Harper’s is pleased to announce In the Fullness of Life, the gallery’s second solo exhibition of new work by Frederic Tuten. Presented at Harper’s Apartment on the Upper East Side, the vibrant selection of paintings on canvas, masonite, and cardboard highlights Tuten’s dedication to creating dreamlike landscapes as vivid as they are surreal, and riotous scenes rich with playful figuration. In the Fullness of Life opens Wednesday, April 27, 6–8pm, with a reception attended by the artist.
On the occasion of the exhibition, artists Dana Schutz and Emily Mae Smith sat down with Tuten separately to discuss his artistic process. Additionally, Hans Ulrich Obrist recently conducted an interview with Tuten about painting and its relation to his legacy as a writer, which will be published in full in On a Terrace in Tangier – Works on Cardboard, forthcoming from König Books/KMEC. Signed advance copies will be available during the exhibition. What follows are excerpts from each conversation.
Frederic Tuten (b. 1936, Bronx, NY) is a celebrated novelist, essayist, and visual artist. He studied at the Art Students League, City College of New York, and the National Autonomous University of Mexico prior to receiving a PhD in 19th-century American literature from New York University. Over the course of Tuten’s long career, he has published five novels, including The Adventures of Mao on the Long March (1971), and Tintin in the New World: A Romance (1993), both of which feature original cover art designed by Roy Lichtenstein; and recently, a memoir, My Young Life (2019). His short-form writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Artforum, New York Times, and Vogue. Prior to In the Fullness of Life, Tuten’s artwork has been the subject of two solo exhibitions: Works on Cardboard, Harper’s, East Hampton, NY (2021); and Flowers, Plants, and Other Romances, Planthouse Gallery, New York (2019). He is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, and an Award for Distinguished Writing from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Tuten’s most recent book, On a Terrace in Tangier – Works on Cardboard, was published in April by König Books/KMEC, and is edited by Karen Marta with an interview by Hans Ulrich Obrist. Tuten lives and works in New York City and Southampton, NY.
Dana Schutz with Frederic Tuten
Dana Schutz: When did you start making paintings and where do you make them?
Frederic Tuten: They were made right here in Southampton, in what was once the dining room. All the same, some of the paintings in the present show are the largest I've ever made. My first paintings were oil on cardboard for my show at Harper’s East Hampton last year. I love the surface of cardboard, but they began to buckle from the wet paint. This prompted me to experiment with other surfaces like masonite and canvas. I’ve come to love masonite, but I also want to continue working on canvas, because canvas has its particular wonderful tension. Each material has its own disposition and its own language. It’s so interesting the way that the brush speaks to the media in different ways.
Dana Schutz: It's interesting seeing how your work has changed. Before you were making your pictures in ink, pastel, pencil, crayon, and so on, now you’re using oil paint and the palette is different. It's amazing how fluid these new paintings have become. Each composition has its own kind of particular rhythm, like everything you’ve rendered purposefully resides in its special place. The pictorial space feels like there are sections that are at once protruding and collapsing simultaneously. They are so beautiful and so vibrant.
Frederic Tuten: Thank you so much. Just to hear you say those words means so much to me. Someone once said to me that my paintings look like medieval paintings. I laughed because my work doesn’t follow the rules of linear perspective, so in a sense, my approach looks back to a moment before the Renaissance. I think there’s a charm to those medieval compositions. The figure/ground relationship doesn’t need to abide by any kind of optical naturalism. So much rich meaning and mystery can be generated from playing with scale. In one of my paintings, there could be a small castle over here, and then a large bird over there. Such distortions of reality can really push the imagination in interesting ways.
Dana Schutz: Your work does produce weird moments; for example, all of a sudden, the solid blocks of color you render into clouds truncate the furthest vistas, creating an altered sense of distance. And when comparing objects to other objects in your paintings, everything feels like it starts to mimic everything else. A boat can be read as a bottle and vice versa, or a bird-like the clouds or even a UFO. I find these odd relationships you create quite beautiful. I don’t see this kind of work around. They’re really particular.
Frederic Tuten: I really want to make beautiful paintings. I know it sounds cliché, besides, beauty itself is suspect today. When you walk into the room and see a beautiful picture, there are qualities about it that are ineffable. Writing can produce such moments, poetry can, but not with painting’s immediacy. Something happens in that experience. It's futile to try to explain it but you can feel it, and that's everything.
Emily Mae Smith with Frederic Tuten
Emily Mae Smith: Tell me a little bit about your studio practice. For example, I know you recently got an easel and you’ve told me there's a certain paint you prefer for the imagery you make. I think it'd be nice to hear your thoughts on that for a minute.
Frederic Tuten: I'm learning all the time, even the question of what easel to use—as you know, since you guided me on which one to get. But regarding the act of painting itself, after experimenting with different techniques over the last few years, I'm becoming aware of the nuances of the colors and different qualities of commercial paints. I'm often rooted in an old way of thinking about art. Abstraction plays a big role for me. De Kooning said about abstract painting, "Sometimes you want a glimpse of content." You need a hint of something recognizable to anchor yourself in the painting. Right now, I'm trying to hint at figuration in recent works. In the painting In the Fullness of Life, for example, there are cups, bottles, and vases. I keep thinking about how Morandi’s objects, his simple bottles, have a human-like presence. I love when abstraction achieves that kind of suggestiveness and ambiguity.
Emily Mae Smith: That’s interesting you find the de Kooning quote to be such a large influence on your practice, because I know you were close with the Pop artists, particularly Roy Lichtenstein. And the evolution of Pop art was somewhat a critical response to Abstract Expressionism.
Frederic Tuten: Roy never pontificated. He never made a negative comment about other people's work, and he wasn't competitive. In a word, he never embodied that stereotype of the self-centered artist. I grew up at a time when there was a whole mythology about the Abstract Expressionist artists and their heroic stature. Harold Rosenberg glamorized these ideas with his essays about how every painterly gesture is an existentialist bullfight in the arena. When I was a kid, I used to see some of those artists at the Cedar Tavern. At the time, I thought, boy, they're heroic, like their paintings. But now the paintings don’t move me as much as they used to. Sometimes I feel like they are just grand wallpaper with the absence of something critical. If you see enough art and you look carefully at enough art and you feel enough art, you can begin to see where the artist has reverence for the work and reverence for art. It shows itself in the work. Oscar Wilde said that there's no such thing as sincerity in art, all art is a fabrication, all art is make-believe. You have to create sincerity. But you can feel the sincerity through the artifice.
Emily Mae Smith: This myth of heroism and lauding the artist’s freedom, to me, just looks like the flip side of fear. Grandstanding could actually be a way of avoiding vulnerability. But then you have someone like Morandi who basically says to himself, "I'm just painting stupid bottles, and that’s it." But despite the modest subject matter, that approach is actually a huge risk.
Frederic Tuten: The risk is immense. The risk is seeming dull to others, seeming uninventive, repetitive. The risk is seeming like one doesn’t have a great reach. I'm trying to be present without fear. To fear—to be fearful—is to condemn yourself. In the end, the only question that really matters, to me, is: Does the painting look good, does it feel resolved? That's all that matters, the effect, not some theory.
Emily Mae Smith: How do you know when your paintings are finished, then?
Frederic Tuten: It’s just intuitive. When I think the work is done, I put it away. After a few days or weeks, I go back and look at it again. And then I say, "Oh my God! No, this isn't right, this is wrong! This color is wrong!" I can rework it. Usually, there’s a better result when you get some distance from it. You can't just be so Olympian that you believe everything you touch is wonderful. Sometimes through trial and error, the small moments add up and something beautiful arises. It’s the work that lets you know it’s finished; you just have to know when to listen to it.
Hans Ulrich Obrist with Frederic Tuten
Hans Ulrich Obrist: When you make your paintings and drawings, do you also write at the same time? Or is it in different phases?
Frederic Tuten: In the case of our book, the text follows the drawings. The text connects to the drawing but is not an illustration of the drawing. Sometimes you find a poem that basically paraphrases or explains a painting or gives you a moral. I’m thinking of W. H. Auden on Brueghel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus in “Musée des Beaux Arts.” Auden’s point about the painting is that while tragedy occurs, people continue their lives unaware, and in the most ordinary way. And tragedy goes unnoted. It’s a didactic way of looking at the poem, which has its own relevance, but I’m not interested in that. My drawings and texts speak to each other, creating a new conversation. That is, dialectically speaking, the drawings and the texts create another kind of art with a unique emotional reality. It’s not, “Oh, it’s a pretty text and a pretty drawing,” where they can be separated. No: the work here is a collaboration between the two. The text makes you feel the emotion of the drawing. The drawing makes you feel the emotion of the text. At best, I hope to create a new dimension of feeling.
Hans Ulrich Obrist: While you painted during lockdown what did you read?
Frederic Tuten: I read a lot of poetry, Wallace Stevens, especially. I read Wallace Stevens again and again. But also Elizabeth Bishop and Tennyson, just to name a few. Poetry nourishes me. I read poems before I go to sleep, and the beauty of the language filters through me. I also went back to reading John Dos Passos again, his U.S.A. trilogy. I think Dos Passos was a much greater writer than Hemingway. Hemingway has this mesmerizing, captivating style that enchants you. You can’t get out of his sentences. But on the breadth, scope, and wisdom of life, Dos Passos is so much more profound and moving. Incidentally, the U.S.A. trilogy was illustrated by his friend Reginald Marsh.
Hans Ulrich Obrist: And what is it about Wallace Stevens that you keep returning to?
Frederic Tuten: I love his metaphors. I love the images that spring from his poetry. I love his mixture of simple and complex diction. I love that he uses words that send you to the dictionary. For the last twenty-five years, I’ve been in love with the Baroque poet Francisco de Quevedo, but I can’t find much of his poetry, and the translations are generally not very good. Quevedo—God, that’s poetry. “The body... will be dust, but dust in love.” I find such great nourishment in reading. It’s horrible to say, but COVID nourished me too, in a strange way. It gave me the kind of loneliness and the kind of time I needed. And it gave me the kind of feeling of connection to the cardboard, the canvas, the paper, the pencil, the pen, the pastel, and now to the oil paint.
Hans Ulrich Obrist: It’s interesting that loneliness became a condition of your creativity. You live at least as much in your head as you do in the world.
Frederic Tuten: Absolutely. I can’t speak for everyone, but I know that for myself, I can be talking to someone about a painting I love, and somehow, I’m also talking to myself about something else. It’s unintentionally rude. I do think we live in our heads, we live in our dreams. I don’t mean sleeping. I mean the waking dream of seeing around us a sky, a cloud, and feeling all these emotions everyone else feels. They’re the feelings of life and its intensity and beauty and horror and sadness. Yes, I think that we all live in this dream of ourselves, and sometimes we incorporate others into our dream, and, if we’re lucky, into our art.