Richard Tuttle’s The Role of the Story Teller
This book documents five of the artist’s projects on color, separating the visual and the verbal, the interior and the exterior.
The Role of the Story Teller
(MER. Borgerhoff & Lamberigts, 2020)
Wittgenstein’s question, in his Remarks on Colour, “Can’t we imagine people having a different geometry of colour than we do?” summons a rather tired proposition, that my blue is different than yours, that my green is different than yours, etc. But it is not so much a physiological question of how specific wavelengths are interpreted by different brains; a question that, ultimately, could be solved through scientific investigation. It can be imagined as a question of the relationship between interior and exterior, where the language of color depends upon a trained structure, one that varies between subjects. That is one of the main problems of color theory, to reconcile science with the subjective.
A new volume by Richard Tuttle, The Role of the Story Teller, documents five of the artist’s projects from 2009 to 2017, all concerned with this mediation between inside and outside, perception and language. NotThePoint (2009), which takes up the majority of the pagecount, tests the idea of interior color through a series of artist’s books painted the particular color of their subject. The five books, originally produced in a limited edition and set in hand-colored wood cases, are here presented as scanned facsimiles. Proceeding from red, to green, to brown-black, to blue, and finally to yellow, each book contains a monologue, recorded and transcribed over multiple sessions in London, where Tuttle attempts to envision an interior color that does not come from memory or experience, but is accessed through thought experiments. This process is inherently different from how exterior color is perceived, in that it begins with the verbal and proceeds to the visual, one of the stated goals being “able to say the colour in its dormancy, or its source, in its own dormancy potential, without removing it from there.” Tuttle’s language is straightforward but remarkably descriptive at times, allowing a vision into the burgeoning colors in his mind; they take on many forms, such as an expanding disk, or ribbons twisting around each other, a singular point like a black hole, and even a furry and patterned mass.
The project is framed, in a way, by recurrence. Tuttle returns to a room, session after session, and tries to “say” a color. He makes progress, and then the color changes. Though parameters are set, there is no attempt to hide the interruptions from the exterior world—Tuttle gazes out the window, considers a piece of lapis lazuli, but these distract from the task at hand. A repeated image, which might be considered foundational to the project, is of a child being told a color for the first time, in Tuttle’s words, “when you first heard ‘red’ on your mother’s knee.” The moment when the mother points to an object and names its color, in providing a tool through which to be independent, also separates the child from the mother, and separates color from the object, breaking some kind of perceptual sanctum. The image evolves to the painted representation of the Madonna and Christ, where the mother is pointing to something outside of the frame. Tuttle argues that “the starting point is inside the child ... what moves us is essentially there. How could something move us that is not there?” A similar thought comes up in a passage on commercially produced colors, that the scientists who determined which green should be the green, were tapping into something interior, that they found a green “that matched ‘a green’ that was formed, or pre-formed.”
Yellow, which Tuttle acknowledges is the easiest color to write on, proves its pragmatism readily in its eponymous book. Here, there are big statements, like “the most important job for human beings is to absorb light,” with concrete examples, such as van Gogh’s paintings, which Tuttle sees as breaking a pattern in Western art. The gilded frames of older paintings reaffirm the illusionistic and sustaining activity of looking, for painters “are in fact absorbing light, and holding, or retaining, that absorption.” When van Gogh relied so heavily on yellow, he was removing it “from the world he was looking at, for the sake of social benefit.” As pure light can be absorbed from the exterior, yellow is a color that can be used to modulate all other colors, to change the world “which is colourless into a world that is colourful.” But interior and exterior are not necessarily opposed, as in the parallelism “when the sun comes out, our sun inside of us comes out too.” In the end, yellow develops a protective character against the chaos of the “absence of light.” So it seems that there is the possibility for an equivalent output of color from the interior. Why not imagine color as a tool to be used, “at hand,” rather than something that only falls across our retinas?
The second book project reproduced, You Never See the Same Color Twice (2017), is composed of sheets of prints separated by pages of Tuttle’s questions on color as it relates to function, authority, and metaphysics. The prints span the history of color theory, with diagrams from Newton’s Opticks to Albers’s Interaction of Color, and reproduce historical objects and artworks, such as a 19th-century blue cloth portfolio from Japan, an Indian diagram of chakras, compositions by the color theorist and painter Philipp Otto Runge, a carved fluorite cup from ancient Rome, and a beaded Maasai cape. Of particular note are images of color samples from Matisse’s cutouts, scraps of the same painted paper used for his famous compositions, but protected from light for decades. Looking at these leftovers, bunched into piles according to their various hues, it is tempting to characterize the image as interior, as this is color that has been kept cloistered from the world. But it is merely a well-preserved memory, for the moment that brush met paper was an outpouring into the exterior.
The final short sections document exhibitions held in 2017, in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany. The first two find Tuttle responding to James Ensor and Frans Hals. In one pairing, Tuttle responds to a flowered hat in an Ensor self-portrait with a delightfully crumpled fabric and cardboard composition, spots of pigment replacing the original blooms. In a show in Cologne, works on paper hang on walls behind giant panes of glass, which extend to just above the floor, catching folded strips of color that flatten out onto the ground. Considering those bright passages, I notice that the sticky page markers I have been using on the book bear a resemblance to those floor sculptures. In their neon hues, they attempt to signal back to memories of reading, so that passages can be colored in blue or pink for easy recall. But they are at odds with the colors discussed on the pages, which seem increasingly concrete. I notice too that the scan of Tuttle’s yellow book carries a yellower cast than the other books, and remember that it felt warm to read, almost a respite from the bluish light from the windows. It is a joy, for those of us taught a more rigid color theory, to read of color, named but indeterminate, emanating from the inside.