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A certain enigma surrounds work produced by canonical artists in the latter decades of their lives. When referring to this distinct period in an artist’s creative evolution, art historians commonly invoke the German term altersstil, which in English translates to “old-age style.”1 A shift in tone, either bold or subtle, often characterizes this stylistic maturation. It can also be more elusive, amounting to a newfound gestural confidence, for example, rather than a complete overhaul in form and technique.
Prominent examples of a blossoming altersstil include the late paintings of Titian, the virtuoso of the Venetian Renaissance, as well as those of the revered abstractionist Willem de Kooning. Critics have spoken of each artist as having reached a moment of “painterly transcendence,” an almost spiritualized pinnacle of gestural dexterity forged by an intimate familiarity with the medium. Upon observing such a feat in Titian’s work, Goethe reportedly remarked that the artist “in his old age depicted only in abstracto those materials which he had rendered before concretely: so, for instance, only the idea of velvet not the material itself.”2
Now, centuries later at David Kordansky and Matthew Marks, concurrent yet unrelated solo exhibitions of recent work by Richard Tuttle and Stanley Whitney breathe life into the notion of an expressively cohesive altersstil, or old-age style. While Tuttle’s intimately crafted objects diverge, both materially and conceptually, from Whitney’s large-scale gridded paintings, both artists are in their seventies and have achieved canonical recognition over their decades-long careers. Both exhibitions include works solely made in 2020, and given the distressing disquietude of the year, the two presentations serve not only as intriguing examples of the creative renaissance that can accompany aging, but also as unique indicators of the ways in which each artist has responded to the unorthodox crises (Covid-19, et al.) of our moment. As such, both exhibitions uniquely center abstraction’s ability to fluidly shift in meaning and significance depending contextual conditions—a slippery trait that makes it an uncanny bedfellow for uncertain times.
In Nine Stepping Stones, Richard Tuttle’s exhibition at David Kordansky Gallery, a suite of 28 sculptural assemblages, which the artist has metaphorically and titularly anointed as “heads,” line the walls of the gallery’s two rooms. Each work is consistent in scale and rests roughly at the height of a viewer’s head, suggesting a mimetic relationship between the topology of the object and the uppermost region of the body. Constructed from two layered planes of idiosyncratically-shaped plywood, each irregular polygon sculpture initiates a rambling procession of angular, sinuous, and yet somehow minimal forms. Wisps of spray paint add expressionistic tenor to these tangled abstractions, all of which Tuttle created while recovering from Covid-19. While the poetic eccentricities of this new work align with Tuttle’s larger oeuvre, the exhibition’s intimate autobiographical context is somewhat unusual for the artist. Here, with illness and isolation infiltrating his lexicon, Tuttle’s panoply of heads acquires a heightened symbolism, suggesting a visceral preoccupation with an object that binds the physical experience of the body with the cerebral machinations of the mind.
A bifurcated, wing-like shape with sharp, splintered curves and jutting angles overlays a larger and more amorphously shaped plywood base in Unlikely Head. Several step-like formations of plywood intersect and bridge these upper and lower layers, conjoining them like tiny staircases rising between floors. Humbly fastened with nails and glue, Unlikely Head suggests a deconstructed artist’s palette, a cubist visage, or a geometric, baroque ceremonial mask stained with colors ranging from minty pastel to bloody rouge. With its charming imperfections (splayed plywood shards mingle with rough, mottled surfaces), the work draws a connection between the utility of artistic matter and the utility of the body, both of which are susceptible to fraying. This “head” recalls our own uncanny state of being: collectively and singularly isolated, vulnerable and threadbare at the seams.
Meanwhile, Stanley Whitney’s exhibition at Matthew Marks Gallery, How Black is That Blue, registers as a mesmerizing, perceptual force. The show similarly revels in the pliability of non-representation but accomplishes it on a more monumental scale. The exhibition includes nine paintings (ranging in size from moderate to immense), and two works on paper, all of which depict rhythmic, geometric color fields composed of vibrantly-hued rectangular blocks. Ranging in tone from velvety-soft to intensely irradiant, Whitney’s pigmented grids possess a symphonic quality that lays bare the gestural cadence of the artist’s hand. Eschewing standard genres, these grids defy minimality while simultaneously embracing minimalism’s most identifiable motif. While not necessarily a drastic departure from the artist’s earlier work (his improvisational grids have been a signature compositional structure for decades), these abstractions signal a confidence of gesture—a much-practiced adroitness analogous to the fluent mastery of a language. As with Tuttle, this material familiarity born of experience creates a deceptive veil of ease and simplicity—a quality observed in Titian’s late work as well, described by historian David Rosand as “the ability of his art to hide art.”3
That said, while Whitney’s monumental work Twenty twenty certainly epitomizes these qualities, it also presents as a relatively strong stylistic aberration: the horizontally-oriented painting is, according to the gallery, one of only three non-square canvases that the artist has created in over 25 years. In this painting, rectangular nodes of color form an almost imperceptibly sloping grid, as if its axis were poised to imminently slip and tumble. Linear bands of black, brick, and azure attempt to buttress its form. Throughout, errant smears and droplets infringe upon the interstitial space between colors, amplifying rhythmic perceptions of touch and collision. (These encounters recall the landscape of our vigilant, Covid-era movements, where spontaneous gestural contact becomes a high-stakes event). While Twenty twenty’s overall chromatic vibrancy contradicts the muddled bleakness of its eponymous year, Whitney’s attention to space and shape transcends didactic illustrations, instead alluding to something more philosophically complex. Recalling Tuttle’s evocative use of anthropomorphic forms, Whitney similarly imbues his two-dimensional brushstrokes with epistemological meaning. His squares, lines, and edges suggest corners, corridors, and hallways; here, the artist offers a philosophical rumination on the poetics of space and what it means to exist within it.
Buoyant and unflinching, both Tuttle’s and Whitney’s recent work embodies what literary critic Barbara Herrnstein Smith has referred to as “the senile sublime”4—a transcendent, unburdened late-age command of gesture, material, and form. While some critics have associated altersstil with the solitary nature of old age and the peril of mortality, these mindscapes—isolation and its attendant arousal of mortal anxieties—are familiar to artists. In the first sentence of James Baldwin’s 1962 essay, “The Creative Process,” he notes that “the primary distinction of the artist is that he must actively cultivate that state which most men, necessarily, must avoid; the state of being alone.”5 Artists command this “vast forest”6 of isolation, the intensity of which has been compounded by the pandemic, and for Tuttle, by infection itself. This perhaps explains why here, abstraction ultimately functions as an intimate, philosophical grappling with an elusive, epistemological truth.
Jessica Simmons is an artist and writer based in Los Angeles. Her work and writing navigate the haptic, oblique space that exists between the language of abstraction and the abstraction of language.
This review was originally published in Carla issue 24.