Art Vent Letting the Fresh Air In
Not wanting to anchor the work in a linear narrative, or imply that her sculpture in any way ‘illustrated’ a particular event, Truitt herself was reticent to make fully explicit the connections she nevertheless acknowledged between her life and art. Instead she emphasized the importance of the transformation from the specific to the universal in her process.
After stating clearly what the artist would not have wanted, Hileman turns around to do exactly that:
The elucidation of some of the events, places, people, literary references, and philosophies that appear to constitute fragments of the iconography Truitt perceived behind her ultimately irreducible works, however, provides another lens through which to consider Truitt’s unique and highly expressive deployment of the objective language of color and geometry.
Hileman then, throughout the essay, continues to interpret Truitt's work through biography as in:
Inanimate sculptures that do not include a video monitor and on which nothing is written cannot “convey” or “appear to convey” anything, and any “psychological dimension” that can be associated with an art work is elicited by the configuration of the work itself, not by specific pre-knowledge of the artist’s history.
Granted Truitt, having published her memoirs in three volumes, invites this sort of exercise more than most, however the dependence of critics and curators on information that is not intrinsic to the work is epidemic—and, because the backstory is so often used to justify or rationalize what's on view, I will even go so far as to say that it’s responsible in large part for the ridiculous amount of bad art we see out there (an artist friend wanted to blame it on the artists, but they’re not the ones making the selections, and further, this kind of thing only encourages them to think that’s what art is).
Interpreters of art seem unable to deal with the object itself and instead rely on externals, often having to do with the artist’s “intention” or political bent or, when dealing with artists like Luc Tuymans or Josh Smith, how their work represents some kind of reaction to the history of painting. But it’s really simple. The work is the work, no matter who did it, when s/he did it, or why s/he did it. Biographical information, such as the fact that Richard Serra had day jobs in steel mills is worth noting if trying to determine how he arrived at his format, but the work itself, that big thing made of metal, is something else entirely. What does it convey or express? Nothing. What are its “psychological dimensions?” None.
While in Washington on Friday to see the exhibition and catch James Meyer’s excellent gallery talk (Meyer being the perfect example of an art historian who knows what’s important and what isn’t), I also had lunch with Tyler Green of Modern Art Notes, who said he thought that with the advent of photography, writers about art were not so inclined to engage in elaborate description.
If so, this could explain a lot, because for me, it’s through being forced to describe something that I learn what it is and what I really think about it. In fact this is why I write about art at all, because I wouldn’t engage in such a detailed exercise on my own. It’s how I learn, and it’s how I teach students to write about art. In fact I think everyone studying any aspect of the arts should be required to take art writing, not so they can better write their theses or that noxious item we call the artist’s statement, but because through writing description you learn to observe what’s outside—and inside—you. And no matter what the endeavor—be it art, bricklaying, dentistry or cooking—observation is everything.
Well God really is on Facebook (see Hiatus below). Before leaving for California, I wrote this Status Update:
“Carol Diehl is flying to SF in the early morning, off to Big Sur for son Matt & Michelle's wedding. Sun predicted for the Friday nuptials (yeah!), tomorrow heavy rain and high winds—just the thing for driving down Highway 1.”
"hi carol, it’s your old neighbor from greene st! i now have a ranch about an hour south of sf right off of hwy 1. the winds and rain are supposed to be formidable (60-80mph sustained!!!). here’s my number if you need a pit stop. you might and it would be great to see you. best jane"
I got the last available room in an absolutely lovely airport Marriott with a balcony looking out on trees and the smell of eucalyptus in the air (“Toto, we’re not at JFK anymore”), and the next day on the way to Big Sur stopped off at Jane’s. “I want you to see what a loft on Greene Street will buy in California,” she’d said, her words echoing my mind as I navigated the steep dirt road to the house at the top of the mountain with vistas all around, where Neil Young is her nearest neighbor.
“My lover is a place not a person,” Jane says, “I’ve never loved a man as much as I love this property—I’m romantically involved with it, I hate being away from it, and I want everybody to meet it.”
Giving up the loft, the art world, her friends—all New York meant—to live on a mountaintop with her dogs (and now horses, although she doesn’t ride) took a tremendous leap of faith. In so many ways Jane was convinced she’d committed career suicide. But her sculpture, always nature-based, took on new life in the fresh air, and through many connections to regional galleries, her career is thriving. “I didn’t want to be Queen of the Art World,” she says, “I wanted to be Morris Graves and make work until the day I died. I wanted to show people the story in nature so they wouldn’t fuck it up anymore, so found other ways to do business and make the best work I can.”
Recycled Provencale limestone, discarded cut-offs from stone used for building, waiting to turn into sculpture
In that she is enthusiastically assisted by Alex Rohrig and former student Sebastian Ages, who made us a wonderful lunch of fresh, local produce—after which, eager to get back to work, Jane sent me on my way.
Jane with Alex and Sebastian
While the top of the mountain was sunny, the beach at the bottom was still gray from the storm.
Anne Truitt, Pith, 1969
This season, however, got an early start with Glenn Beck’s debut as an art critic, which would be hilarious if there weren’t those out there who take him seriously. But why do we need Glenn Beck when we have our own Charlie Finch, who approaches his subjects with similar breathy astonishment and twisted logic? Consider his passive-aggressive Artnet piece (entitled “Mother-in-law”) on the late Anne Truitt’s upcoming survey at the Hirshhorn, where he mixes grudging admiration for her work (“The Hirshhorn retrospective should vault her into a special pantheon of her own, one which she occupied in privacy during her own life and in public now that her work belongs to the world”), with obvious glee at finally having an opportunity to get back at the bitch.
Anne Truitt, Hardcastle, 1962
Not to speak of being sexist while pretending to be critical of those who were. But I’ll get back to that in a moment.
Finch starts out by saying, “She was the driest, most detached person I had yet encountered, so removed that she toasted us young newlyweds at our reception by remarking that ‘it is like watching them go down Niagara Falls in a barrel.’" Hmmm. Far from being detached and removed, it sounds as if Truitt was nothing but present and prescient, feeling as any parent might on the occasion of her daughter being married to this guy.
In true Glenn Beck-like fashion, the revengeful son-in-law randomly weaves together biographical non sequiturs to make Truitt sound like a nut job: “She was obsessed with Alexander the Great, kept a picture of her Indian guru, whom she had never met, on her kitchen wall, and, at one point, conspired with other powerful Washington wives to drug their husbands’ cocktails with LSD in order to end the Vietnam War, though this plot was probably never realized.” Oooh! A picture of a guru on her wall! That she’d never met! As for the LSD plot, I’d like to see it properly footnoted. And God help me if some future biographer ever finds out how many books I’ve read on Elizabeth I.
Or how, in the studio, “she was painstaking to a fault” (to a fault?) and that one sculpture “marks the beginning of a self-enforced calm” as if she was barely able to keep the lid on.
Finch’s sexism can be found in the order of things: “In the politics of art, she had helped Morris Louis' widow unroll his canvases, enjoyed a collaborative relationship with Kenneth Noland and was championed as an original by Clement Greenberg.” How differently these examples would read in reverse.
Anne Truitt in her Washington studio, 1962 (all images from annetruitt.org)
Middle photo: Photo: Olafur Eliasson Studio
The latticework pattern mimics that of the ripples in the pond. Did he know it would do that?
The Eliasson installation is adjacent to the Frank Gehry designed Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, a building I love for its quality of lightness and insubstantiality, heightened on this overcast day so that the roof of the building seemed to merge with the sky.
Sadly, this lyrical dance of wing-like curves and light ends abruptly with the rear of the building, which is as square and clunky as the back of any urban theater. Although I've been to the Fisher Center several times, I'm never prepared for the nasty slap of reality that awaits me as I walk around it to my parked car. I want to believe in the fairy tale.
As a child I had to fight for abstraction (“It’s a besign!” I’d insist to the teachers who challenged me). But everything’s relative. The other night my friend, Alexandra Truitt, daughter of the late sculptor, Anne Truitt, told me that, filled as the family home was with work by Frankenthaler, Morris Louis and Noland, she was nine before she realized paintings could also be pictures. Of things.
She described living in Japan (where her father was bureau chief for Newsweek) and excitedly bringing a book of paintings by Keane, which she’d found at school, to her horrified parents at the dining table:
This was her next crush:
I guess there’s no such thing as a “normal” childhood.
Judy's sculptural installation, Snow White and the Seven Sins, was seen in New York this fall at P.P.O.W. and will be exhibited at Ace Gallery in Beverly Hills in the upcoming months, dates to be determined.