If there comes a day when all art is digital, artworks will subsist in some ether whence they may be conjured to appear and vanish at our convenience. In this new era, I suppose, there will be only two art galleries, which will have swallowed up all the others. Chances are they’ll have names like Pacebook and Googlegosian, and their offerings will be accessible anytime, anywhere. But until that future arrives, some artists will persist in making things that are tangibly, compellingly, perhaps even brutally present—physically and psychologically. That is, they will keep making sculpture.
And they’ll do it knowing that sculpture is the most inconvenient of the fine arts. Tedious physical labor is often involved in its making—not necessarily the artist’s, but still, someone’s. And sculpture is hard to move and to keep: it’s heavy and cumbersome, except when it’s terribly fragile and evanescent and likely to be swept up during housecleaning and put out with the trash. For viewers too, sculpture can be hard to come to terms with, and not just because, as some wiseguy whom posterity alternately identifies as Barnett Newman or Ad Reinhardt once remarked, sculpture is what you back into when you’re stepping away from a painting to get a better look at it. (That’s just as true when you’re trying to take a picture of a painting with a smartphone.)
The digital revolution has given us, for the first time, the image in its pure form, an image without body. The image conveyed by a painting, on the other hand, is always a material entity, however unobtrusive, a particular thing made out of pigments, binders and a support. Sculpture, in turn, is often far more physically obtrusive than painting, and to the extent that it offers a multiplicity of possible viewpoints, it generates many images, but typically none of them are the image of the work. The physical impression a sculpture makes is more powerful than its imagistic content, which seems merely transitory by comparison.
In other words, because of its material nature, sculpture has a hard time finding a place in the material world. The digitization of culture has made this more evident, but it’s long been the case. A visitor to eighteenth-century Rome remarked that one-quarter of its population consisted of priests and another quarter of statues. That’s never been said of a modern city. Maybe the ever more questionable status of sculpture is tied to the dwindling of its religious and political functions. In any case, the sculpture of Richard Tuttle has been haunted, since the mid-1960s, by the sense that sculpture itself might no longer possess a full-bodied presence. Reviewing his first exhibition in 1965, when the artist was 24, Lucy Lippard noted of the flat, wall-mounted objects he was then making in painted wood that, “hovering between two and three dimensions,” they “have an air of indecision that is difficult to separate from their modesty.” Perhaps the critic went too far in portraying Tuttle as a sort of aesthetic Hamlet when, in retrospect, his resolve to work in the narrows between painting and sculpture was a decisive choice that has for nearly half a century resulted in consistently idiosyncratic art. It may look like sculpture more than anything else, but it often incorporates materials seemingly unsuited to sculpture, things that appear without definite form or materially attenuated, such as dyed canvas—displayed flat on the wall, these irregularly octagonal monochromatic works would be called paintings had they been made by almost anyone else—or twisted bits of wire with pale pencil lines drawn on the wall behind them like skewed shadows. Far from indecisive, Tuttle is an artist who has temperament, as it was called in the nineteenth century. His modesty is a form of defiance. His 1975 exhibition at the Whitney Museum so enraged Hilton Kramer of The New York Times that the critic’s thoroughgoing attack on it was supposed to have led to the firing of the show’s curator, Marcia Tucker, who went on to found the New Museum of Contemporary Art.