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.

Nonetheless, physical evasiveness—which is not unrelated to an indifference to declarative meaning, even of a purely emotional sort—has been a hallmark of Tuttle’s art. I will never forget his 1992 exhibition at the Mary Boone Gallery, in which tiny sculptures measuring a couple of inches in any direction were mounted on the walls just above floor level. At the opening, the artist himself, sporting an iridescent green suit, was far more conspicuous than any of his work. But for those willing to look—which meant squatting or getting down on all fours for a toddler’s-eye view—the delights were myriad, and all the more so thanks to the artist’s way of conveying that sculpture can loom large in the mind without being monumental. At the same time, the exhibition could be seen as a sophisticated gesture of courtly tribute: this was a newly renovated gallery space, and what better way to show off Boone’s spiffy virgin walls than with a group of works that kept almost entirely out of their way?

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Given this history, I was surprised when I walked into Tuttle’s summer 2011 exhibition at the Pace Gallery in New York City, “What’s the Wind,” to find a series of works built on a scale unusual for Tuttle. These were very tall assemblages, each with a square footprint of seven or more feet, yet still far from monumental. Rather, they were open and transparent, supported by wooden or metal posts anchoring wires from which various colorful abstract forms were suspended. Some were sparse in their composition, others almost rococo. They could have been the jerry-built playground apparatus for a culture in which safety is not an issue, or maybe unfinished Sukkot equipped with abstract piñatas for some unimaginable multiculti Oktoberfest. Yet the six works bore titles whose austerity seemed to belie their festive charm. By calling them Systems, later numbered as I-VI, the artist seemed to be asking viewers to look past the works’ amiable quirkiness to find an underlying, unifying intellectual order. And there was a sense of order to these sculptures, with their four vertical posts serving as something like the points of a compass, giving a clear sense of determinate placement to all the other elements incorporated (with every appearance of spontaneous intuitiveness) into the setup. Clarity and unpredictability, method and multiplicity, deliberation and offhandedness were reconciled.

But to see those posts as compass points meant adopting an impossible, imaginary perspective—taking in these towering sculptures as if from above, a viewpoint that’s easier to imagine with the five large assemblages that dominate Tuttle’s current show at Pace, “Systems, VIII-XII,” on view through October 13. (Systems, VII was exhibited last year at Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London.) These pieces continue Tuttle’s exploration of the expanded space of the first six Systems, but whatever is still systematic about them, it’s no longer the use of the square (for this reason, the title feels less appropriate than it did earlier): the emphasis in the newer works is on the horizontal plane rather than the vertical.

Not that these new pieces are without upright elements, but those are the exceptions. No. XII, for example, like several of the other new Systems, consists of what could have been several distinct sculptures placed near each other but without touching: a skein of bright red yarn on a length of metal pipe; another, longer pipe with a large rectangle of white fabric folded around it (and secreted between the folds of the cloth, a sheet of blue Styrofoam—the place where the upper layer of fabric falls an inch or so over the edge has been marked with bright green, while the plane above it is marked with white furrows); and so on. As installed in the gallery, the various elements sit on a rectangular platform, suggesting that objects which might have been seen as separate works are in fact one. The platform also prevents viewers from walking among the elements and very strongly reminds us that we can look but not touch.

The rectangular zone formed by the platform suggests the rectangle of a painting, giving a strong impetus to viewing this work pictorially—to imaginatively flipping the rectangular plane up from the horizontal and conceiving of it as though it were a painting. And curiously enough, the result of this virtual transformation is strongly suggestive of some Suprematist painting by Kazimir Malevich with its dynamic concatenations of simple colored forms. Yet this reminiscence, which I’m convinced is not accidental, is a bit of a tease: where Malevich aspires to a sort of flight into the empty sky above the realm of mere materiality, Tuttle revels in the thingness of the stuff out of which he cobbles together his quasi-pictorial sculpture. True, there’s a peculiar overtone of spirituality (or is it just inscrutability?) to Tuttle’s art that might accord with that of the great Russian modernist and his quest for a grammar of pure feeling; I call it peculiar because it seems to be based on an irreligious, perhaps Emersonian conviction that what’s sacred—or at least offers access to the sacred—is one’s own untrammeled intuition. But whereas William Carlos Williams proclaimed “no ideas but in things,” Tuttle seems to proclaim no spirit but in things. A materialist spirituality? I don’t know if it makes sense, but Tuttle makes me feel it’s possible.

A caveat: the accompanying exhibition catalog—really an artist’s book of Tuttle’s own eccentric design, held together by two rings rather than a normal binding and featuring fifteen of his own oblique, disjunctive poems (somewhere between Robert Creeley and Clark Coolidge)—shows the Systems installed directly on the floor, without the platforms, so we have to assume they are dispensable. What, then, of the idea that these sculptures lean toward the pictorial? While the rectangular boundary provided by the platforms certainly emphasizes the similarity of Tuttle’s arrangements to flat shapes on a canvas, it doesn’t by itself create them. He never wants us to forget that these are three-dimensional things, but their predominant horizontality, as we look down at them, encourages us to see them as imagelike, too.

Also on view at Pace are four small diptychs, each consisting of a palm-of-the-hand-size sculpture and a framed drawing hung together on the wall. Their titles emphasize the idea of bringing together unlike elements: Water in Air, Fire in Earth and so on. One feels the artist is posing a question: What’s the difference between a bit of paint smeared on a balsa wood construction and a bit of paint smeared on a sheet of paper? The temptation is to respond with a shrug, to feel that the association between object and drawing is simply arbitrary. There’s a sense of specificity to the sculptures that the drawings seem to lack, and one could easily imagine the former being exhibited as pieces on their own. Yet I felt a lingering fascination with the association between the two parts of each pair—with the sense that, although I can’t see the connection as necessary, I can see that each of the objects is paired with the drawing that best suits it. In other words, I felt that each pair would be weaker if a switch of partners were made. Tuttle is really looking at the fundamental question of aesthetic judgment: What goes with what? What does it mean for things to go together, and why do some things go together better than others? And it’s hard to argue with his implicit contention that there may not be any way to rationalize such judgments.

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Tuttle’s small sculptures can seem like next to nothing. If you backed up into one, you might not notice. The same can’t be said about the Systems, even though the parts that make them up may be, individually, slight or ephemeral. In general, this sort of sculpture is often thought to be a product mostly of Tuttle’s generation—of artists like him, Eva Hesse, Bruce Nauman, Alan Saret and others who emerged in the mid- to late ’60s and are often called Postminimalists. It comes as something of a surprise to discover that sculpture of this kind was already a potential—albeit a potential unfulfilled—a decade earlier. The evidence is on view in a small but extraordinary display at the Matthew Marks Gallery in New York City, through October 27: three sculptures by Tony Smith and two by Jackson Pollock, in an exhibition marking the centenary of both artists. The two by Pollock and one of those by Smith were made in a single weekend in July 1956 in Smith’s backyard in South Orange, New Jersey; the others by Smith were made around the same time.

Maybe it’s because the men who made them weren’t sculptors that the three works look unlike anything else being done as sculpture then. Pollock, of course, was one of America’s leading painters, as troubled and self-critical as he was brilliant—but a painter who was hardly painting anymore. He’d always nurtured the ambition, as his friend Reuben Kadish knew, of being “both the greatest painter and the greatest sculptor,” but was now looking more like the greatest drinker. Smith was an architect and sometime painter who had never exhibited his work—and would not publicly debut as an artist until seven years later, at age 51—but was a close associate of painters like Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko and Theodoros Stamos as well as Pollock; he was getting ready to abandon his architectural practice, but for what may not have been clear.

In any case, I can’t think of any other sculptures of that era that feel quite as provisional as these. Seeing them gives me the shivers: they feel so out of time, yet charged with possibility. The two Pollocks are concatenations of precariously joined, irregular forms made by bending wire and then wrapping gauze, sand and plaster around them. They look like they’re about to fall down. The torqued lines of the wire easily recall the whiplash lines of thrown paint in his paintings, but the caked whitish matter that coagulates around them is indefinite in form, although one might think of long-eroded bones or bits of coral or the like—an association perhaps justified by Pollock’s fascination with Ariel’s song in The Tempest, marked, years before, in painting titles like Sea Change and Full Fathom Five, both dating from 1947. The piece Smith made that July weekend looks like an eroded remnant too, but not of anything organic. If anything, this hunk of rough concrete, resting on a single blunt foot like some odd mollusk, was quite evidently cast from an egg carton. Another of the Smith works, a true delight, is made from plaster-coated canvas wrapped around nine wire clothes hangers combined to form three levels of wonky stacked tripods; the negative space through its center recalls Brancusi’s Endless Column.

Formlessness or a form too “obvious” and quotidian to be significant: this is the kind of dichotomy that would be faced by sculptors of Tuttle’s generation, not that of Smith and Pollock—artists who would say, with Hesse, “I would like the work to be non-work,” or would claim to aspire, as Tuttle once did, “to be free of senses and the intellect. I would really like to be ignorant.” Tuttle’s deadpan Zen is not exactly the attitude one would associate with the coolly geometrical, monumentally scaled abstract sculpture that later would make Smith famous, but it’s important to remember that for some artists of Tuttle’s generation, Smith offered an opening to feeling, to preverbal sensations, that the Minimalists with whom he was sometimes grouped had seemed to wall off. Scott Burton praised him for “sacrificing methodic consistency to the demands of sensibility or intuition.” Tuttle, who once worked as an assistant to Smith, took from him the lesson that “mass might have full meaning, though little substance—a maddeningly Irish version of things concrete.”

Smith belatedly found his path as a sculptor but then quickly won renown with pieces like Source (1967), a grand example of his mature style that is on view at another Matthew Marks outpost next door, also through October 27. In 1956, Smith could not yet understand that the work he’d done that weekend with Pollock was a real option for sculpture. How else to explain why their efforts ended up forgotten in a closet, where his widow only discovered them in 2003? As for Pollock, the show leaves us with some tantalizing “what ifs.” A few weeks after making these sculptures, he was dead. What if he had managed to live until 1980, as Smith did? Would we now be used to thinking of him as a great painter who threw it over to become a great sculptor? It may sound unlikely, but no artist was ever so unwilling to stick with what had worked. I don’t think Pollock would have hesitated to make such a radical change if it struck him as artistically worthwhile. Given more time, he could well have backed into sculpture and found a place for himself in it.

In the October 8 issue, Barry Schwabsky reviewed Kevin Hatch’s Looking for Bruce Conner, a study of an artist who thought that true knowledge was shrouded in secrecy.