At this time, the highest profile work of art in Maine is Sol Lewitt’s “Wall Drawing #559” that serves as the public face of the state’s largest art museum, the Colby College Museum of Art. The work fills the entire glass curtain-wall end of the museum’s newest wing.
Generally, the point of wall labels in art museums is to provide some basic data of the FAQ sort. But the “#559” wall label notes the work is “on loan” from the Lewitt Studio (the artist passed away in 2007) and this raises questions: How could Colby not own this thing that was painted directly onto their building? If the work could then be transferred to somewhere else, what are its actual parameters? What is it: a drawing, an installation or – since it’s transferable – a print?
If this kind of thing interests you instead of making you roll your eyes in well-rehearsed disgust, then it would be wrong for you to miss “Richard Tuttle: A Print Retrospective” now on view at the Bowdoin Museum of Art.
It is the most exciting and important exhibition of contemporary art to have been mounted in Maine in many years. It is also particularly relevant for Maine’s art communities because Tuttle aligns himself perfectly with the craft-friendly, concept-driven art that comprises the most significant thread of contemporary art-making in the state.
Tuttle – who lives part-time in Maine – is one of the most celebrated and respected contemporary artists in America.
His prints match the strength of his best work while more fluently revealing the artist’s intentions. Whereas the didactic elements of Tuttle’s print oeuvre (instructions, statements, labels, etc.) could feel out of place in a commercial gallery, they are a perfect fit for an institution of higher education.
“Temporary” (2013-2014), for example, is a work that needs explanation and soars because of it. It is a set of nine simple white wooden cubes that come with letterpress-printed instructions and a Plexiglas template. While it harkens back to Jean Arp’s “Collage with squares arranged by the laws of chance,” more importantly it raises questions about works like Colby’s “#559” and our expectations about what constitutes a print.
Tuttle’s work so insistently presses boundaries that it takes on the feel of scientific experimentation but with the excited charm of the self-educational limit-testing of a brainy kid.
A particularly accessible work is “Print” (1976), which features two abutting sheets of deckle-edge paper with a single black screen-printed rectangle connecting them. Is it one print or two? Did it use one screen? How does the idea of a gestalt (a unified entity) relate to the components?
“Print” is just one of the truly great works in the first room of the exhibition – which alone would be worth the trip.
A particularly strong work features wire jutting out from the wall in an oval form with pencil marks directly on the wall that move away from the wire element. The third component is the shadow cast by the wire.
Together, these are an object, a trace of that object and then a pencil rendering that looks like a continuation of the object. How these elements are knit together and throw light back on each other is a set of worthy topics.
As an art critic, I generally avoid talking to artists about their shows since that interferes with my sharing the public’s perspective.
But Tuttle is unusually accessible and makes a point of incorporating dialogue with the public and collaborators into his work.
Tuttle talked with me about “In Praise of Historical Determinism” (1973-1974), a three-part work of art: One framed print features three elements in an “L” shape, the next shows all three elements flat and parallel, and then there is a bright yellow sheet leaning against the wall at 45 degrees.
Tuttle explains the work in terms of Hegelian dialectics, an ancient method for considering ideas in Western philosophy (starting with Plato’s Socratic dialogues) that is not only pervasive throughout Tuttle’s work, but is commonly behind contemporary art in Maine.
Imagine the first image as a statement (the thesis), the second is its contradiction (antithesis) and then the sculptural yellow sheet that touches both floor and wall is a combination of these ideas (synthesis).
The power of Tuttle’s work lies in the fact that it conveys this way of thinking even if all “Plato” brings to your mind is kids’ colorful clay.
In other words, “A Print Retrospective” is not only an exciting show, but it will make you a better viewer of contemporary art.
Tuttle, who studied philosophy at Trinity College, applies an Eastern notion of self to the core elements of Western philosophy: epistemology (how we can know things), ontology (being) and ethics (morality, governance, etc.).
This is why Tuttle comments on topics like democracy’s need for conversation: It’s not that Tuttle is a political artist, but rather that his overarching project seems to be encouraging the cultural audience to be a philosophical audience.
And that is a worthy goal.
One of the strongest themes in the show is the inside/outside theme that Tuttle investigates, testing the idea that a work of art lives within a frame on a wall in a gallery.
In doing so, Tuttle provides an avenue for moving from a work of art to the real world – one of the toughest leaps for cynical members of the audience.
Tuttle talks about distinct physical, intellectual and creative realms. While most artists like to think of their creative work as intellectual, Tuttle believes the engines of creativity are subjectivity and individual perspective – which makes him a bona fide Romantic (as opposed to a scientific Enlightenment thinker).
He lights the way for the subjectivity of all artists and viewers (since your perspective matters).
Tuttle’s work is about raising questions. “The better the question, the better is what I make,” he said.
Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. Contact him at: