Combining colors of subtle complexity with the simplest of forms, Truitt swam against sculpture’s prevailing currents.
BY CAROL DIEHL
Walking into the galleries that contained the survey “anne truitt: Perception and reflection” at Washington, D.C.’s hirshhorn Museum, one encountered a pervasive hush, and an inclination
to whisper. truitt’s square columns of various heights and colors stood grouped like silent sentinels. While the atmosphere was slightly funereal, the mood was hardly gloomy. Unlike ancient memorial columns fabricated in cold stone, truitt’s human-scaled monoliths are rendered in painted wood, spare but often brightly
In 1961, impelled by the force
of my childhood memories,
I made one fence, delicately altered toward what I felt to
be the essence of fence. But
I immediately left behind the appearance of fence for ever less referential art. I began to isolate a reality of proportion and color, which I see gleaming behind the objective world. I have had only glimpses of this other reality.
I have made things in an attempt to render it more visible.
—anne truitt, Turn
colored, and have a warmth and emotional resonance, like cap-
sules of unspoken experience. and whereas stone makes heavy contact with the earth, truitt’s columns, each raised on a recessed—hence invis- ible—plinth that creates a thin dark shadow around the bottom, seem to hover slightly off the ground.
the elegiac aspect is not a surprise considering that one of truitt’s first significant pieces, Southern Elegy (1962), was clearly based on a tomb- stone. But the work she considered her crucial breakthrough—called First, it was made at the end of the
previous year, when truitt (1921-2004) was 40—was inspired by a fence. it took her from experiments in sculptural realism undertaken during the 11 years of “apprenticeship to myself” that followed her studies in 1949 at the institute of Contemporary art in Washington, D.C., to what she called “expressionistic geometric abstraction.”1
the gestation of First began in november 1961 when the D.C.- area resident encountered, all in a single exhibition that she saw at the guggenheim Museum on a visit to new York, a small painted wooden construction by nassos Daphnis, which reminded her of how much she always liked wood; the barely perceptible pattern
in one of ad reinhart’s black paintings; and a great field of color by Barnett newman—impressions that stayed with her for the rest of her life. Because truitt was also a writer—Daybook (1982), Turn (1986) and Prospect (1996), the three volumes of her “Journal of an
View of “anne truitt: Perception and reflection,” 2009; at the hirshhorn Museum and sculpture garden, Washington, D.C. Photo lee stalsworth.
all work this article © truitt estate/ the Bridgeman art library.
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There is someThing caThedral-like in FirsT’s TriniTy oF slaTs ThaT presages The slighTly ecclesiasTical aura which was To envelop all oF TruiTT’s work.
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Above, Southern Elegy, 1962, acrylic on wood, 47 by 207⁄8 by 67⁄8 inches. Photo Lee Stalsworth.
Right, Hardcastle, 1962, acrylic on wood, 993⁄4 by 42 by 16 inches.
Opposite, First, 1961, latex on wood, 441⁄4 by 173⁄4 by 7 inches. Baltimore Museum of Art.
artist,” are still in print—the epiphany is best told in her words:
Combined, these three works exploded to reverse my whole way of thinking about how to make art. Until that afternoon, I had thought, had initially been trained to think, and had continued dumbly to think, that art was somehow intrinsic to material, immanent in it. That if I applied certain techniques to material with due respect for its nature, art would emerge out of it rather inevitably.2
that night, unable to sleep, truitt realized that she had the freedom to make whatever she chose:
And, suddenly, the whole landscape of my childhood flooded into my inner eye: plain white clapboard fences and houses, barns, solitary trees in flat fields, all set in the wide, widening tidewaters around Easton [Mary- land]. At one stroke, the yearning to express myself transformed into a
yearning to express what this landscape meant to me, not for my own emotional release but for the release of a radiance illuminating it behind and beyond appearance. I saw that I could trust that radiance, could rely on its presence, even in the humblest object. Before I went to sleep, finally spent, I decided to start by making a white picket fence.3
truitt sketched out what she wanted, ordered the boards from the local lumber store, glued the crosspieces to the palings and painted the resulting construction white, thereby devising, in one fell swoop, the methods she would use thereafter; even the platform on which the pickets sit is, as with all of her later sculpture, elevated slightly from the floor. in the rear, which is as visually important as the front, the crosspieces are in turn braced by a vertical member whose shape is similar to those she would later enlarge.
alThough she has been casT as such, TruiTT never ThoughT oF herselF as a minimalisT. her aim was To geT “maximum meaning inTo The simplesT possible Form.”
While the reference to a fence is obvious, closer examination reveals its incongruities. a fragment, First has only three pickets, and these of varying heights and widths, the central one tall-
est and widest; their tops are slanted at different pitches like
the roofs of neighboring houses. Moreover the pickets are not evenly spaced, so that if you squint (as truitt liked to do in order to make the shapes she saw more specific) the vertical negative spaces appear like stripes of varying thickness, similar to new- man’s “zips.” there is something cathedral-like in the upward motion of this trinity of slats to a triangulated peak that presages the slightly ecclesiastical aura which was to envelop all of her work. But First can also be read as exemplifying a loss of inno- cence—a loss of the expectation that life will be orderly. Unlike the picket fence of nostalgic ideal, truitt’s version is flawed. as an artist, she would continue to revel in small inconsistencies.
trUitt aBanDoneD MUCh of what she had made before this watershed sculpture. the only important continuing aspect not reflected in First was color, which became fundamental the fol- lowing year. in 1962, truitt dropped all residual references and produced a tremendous amount of greatly simplified, purely abstract work. she learned to make scale drawings, dipped into her modest inheritance to have pieces constructed at the local mill, and developed a process of applying acrylic paint in many lay- ers, sanding between applications to produce a smooth surface and mixing her own colors. “i knew this work looked odd,” she wrote later. “i was in an exalted state of mind, possessed . . . and remember thinking that no matter what the things i was making
looked like, i would make them anyway [italics truitt’s]. . . . the sculp- tures had become what i have been making ever since: proportions of structural form counter-pointed by proportions of metaphorical color—essentially paintings in three dimensions.”4
Hardcastle (1962), a tall (more than 8 feet high), undifferentiated black rectangle supported on the back with bright red buttresses, made a particular impression on Clement greenberg, who was
brought to truitt’s studio by Wash- ington artist kenneth noland, a fellow student with truitt at the iCa. green- berg in turn showed her work to the prominent art dealer andré emmerich when he came to Washington for Mor- ris louis’s funeral, with the result that in February 1963, the hitherto unknown truitt had a one-person show in new York, putting her at the forefront of what was to be called Minimalism.
although she has consistently been cast as such by curators and historians, truitt never thought of herself as a Mini- malist. While others working with greatly simplified visual elements, notably Don- ald Judd, Carl andre, Dan Flavin, sol leWitt and robert Morris, were reacting to abstract expressionism by attempt- ing to expunge all personal and nar- rative content from their work, truitt’s aim was to get “maximum meaning into the simplest possible form.”5 alexan-
Valley Forge, 1963, acrylic on wood, 601⁄8 by 603⁄8 by 12 inches. The Rachofsky Collection. Photo courtesy Danese Gallery, New York.
Left to right, 5 Nov ’62,
13 Nov ’62 and 5 Nov ’62, all 1962, acrylic on paper, 22 by 30 inches. Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery, New York.
der giampietro, one of her professors at the iCa, taught that the meaning of the work is in the medium and it was the artist’s job to recognize and uncover it. it was her later realization that she alone was in control of the meaning—her rejection of the kind of formal- ism giampietro promoted—that allowed truitt to make the then radical move to develop her work with drawn plans and have its “armatures,” as she called the forms, fabricated by others. truitt’s term for the color she applied in geometric patterns to these three- dimensional supports was “counter-pointing.” although specific occurrences in her life may have served as catalysts, her intent was not to illustrate them but to stimulate a nonspecific emotional response in viewers. as art historian James Meyer puts it, her sculptures “are not depictions of images or events, but metonyms pointing to a complex of associations.”6
Most oF the Writing about truitt refers to the importance
of easton, Md., where she grew up and later in life again made
her home. the third haven Friends’ Meetinghouse there, built in 1682-84, is an early frame structure whose exterior has a distinc- tive asymmetric geometry, while its raw ship-lap wood interior walls and ceiling, supported by thick, rustic square columns, so stimulated truitt’s interest in wood that she later made a sculpture entitled Ship-lap (1962). it is also noteworthy that until age 10, when her extreme nearsightedness was discovered and corrected by eyeglasses, truitt saw her environment more in terms of shapes than specific objects. later, at Bryn Mawr College, where she majored in psychology, truitt developed a lifelong love of greek and roman classical literature (her journals are sprinkled with ref- erences to heraclitus, Cicero and terence), which one can imagine helped foster her interest in memorials and monuments.
in 1950, three years after marrying James truitt, who was bureau chief in a number of cities for several major publications and traveled widely, she went with him to various archeologi- cal sites in Mexico including teotihuacán and tula. some of the four-sided atlantean pillars she saw there bear a resemblance
to the segmented columns, such as Platte (1962), that truitt would come to make. one of the pre-First pieces, from 1959, was a small sculpture made of scored brown clay that reflects the stepped geometry of a Mayan temple; it has a strange, shiplike rounded bottom raised slightly by two thin, flat, nearly hidden feet. on a visit to her studio in 1961, noland suggested she enlarge the scale of her sculptures, and while at first reluc- tant, truitt admitted that “his suggestion opened up my thinking and combined with my obsessive concern with the weights of squares and rectangles to pave the way for the change that took place some months later.”7 For all the clear influences on her development, truitt’s own assessment stresses intuition. When Meyer commented, in an interview, that she “devised the form with an expressive aim,” truitt responded, “let’s not use the word devised, because i didn’t think. i did it intuitively.”8
although truitt made many pieces in black and white, echo-
ing choices favored by the Minimalists, as well in as the black and red of russian Constructivism, most of her color decisions were extremely idiosyncratic, incorporating hues from popular culture
in a way then not commonly used in sculpture—at least sculpture that wasn’t flippant or ironic. her 1962 show at emmerich included a columnar work that was divided into vertical bands of red and orange; another was leaf-green and olive; in both cases, divisions between color blocks didn’t conform to the edges of the struc- tures—an aspect of the work that annoyed Judd, who reviewed the show for Arts magazine. Watauga (1962), which looks very much like a memorial plaque on a low pedestal, is half black and half
rich purple, a color that must have been especially shocking when applied to a reduced form that implied Brancusi-like seriousness of purpose. even in 1968, truitt’s Morning Choice, a 6-foot-tall column painted in unequal sections of (from the bottom up) bright apple green, sailor blue and hot pink, with a strip of orange, must have appeared extreme in contrast to its stark shape. truitt explained:
What I’m trying to do is lift the color up and set it free in three dimensions. . . . I am trying to move it out into space . . . magnetized to the line of gravity just as we are [so that] it becomes flesh, it becomes human, it becomes emo-
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in some works, a sTrip oF lighT color abuTs a darker one righT aT The column’s edge in such a way as To visually eliminaTe The corners compleTely.
tion, it becomes alive, and it vibrates. And since I don’t let it lie down on the sculpture, it goes around the corners . . . so it has to move. Sculptors are supposed to be interested in weights and balances, but I am not. I am only interested in the line holding it, the gravity. And the only reason I need the gravity is to set the color so it will move the way we do on our feet.9
truitt could have been referring to 17th Summer (1974), where a fresh, leafy yellow-green is sent aloft by the band of violet at the bottom. in other works, the stripes are vertical, irregular and more complex, as in View (1999), which is configured in such a way—a strip of light color abuts a darker one right at the column’s edge— as to visually eliminate or flatten the corners completely.
truitt’s painstaking process of painting and sanding led to
sUrPrises in the reCent exhiBition at the hirshhorn included three drawings from 1962, flat black architectural sil- houettes on a white ground that anticipate by a decade richard serra’s similar drawings in charcoal and oil stick. Unexpected, too, was a series of paintings titled “arundel,” white-on-white, acrylic- on-canvas compositions with some graphite whose “conceptual” nature enraged some visitors—and a local critic who felt municipal money was being misspent—when they
from being an anarchic bohemian, she was married to a prominent journalist, had three children and didn’t even live in new York. her lifestyle was hardly as radical as her art.
the astonishing thing is not that truitt was the object of such criticism when she began to exhibit in the 1960s, or even when roberta smith characterized her as a “homespun perfectionist” in 1991,13 but that the attitude persists to this day. reviews of the hirshhorn exhibition in the Washington Post by Blake gopnik, who anthropomorphizes her sculptures into comical characters (“i think of that one over there as Big Dave stanford, dressed in a showy red suit . . .”),14 and Mark Berman, whose piece was titled “a Dutiful Wife Who sculpted her own identity,”15 are scathing and, there is no other word for it, sexist.
even curator kristen hileman reflects this bias in the exhibition cata- logue. in spite of the fact that truitt said, “i generally feel uncomfort- able with any personalizing of art criticism, and doubly uncomfortable because it is particularly common, and subtly condescending, in criticism addressed to the art of women,”16 hileman chose to write the entire essay from the perspective of close biographical interpre- tation. For example, she notes of First that
the unexpected heights of the sculpture’s pickets, one tall and two shorter, expand the work from the concept of boundaries to a depiction of three joined but distinct entities, perhaps not without parallels in the relation- ships among truitt and her two siblings.17
admittedly, truitt inadvertently gave fodder to all of this because she was also an innovator in another way: few other prominent sculptors or painters have left such an intelligent and detailed account of what it means to be an artist on a very per- sonal level, addressing issues from the esthetic to the quotid-
were exhibited at the Baltimore Museum of art in 1975. (the series began in 1973 and continued for more than 25 years.)
But then truitt has never been a stranger to controversy; over the years the artist and her work have elicited strong reactions pro and con. While greenberg and, more recently, Meyer have strongly endorsed
her prominent place in contemporary art history, truitt has been subject to more than her share of belittling gender-biased salvos, both overt and covert, beginning with an attack by Judd, who wrote, in Art International in 1963, “if the queen had balls, she would be king.”10 the caption to a photograph of the artist by lord snow- don that accompanied an article written by greenberg about truitt in Vogue described her as “the gentle wife of James truitt.”11 she herself wrote, “i have to guard against allowing myself to be defined, either by myself or others, in traditional, sociological terms. the nub of my discomfort is a feel- ing more or less conscious that it is unbe- coming for a woman to feel broad-scoped ambition at all, much less to try to achieve it.”12 to further complicate things, truitt
did not fit the picture of a typical artist. Far
1 Anne Truitt, Prospect, New York, Scribner, 1996,
“Anne Truitt: Perception and Reflection,” curated by Kristen Hileman, appeared at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C. [Oct. 8, 2009-Jan. 3, 2010]. It was accompanied by a cata- logue with essays by Hileman and James Meyer.
ian and covering the making of artworks and tending of children with equal emphasis. While for some it may all just be too much information, this is exactly what has made her books so popular.
in his 1968 Vogue article, greenberg stressed truitt’s dis- tance from the then key social scene at Max’s kansas City, saying, “she certainly does not ‘belong.’ But then how could a housewife, with three small chil- dren, living in Washington belong? how could such a person fit
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View, 1999, acrylic on wood, 81 by 8 by 8 inches. Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery.
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