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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?

I.

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.

II.

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.

What Meaning Is Found in Unattainability?

“Withhold” is Harman’s version of the Heideggerian term “withdraw”. Harman is reluctant to imply that the object was available but then removes itself from that availability. In this case, however, I think Harman errs; the original is preferable. The object withdraws insomuch as it leads us to follow it. The object obstructs knowledge certainly but it also demands that we grapple with it to secure knowledge. This is the basic dialectical tension involved in knowledge of the real. We cannot know it in its fullness, we have no Archimedian point from which to perceive it accurately. And yet reality calls to us through the object. It beckons us to pursue it. The object withdraws and in its withdrawal it draws us onward.

We don’t look through a Tuttle piece to see something beyond it. We are confronted by the obduracy of its objecthood. A beyond remains.

Since the late ’50s the western art world has sought alternatives to this object emphasis in at least two realms. On the one hand, the object orientation of art was challenged by the rise of interest in performance art, which is indebted to, of course, but importantly distinct from theater. Here artists seek to give rise to experiences in a more immediate sense — or, to put it more accurately, the immediacy of the experience is predicated on the fact that the artwork is commensurate with the production of its effects; no object remains that can be said to constitute the performance itself and bears some sort of independent existence.

Joseph Beuys is an interesting limit case here in that an object was usually the end result of a Beuys performance. That object can then persist and inhabit space in a museum, as is the case with Eurasia Siberian Symphony 1963 on display at MoMA. I would argue, however, that the resultant object is actually a different work, related to but distinct from the performance as such.

On the other hand, artists, starting with the Minimalists, have explored works that reject the monumentalism of Abstract Expressionism, embracing instead a concern with the simple, the mundane, and the relatively small (physically and/or conceptually). This is where the importance of Tuttle emerges.

Richard Tuttle first came on the art scene in the ’60s as a post-Minimalist intrigued by a sort of mild revolution in our engagement with art. His early work included several small cubes made of paper or wood — each one slightly misshapen, each strikingly unique and yet gently embraced by the generic category of cube. He delights in setting his objects on the floor, forcing viewers to crouch down to see the details of his work, or hanging them near the ceiling so that distance becomes a forced part of the experience.

This quick of display has an intriguing consequence. It removes the possibility of overly idealizing the art object, of making it into a window through which one looks out onto the sublime or the imaginary. If there is one way to characterize the importance of Tuttle, I would contend that his impact relies upon his unwillingness to let us forget that we are dealing with objects, not metaphorical windows. We don’t look through a Tuttle piece to see something beyond it, we are confronted by the obduracy of its objecthood. A beyond remains. We can never see an object through, we can never see it all. But that beyond is the very nature of the object qua object.

III.

The Critical Edge is displayed at eye level but Tuttle insists on the objecthood of these constructions in other ways. Let’s examine one of the fabric works, The Critical Edge III. The title plate informs us that the work consists of “five black MDF panels and five fabric elements.” Already we have an object-related conundrum. What ought to be the level of our concern, here: the level of the work “as a whole” that is the entirety of the assemblage, or the level of the “element”, the parts comprised by the assemblage? The use of the term “element” here is compelling. After all, the classic “undermining” move with respect to objects is to seek out their underlying elements and claim that the important level of consideration is there — not the composite whole.

There’s something to be said for this way of approaching The Critical Edge III. If we move from left to right, we find the first three “elements” are fairly distinct. The first panel features a pale peach background overlaid with a two-toned, slightly misshapen green triangle, which in turn is overlaid with an irregular field of yellow. The second panel features another allusion to a triangle: here a black one overlaying a white field, but then a rectangle of white intrudes upon the triangle. The third panel involves an amorphous shape (somewhat reminiscent of chemistry glassware) over a pink backdrop.

The fabric hangs loosely in places (particularly tin the second panel where some of the black falls below the bottom edge) but the panels are distinct. That distinction breaks down in the following two panels. The colors that spread over much of what remains looks almost like a flag for some unknown nation followed by a purple and gray sash. Alternatively, one might see four “subpanels” unevenly distributed over the space of the two panels where the first three pieces of fabric (each boasting a single color) are succeeded by the purple and gray sash (it’s difficult to parse the sash into truly separate fields because the purple peaks out ever so slightly on the other side of the gray; the colors subtly embrace).

As our eye moves from left to right we lose the security of identification that comes with a focus on those elements. What was rigid and comforting order breaks down into arbitrary choice. The choice may be arbitrary, but if we are concerned with identifying the level of our interest (the object as a whole, or the elements that compose it), then it’s a choice we are forced to confront. Once we are forced to give up on the integrity of the elements, we return to the level of the object as a whole. These works, by appearing so obviously to be assemblages or composites, reveal a basic conundrum of the being of objects in general.

However, even the first three panels present plenty of problems. That green triangle is made up of two tones: a darker green to the left and a lighter one to the right. Upon closer inspection, it appears that the entire triangle, however, is really one piece of fabric unevenly folded over onto itself so that we are seeing two different sides of the same entity. This realization reinforces the liminal ontology of all of the fabric works. They are against the wall, nearly flat, and thus like paintings (relying upon color and shape contrast for their effect). But then again they bunch out, billow, and intrude ever so slightly beyond the immediate area of the wall. Thus they hint at the nature of sculpture and to that extent their effect depends on the way they inhabit space alongside us.

The hint is furthered by the folds, the way the fabric hangs below the lower border of the panels, and the way certain pieces of fabric are only loosely attached to their bases, not to mention those protruding nails that characterize each element of each work. These pieces demand that the viewer ask after the status of their being. But more importantly, these pieces refute any simple answer we might choose to give; they refute any notion that we might be able to fully grasp what these things truly are and how they go about their modes of being.

Let us remain with that left-most panel of The Critical Edge III for just a moment longer. Notice that field of yellow superimposed on the green triangle. To “superimpose” is to position something on top of something else in such a way that both elements are somehow visible — usually this involves the uppermost element not entirely covering the element below. That is the case here. But the green triangle is not merely visible where the yellow field does not reach. The translucence of the yellow patch allows the green triangle to remain visible: veiled yet apparent.

Superimposition is a basic feature of most paintings. Wherever there is figure and ground, there is superimposition. Even the grids of Mondrian feature colored planes superimposed on a white background with thick, dark lines superimposed on both. But most painting, in belying its objecthood, obscures the deeper meaning of superimposition. When we see a figure in a painting, we generally don’t think of it as superimposed on a ground. Our attention is on the figure; the ground is contextual. The figure, we believe, is not superimposed on the ground but rather in front of the ground — and that’s a different characteristic altogether, a characteristic that obtains between objects in relation to each other, not within a single object.

The same is true, in an abstract manner, of Mondrian. One of the great tricks of early Mondrian was his ability to make the negative space in his paintings come forward, that is, to make a figure out of the ground.

What Tuttle manages to do with these fabric works is to make us see superimposition qua superimposition (as opposed to a relation within an implied deeper space). His means of accomplishing this involves allowing the elements beneath to obdurately cling to a fullness of being. They are not obscured but seep through to presence. In doing so, they reveal the recalcitrance of objects, their refusal to subordinate themselves to our concepts and our perceptual fields (a refusal ironically enacted through our perceptual field — as of course must be the case with visual art).

We turn to art for many things but the most shopworn platitude would have it that we primarily embrace art to pursue spiritual enrichment, to traffic in the sublime and the beautiful, to engage with the ideal. But we do this, in most cases, by dealing with objects. To treat art as a passageway to the ideal is to ignore the objects as such and to use them as conduits to what we assume is the hidden, underlying reality of art. The object disappears in our demand for contact with the numinous.

Tuttle reminds us that what we really do when we engage with art starts and ends with the objects themselves. For all of our dreams of transcendence, it is the object to which we return. But the object cannot fully be ours. It eludes us. It withdraws. In its withdrawal, it draws us on. This is the critical edge of the aesthetic object. It leads us to truth, yes, but a partial truth. We are brought to the edge of the precipice, staring into the abyss, forever unable to see it all.

This is not a story of paucity (knowledge is but a small purchase on reality) but rather a story of plenitude. We will never have it all, but in our pursuit of the object we are granted more than mere knowledge of that object (a sort of intellectual appropriation of it). We are granted insight into the fact that the object is not ours to have. It resists us. The world is not ours to own, but rather we, objects in our own right, maintain a space within it. In witnessing the fullness of the object, we find ourselves replenished.

Splash image from PaceGallery.com, The Met 1/3 – The Critical Edge 1, 2015. fabric, wood, nails, hand-sewn brown thread, graphite; four black MDF panels and four fabric elements, 37-1/2″ x 12′ 1-1/4″ x 4″ (95.3 cm x 368.9 cm x 10.2cm)

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