Visual Arts

The Object Withdraws in Obduracy: Thoughts on Richard Tuttle's 'The Critical Edge'

What's critical about cast-off pieces of fabric? Is Richard Tuttle's The Critical Edge merely ironic hyperbole?


The Mezzanine level within the Modern and Contemporary Art wing of the Metropolitan Museum in New York City has long served as a curious and at times disquieting area of display within that hallowed institution. Tucked between the lower floor’s collection of early 20th century masters (Picasso, Modigliani, Giacometti, etc.) and the upper floor’s array of mid-century icons (Pollock, Warhol, Noland, etc.), the Mezzanine houses the “contemporary” offerings (I use scare quotes only because several of these works are now a half-century old).

Within this already liminal space, the two galleries on the extreme ends (galleries 914 and 916) cannot help but strike visitors as peripheral. They seem almost to be part of the north and south staircases, respectively, completely subordinate to the remainder of the wing, shunted to the side, surplus space. Most visitors move right past them on the way to the larger central gallery of the Mezzanine or on their way to bypassing the “contemporary” art altogether. Yet some of the finest experiences the Metropolitan provides can be had in those galleries. It was there that the Met first introduced William Kentridge many years ago, and it was there that the Met recently presented the astonishing Lyric Suite series by Robert Motherwell.

The lack of excessive traffic (in a museum marked by excessive traffic) allows for a more profound level of contemplation. Given the right material, one can find a moment to catch one’s breath, but also time engage with the art in a more direct and involved manner than is possible in the other galleries.

These galleries currently house a group of works by Richard Tuttle collectively titled The Critical Edge. The installation consists of seven assemblages. Six of these are made of fabric and the remaining one is a group of ten acrylic paintings mounted on a black board.

The fabric works seem almost haphazard in their construction. They're not assembled in a shoddy fashion, but Tuttle seems to be at no pains to make them appear particularly refined. Held onto their supports with small nails, the fabric billows gently, responding obliquely, almost imperceptibly, to the slight movements of air. The material hangs loosely in some areas, and bunches up awkwardly in others. The variously colored textiles are sewn together in workable but not overly suave manner. The seams show, they are subtly uneven. Several areas reveal coarse sutures of brown thread -- reminiscent of nothing more than battlefield surgery. But many of these sutures seem not to be structural -- that is, they seem superfluous, not necessary to the structural integrity of the whole. At times, owing to the darker color of some of the fabrics, the sutures can go entirely unnoticed on first inspection.

The paintings are similarly nailed to their support. They run nine abreast with the tenth placed below. They emphasize geometrical shapes in a far more pronounced way than is evident in the textile works. Again there's a somewhat lackadaisical relation to craft apparent in these paintings. Erasures are obvious but not integrated into the works (in the manner, say, of Cy Twombly). Distinct lines and shapes interact with scribbles. If the “stairway” galleries encourage passersby to keep passing, these works at first would seem to do little to persuade visitors to tarry before them.

How then, does one account for that title, The Critical Edge? What could possibly be critical about cast-off pieces of fabric? Is it ironic hyperbole? What might the phrase even mean? Is “critical” here meant in the sense of being “of decisive importance”? And could “edge” mean “advantage”? Thus one might gloss the title with the parallel phrase “The Crucial Advantage”. But what advantage would such works hold?

Alternatively, “critical” could be meant in the philosophical sense -- that is, “having judgment with respect to truth”, while “edge” might mean “sharpness”. Thus, the title reveals an incisive insight into truth revealed by these odd objects. Of course, “edge” could also connote a precipice. A “critical edge” is one from which we are in danger of falling. All of this seems overblown for such modest works. What advantage would these objects have over (presumably) us? What truth do they harbor and in what manner might they point the way to an abyss within our own thinking?

I contend that these mere assemblages offer us a partial glimpse into a truth that they also necessarily withhold from full view: that is, their truth as objects -- or more specifically, the works encourage us to contemplate the nature of the object, per se.


In one sense, of course, visual art has always been concerned with the nature of the object. In the most simplistic terms, we might say that the plastic arts (notice the term itself, which conjures images of physically grappling with a medium -- transmuting it from inchoate, undisciplined matter into an organized, self-standing work) traditionally proffer two kinds of object: painting and sculpture. In this brutish but I think useful reduction, photographs and film can be seen as extensions of painting while architecture and various objets d’art are viewed as forms of sculpture.

Thus, our two types of object contrast in significant ways. A painting is an essentially flat thing. The frame adds a sculptural three-dimensionality to the painting, perhaps, and certainly some painters explore the frame as an extension of the canvas. But to do so is to play with the notion of painting cum sculpture, to blur the lines between our two types of object (this blurring is our primary concern below).

The sculpture, of course, has three-dimensionality as its theme. The raison d’etre of the sculpture is that it occupies space in a more assertive manner than does the painting. This distinction is archetypal, not trivial. It informs the modalities of our aesthetic experience of the plastic arts. We respond differently to these two types of object and our engagement with individual works of art depends, in part, on our understanding of this differing objecthood. Yet both types of object, as developed over the course of western art history, involve certain fundamental contradictions related to some basic problems plaguing western thinking with respect to the notion of the object.

Painting is two-dimensional. Its objecthood rests upon its flatness. Yet, since at least 5th c. BCE Greece, painting has attempted to disavow its flatness. Pliny the Elder relates the story of the competition between the painters Zeuxis and Parrhasius. Zeuxis unveils his painting of grapes and they appear to be so real that birds descend from the sky and try to consume them. Parrhasius asks Zeuxis to remove the curtain from his painting. When Zeuxis attempts to do so, he discovers that the curtain is the painting. Parrhasius wins the contest insofar as he was able to fool a rational human being trained in art while Zeuxis merely outwitted birds.

In this tale, the more a painting denies its objecthood, the more successful it is. The Renaissance invention of perspective is but another benchmark in the denial of painting’s object-bound nature. Of course, Clement Greenberg claimed that Abstract Expressionism countermanded the rejection of painting’s two-dimensionality. For Greenberg, the monumental achievement of the Abstract Expressionists was their acknowledgment of the conditions of the medium, the flatness of the canvas. These paintings are all articulations of a surface; form and content are intermingled in a radical fashion (meaning that painting as such as been uprooted), intermingled to such an extent that the distinction has been sublated in a quasi-Hegelian manner (for all his Kantian tendencies, Greenberg does not escape the Hegelianism inherent in the Marxism of his youth).

Isn’t this synthesis of form and content, however, another way of dodging objecthood? A Jackson Pollock, or a Barnett Newman, or a Mark Rothko painting is never meant to be perceived as a mere object. The monumental scope of the majority of their most notable paintings effaces their objecthood. They are the ossified yet resonant reverberations of a primordial, Whitmanesque barbaric yawp. The movement one “sees” in a Pollock, the hovering haze of a Rothko, the spiritual “Onement” of a Newman zip painting are all indications of the irreconcilability in this work of form and content, despite Greenberg’s asseverations to the contrary.

Sculpture has a different set of object issues. The old saw (attributed alternately to Newman or Ad Reinhardt) that sculpture is what you bump into when trying to back up to get a better look at a painting is revealing in two ways. First, sculpture occupies an oddly subordinate position vis-à-vis painting. Perhaps there is a “quotient of resistance” argument in play here. Because painting has to “overcome” its two-dimensionality it requires greater artistic integrity. Recreating three-dimensionality in three dimensions somehow seems trivial in comparison. Second, sculpture’s three-dimensional presence marks it as an obstruction. Paintings hug the walls; they do not obtrude into our space. Sculptures impede our movement. They stand in our way.

This resonates with the German term for “object” so prevalent in the writing of Kant and Heidegger. The “object” is der Gegenstand, literally that which “stands against” the subject. On the one hand, the object is the ground of knowledge for the subject but the object “stands against” the subject, it impedes the very knowledge of which it is the ground by refusing full access. But traditional sculpture (again like painting) belies its objecthood. It pretends to allow full access by encouraging our movement around it. As we circumnavigate the sculpture we are compelled to believe that we really can “see it all”.

This is why Bernini is so effective -- by capturing movement in stasis (the ultimate Berninian sleight of hand), the sculptor intimates far more than can be shown by the object as such. The denial of objecthood is also the subject of the “non finito” works for which Rodin is justifiably famous. The seemingly animate, soft figures emerge from the amorphous, undefined, obdurate rock. These sculptures are about transcending objecthood.

The idea that we often do not allow objects to be objects is not simply endemic to the arts, it's also a central problem in the history of philosophy as described within the recent “object-oriented ontology” of Graham Harman. According to Harman, thinkers have tended to either undermine objects by claiming that the object is an epiphenomenon while “reality” belongs to the underlying constituents of the object (such as atoms, or the component parts of a painting) or to overmine objects by claiming that it is unnecessary to postulate an underlying and persistent object when we need only be concerned with the effects produced relationally. So the table is not important qua object. It's undermined by being composed of atoms and mostly empty space and it's overmined by being a fungible property that can be bought and sold, used or ignored.

But the object is more than the sum of its components, it has a standing in the world that is more than its nature as mere composite and it is more than a placeholder within a system of relations. Harman claims that the object per se “withholds”, meaning there is always a surplus to the object, something that is not fully revealed, nor can it be. The object is the Gegenstand, it obtrudes, stands in our way, obstructs knowledge as much as we construct that knowledge based on it.

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