Richard Tuttle

System VI, White Traffic


Not on display

Richard Tuttle born 1941
Wood, fibreboard, polystyrene foam, synthetic mesh, terracotta, halogen lamp, ceramic, vinyl-coated steel cable, wire, foam, aluminium bolts, electrical cord, acrylic paint and oil paint
Object: 2540 × 2896 × 2896 mm
Purchased with assistance from the Karpidas Family (Tate Americas Foundation) 2021


System VI, White Traffic 2011 is a vertical format freestanding sculptural assemblage that forms part of the artist’s Systems series, executed between 2011 and 2012. A variety of materials, including wood, aluminium, foam, terracotta clay and vinyl-coated steel cable, are affixed together in an abstract composition using bolts and nails, while a halogen lamp, suspended from the ceiling on a length of electrical cord, lights the work from above. Acrylic and semi-gloss paint and oil-based marker pen have been used to colour different elements in shades of red, yellow, green and black. The Systems series contains twelve sculptures in total, titled consecutively from I to XII, and was displayed at Pace Gallery, New York across two exhibitions in 2011 and 2012.

On graduating from Trinity College, Connecticut in 1963, Tuttle moved to New York, where he came into contact with both pop and minimalism. While his association with many artists of the minimalist movement during this time would prove to be key to his formal education, his introduction to minimalist painter Agnes Martin in 1964 – with whom he would share a mutually enriching friendship until her death in 2004 – had perhaps the most impact. Since then, Tuttle has worked across painting, sculpture, drawing, assemblage and poetry to create a diverse body of work. Constantly changing and evolving, his hybrid practice is built upon the use of unconventional materials and a deliberate resistance to traditional categorisation. It oscillates between high and low art, the material and the conceptual, ensuring that it retains its autonomous and open meaning, free from the constraints of critical boundaries. Tuttle has said: ‘The job of the artist is to come up with ideas of how the mystic can be accommodated’ (quoted in San Francisco Museum of Modern Art 2005, p.21).

Envisaged as reworked sculptural investigations, the Systems series continues Tuttle’s ongoing explorations into the possibilities of shape, form and line. Each piece in the group is based on the combination of an outward framing device and internal structure, composed from a variety of different materials. While others in the series extend horizontally, System VI, White Traffic is vertical in format. It exploits the axis between the ground and the sky, emphasised through the use of large wooden beams that extend up to the ceiling, and intricate wire cables that extend down from it. White lengths of wood, reminiscent of painting stretchers, form the framework for the object, while a ball of entangled wooden splints and black spandex mesh sits at its centre, suspended in space like a globe.

As the visual complexity of the work suggests, System VI, White Traffic is composed of a wide range of different materials. In addition to those that are in common artistic or commercial use – such as wood, aluminium or terracotta clay – Tuttle also makes use of remnants from the fringes of artistic practice. Packing materials, such as Styrofoam, and fibre-based wall board usually employed in housing construction, are incorporated alongside found materials and rubbish that might normally be thrown away. Layered with red paint in broad, sweeping strokes, the protective pockets of a sheet of foam take on new and interesting forms. Intricately cut into an ornate pattern, the smooth surface of a sheet of aluminium is transformed into a sharp and prickly entity. Wooden beams painted with acrylic paint absorb the light that surrounds them, while those painted with semi-gloss paint are shiny and radiant.

Tuttle’s choice of material is both considered and aesthetic. Drawn to materials with interesting formal properties – tactile textures or reflective surfaces – his composition is complex and cohesive, adding to the overall sensory experience. While Tuttle’s choice of materials may, at times, be lowly, the finished result of their careful arrangement is one of unity and refinement. Far from being concealed or disguised, each component is celebrated, as the work discloses what was used to make it and how each element has been fixed to another. Through the development of a conceptual ‘system’ of colour, shape and composition – as suggested by the title of the series – Tuttle teases out the formal potential of each individual material. Materiality serves as an indicator of meaning as objects are repurposed for new and evocative roles.

Due to the way in which it is installed in the middle of the floor, the viewer is given an ever-changing 360-degree view of System VI, White Traffic. The multiplicity of views functions as an important feature of the work, as different material combinations are revealed from different angles. Permeable and transparent, the works in the series as a whole are conceived, in the words of the press release accompanying the exhibition of Systems I–VI at Pace Gallery, New York in 2011, ‘as investigations of spatial interpenetration, rather than concrete, three-dimensional form’ (Pace Gallery, ‘Richard Tuttle: What’s the Wind’, press release, May 2011,, accessed 20 December 2012). Enabling the viewer to see each individual component as well as the sculptural whole, Tuttle uses transparency as a conceptual tool. Each element is balanced in careful equilibrium, resulting in an object that is resolutely material yet inherently poetic.

Attributed the enigmatic subtitle ‘White Traffic’ – a reference, perhaps, to the white wooden beams that form the framework for the sculpture, and the apparent tyre marks on the yellow struts that form its base, or neither of the above – System VI resists easy contextualisation. Other sculptures in the series are mysteriously subtitled ‘Cheap Face’, ‘Winter’, ‘Measurement’ and ‘Hummingbird’, reinforcing Tuttle’s desire for open and free meaning. Married to the poet Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, and an accomplished poet in his own right, Tuttle’s autonomous vision for, and understanding of, the series is elucidated by the catalogue Richard Tuttle: Systems, I–XII, published by Pace Gallery, New York on the occasion of his exhibition in September–October 2012. Illustrating each work from the series alongside a poem written by the artist, the text places System VI, White Traffic in a new context, suggesting alternate and at times contradictory ways in which to consider the work.

Further reading
The Art of Richard Tuttle, exhibition catalogue, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco 2005.
Richard Tuttle: Systems, I–XII, exhibition catalogue, Pace Gallery, New York 2012, reproduced pp.21–4.

Hannah Dewar
December 2012

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