Tuesday, August 16, 2005


Paul Bertolli and Richard Tuttle share an almost obsessive exploration of the simple. Chef Bertolli expounds his "direct and authentic" aesthetic in Cooking by Hand, an eloquent collection of the treats and techniques one might find at his much-lauded Oliveto. With whole pages devoted to a fundamental ingredient (tomato, pear, flour) or a singularly artisan preparation (making coppa or conserva), the book is not so much inspiration for direct kitchen activity as it is a challenge to pause -- and imagine philosophically for a moment. Cooking by hand ... in your mind! Bertolli's dedication to the pure and basic is countered by a more formal attention to structure and juxtaposition, and reads as either an impossible approach to the easy or an easy approach to the impossible. Which? I am not quite sure.

Nor am I always sure how such pure concepts manage to hold their own in the artifice of Restaurant, a place where one expects more than a gazpacho made solely of "tomato and a little salt." How does Bertolli get away with that? Of course, a "proper" setting encourages one to pause -- and consider and appreciate the artistry of casual simplicity, but still! At the SFMOMA recently, I found myself mulling over the same puzzle. The Richard Tuttle exhibit is a collection of naive and playfully abstract works as well as a more knowing exploration of the most elemental materials. Line, letter, shape. Wire, wood, color. And because a retrospective prompts the viewer to recognize how designs and shapes continue and recur within the span of a career, what might initially seem like a bunch of kinder-classroom art projects becomes more than that. A whole aesthetic is visible. The monochromatic canvas cloths and constructed wood "paintings" from the 1960s find resonance in Tuttle's sketchbook exercises (early 1970s), and the sketches echo through even to later, more sculptural works. In the floor and wall "assemblages" (late 1980s), what was once flat suddenly becomes tangible and complicated, but ultimately, Tuttle returns his lines, letters and shapes to the flat plane, to a page within an artist's book.

The presentation of simple principles tends to leave meaning wide open, but Tuttle and Bertolli only flirt with abstraction. Tomato? Plywood? Wire shadow? Summer squash? One cannot help but reference a very personal relationship to these familiar materials, and this bit of "personal referencing" is what provokes comments of the sort I heard wandering through the Tuttle show: "Why, I could do this!" or "My son made a picture just like that in his second grade art class." Sure, and your son could smash a whole tomato in a bowl and call it gazpacho, too. Viewing the simple as "art" is often a challenge and why Restaurant or Museum become almost necessary. Bertolli and Tuttle are virtuosos who turn our focus to something quite primary and basic; while not revolutionary, their work causes one to pay attention and realize that being simple is not so simple at all.


Anyone whose heroes are Fergus Henderson and Hanns Eisler is a hero of mine. I enjoy your blog.

By Blogger TJM, at 6:26 AM  

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