •