The work of the artist Richard Tuttle can look like nothing much. There is string and wire, and pieces of cloth and screen and mesh. You almost have to work to find it. You need to be patient and let yourself fall into a different way of seeing and thinking, a state in which meaning is elusive but every little thing seems to matter. You become attuned to his subtleties, and even start to share a few of his obsessions.
Once you enter this state of mind, the question becomes, as curator Christina von Rotenhan put it, "When do we know we should stop looking?"
"Both/And Richard Tuttle Print and Cloth," a sprawling and immensely rewarding show at the Fabric Workshop & Museum, offers plenty to look at and think about. It consists of works from two separate exhibitions: "Richard Tuttle: I Don't Know," organized by London's Whitechapel Gallery and curated by Magnus af Petersens; and "Richard Tuttle: A Print Retrospective," organized at Bowdoin College in Maine by von Rotenhan. But they have been combined here with the artist deeply involved. This is not so much a retrospective as a deep dive into the artist's vision. It is total Tuttle.
Take, for example, the gallery where van Rotenhan raised her question, the storefront space at 1214 Arch St. Before you even look at the art on the walls and tables, you take in the space itself, whose walls are covered with brightly colored panels that seem scattered about the wall like so many pieces of paper. Each panel is painted a subtly different color, though all their edges are purple, which gives them a slightly mysterious aura even as it accentuates their thickness. The works - mostly prints - hung against these panels look a bit like papers in a pile.
This design, created by the artist for this show, is striking, and it also calls attention to qualities of some of the prints shown. They read as an additional layer on the wall, which calls attention to the layering of materials, images, and colors found in the prints themselves. The thickness of the panels might make us attuned to the thickness of the handmade paper used in some of the prints.
Written on the plate glass windows of these galleries is a poem by Tuttle. From the outside, it is entirely visible but backward, an evocation of reversals inherent in printing. From the inside, you can read individual words and phrases, but not the whole poem, because it is in two separate rooms. Tuttle gives us a place that feels meaningful but not intelligible, which is also the strategy of much of his art. He makes alphabets, but you can't really read the letters, and you wonder why they are as they are. You look closely for clues, and that looking - more than anything you might find - is the point.
The experience reminded me a bit of the great Zen gardens of Kyoto, where a purposeful disorientation helps sensitize visitors to small, subtle gestures, and small rocks can loom as great mountains. (Perhaps I am thinking of Japan because of Extraordinary, the new work Tuttle has made with the Fabric Workshop, two yukatas, silk summertime kimonos for a man and woman, dyed with a Tuttle design of intersecting bars that harks back to his earliest prints. Now 73, he has worked with the Fabric Workshop sporadically since 1978, and the show also includes the clothing he has produced, such as his wonderful and funny 1998 Thinking Cap.)
Tuttle even uses the explanatory booklet visitors are given as a tool for disorientation. Each catalog entry contains a fragment of the artist's poetry. Some of these help illuminate the art, but mostly, I suspect, they are there to replace explanatory labels that often distract viewers from seeing art. Tuttle forces us back to the art, if only because it is more engaging than the poetry. The label numbers are on metal boxes from which the artist has suspended little bright-orange wood and wire sculptures. The implication is that the only explanation for art is more art.
The first section of the show, which covers four floors of the Fabric Workshop & Museum's main building, contains some of the work for which Tuttle first became known. Preeminent among these are the early 1970s pieces in which he draws a line on the wall with a pencil, then attaches very delicate florist wire to either end. The uncoiling wire tends to twist its own way and continues the drawing off the wall and out into our space. It is simple and mysterious. And the shadow it makes adds yet another set of images.
From the same period is Ten Kinds of Memory and Memory Itself, in which lengths of string arranged on the floor create glyphs that recall those cut in stone by prehistoric people. These seem to be meaningful symbols, but the meaning is elusive. And nothing could be less permanent than pieces of string on the floor.
Some of his more recent work is more elaborate. There is even one called Clutter (2008-12), which consists of 15 wooden disks with bits of fabric and other stuff attached. But the prints and the fabric pieces - such as Walking on Air (2009), made of cotton cloth hanging from grommets with a sort of tie-dyed Mount Fuji scene - have more of the mystery and spirituality of the early pieces than do the more recent sculptures.
Actually, there were quite a few works in the show I didn't much like, and others that did not seem to be worth the effort required to come to terms with them. And such organizational quirks as showing the two parts of a pair of sculptures six floors apart is the kind of thing that usually makes me cranky.
Nevertheless, I was entranced. Tuttle invites us, at once, to lose ourselves in the art even as we become alive to our surroundings. By the time I staggered out of the gallery, having reached visual and intellectual overload along with aching feet, it was fully two hours later than I had thought. I knew, at last, that it was time to stop looking, though I suspect there was still more to see.
Art: TOTAL TUTTLE
Both/And: Richard Tuttle Print and Cloth
Through summer at the Fabric Workshop & Museum,
1214 Arch St.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Monday to Friday; noon to
5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Information: 215-561-8888 or fabricworkshopandmuseum.org.