Influential Sculptor Richard Tuttle on 5 Eccentric Artworks That Inspire Him

Julia Fiore
Sep 17, 2018 8:53PM

Richard Tuttle. Photo by Rhiannon Newman. Courtesy of The Phillips Collection.

An art world veteran, Richard Tuttle began showing spare, Minimalist-derived works at Betty Parsons Gallery in the mid-1960s. Over the last 50 years, his diverse output has come to encompass sculpture, painting, and drawing—sometimes assembled within a single piece. Although his works might defy easy categorization, they have always remained humble, playfully employing common materials like lightbulbs, rope, balloons, plywood, and fabric.

The artist said that his latest project, however, is his most ambitious. “It Seems Like It’s Going To Be,” on view at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., through December 30th, pairs each line of a 41-verse poem by Tuttle with 41 corresponding works by the artist. He has additionally selected a broad variety of works on paper from the Phillips’ permanent collection to display alongside his own poetry and sculpture. “The exhibition is all about correspondence,” he told Artsy. “I find my verbal work comes from the same place my visual work comes from. This is the first time I thought to put the two together.”

Tuttle is a labyrinthine thinker; frequent digressions, tangents, and philosophical musings complement his deceptively quiet works. He is also a self-professed lover of art history, taking weekly trips to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Here, we asked the artist to discuss five works from the Phillips Collection that have inspired him, in his own words (which have been edited for length and clarity). “It seems like everybody I chose is some kind of eccentric,” he observed. “If you were my shrink, you could analyze that.”

James Ensor, Bouquet d’Arbres (1889)

James Ensor, Bouquet d’Arbres, 1889. Courtesy of The Phillips Collection.


[James] Ensor is extremely important to me. He painted quite academically—he went to the art school in Brussels—but was so ahead of his time, making extremely far-out, satirical work long before [Vincent] van Gogh.

“Ensor would literally put a backpack on and go out into the countryside of Ostend and draw. He worked very much in the plein air tradition, following in the footsteps of [Jean-Baptiste-Camille] Corot or the Barbizon school. In this print, made when he was in his late twenties, you’re just looking into a forest. But it’s not like a [Gustave] Courbet. There’s something very ominous about it, very threatening. But it’s also human.

“At the beginning of the 19th century, everybody was so thrilled with the idea of separating the human from the mechanical. But then events like the Civil War happened. Suddenly, people were killing each other without any human connection, just lobbing shells. The level of unfeeling was shocking. (I wanted to be a pilot during the Vietnam War, but then I realized that my job would be to push a button and drop bombs on innocent women and children.)

“Ensor was the first artist who showed us the dark side of this separation. As soon as you get to the Cubists or German Expressionists like Max Beckmann, it’s like, ‘Oh well, this is how it is. Better get used to it.’ When you see a Cubist painting, everybody is distorted and mechanical.”

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Back View of a Female Nude Leaning on Her Right Hip and Forearm (date unknown)

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Back View of a Female Nude Leaning on Her Right Hip and Forearm, n.d. Courtesy of The Phillips Collection.

Many, many artists who we know well—like [Paul] Gauguin, for instance—called Pierre Puvis de Chavannes the artist they most admired, though he’s not appreciated in today’s world. He might be making a comeback, though: The Metropolitan Museum in New York has a group of his works hung in a corridor. I see more and more people are now stopping to look. Part of the choice of this work was to share my excitement of finding it in the Phillips Collection. I’d never actually seen a drawing by Puvis de Chavannes. I find there’s a big separation between figuration and abstraction. People look at my work and [say]: ‘Well, okay, it’s abstract.’ But I would say that on some level, all my work is the nude.”

Jack B. Yeats, Raftery, The Blind Poet of Connaught (1902)

“This [Jack B.] Yeats drawing is one of the favorites that I chose (and I looked through the museum’s entire inventory of drawings). Jack is William Butler Yeats’s brother. A lot of people think Jack is the far greater artist of the two. I’m not sure I’m one of them: I love the late work by Jack, though this is an early example. Again, it’s so rare. I don’t think in all of America there’s another of this quality.

“I just love that the energy is coming more from the tension to depict and portray than the actual thing he’s depicting. In his later work, that tension became stronger and stronger. Jack had a moment of re-popularity in the 1980s, that scene liked it. There are big collections of his work in Ireland, where people are just fanatical about him. But his colors and use of oil paint get very radical, it’s almost like an acquired taste.”

Myron Stout, Untitled (1965)

Myron Stout, Untitled, 1965. Courtesy of The Phillips Collection.

“One of the things I love about Myron Stout is how long he would work on a composition. This piece looks like a graphic little wing-a-ding. It probably took him about four years to make that. The time that he put into his work becomes part of the visual experience, but it’s very mysterious. This is a radically complex composition. Usually his compositions are more simple. This one is also quite large—it’s 25 inches tall. Half that size would be more typical. It surprised me enormously to find such a special and unique example of his work.

“Stout worked in Providence, Rhode Island, and was very much an eccentric outsider, an original American artist. I found out that this drawing was gifted to the museum from a collector who was fixated on black-and-white art. I like that this bizarre collector could respond to Stout’s work on a bizarre level.”

Sonia Delaunay-Terk, Rhythme Couleur (1961)

“I picked many of the works in the show because they influence me or my work. But it can also go the other way, and I find that’s even more interesting. We hung a Sonia Delaunay in a room with my sculptures. This is a case where I made her work turn into looking like my work, and that’s because artists are a kind of global community: The age and the period and the society are all fluid; there’s a seamless continuity.

“In a way, I did choose this to help people see my work, but I also chose it because I’m trying to reveal something about Delaunay’s work. How you hang an artwork—an inch up, or a quarter of an inch, you center it, or you don’t center it—can make it come alive. One of my side jobs is helping dead artists, because they’re dead! I’m going to be dead one day and I hope somebody will help my work, too.”

Julia Fiore

Cover image: Photo by Rhiannon Newman. Courtesy of The Phillips Collection.