Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C.
October 8, 2009 – January 3, 2010
Forty-one-year-old Anne Truitt had worked for about ten years as a figurative, expressionist sculptor in eclectic media when, in 1961, she had her first encounter with the paintings of Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhardt. From that point on she focused on painted wood sculpture, attempting to make three-dimensional her experience of color from her earlier paintings.
The first wood sculpture she made—confidently titled “First” (1961); she had changed directions irrevocably and she knew it—was not as resolutely abstract as either Reinhardt or Newman and a good deal quirkier than either one of them. Three white vertical slats rooted in a blocky wooden “ground,” each coming to a point and bracketed to each other at the rear, the sculpture looks like a fragment of a picket fence (nearly 50 years later, its surface is even somewhat weathered). But while it is fence-like, it is not so perfect so as to spark a Johnsian “is it a fence or is it a sculpture?” moment. “First” is definitely a sculpture. For one thing, it utterly lacks function: a map always maps, but at about two feet wide, “First” doesn’t fence. And if it were a fence, it would seem rather haphazardly constructed: the three slats aren’t the same width or height, and the points come to funky, irregular angles that belie the neatness and order for which white picket fences are ordinarily made to stand. As a sculpture, though, “First” is quite well-constructed: later, Truitt would always leave her carpentry to professionals so that she might focus on painting the surfaces, but she built this one-off pretty seamlessly. The sculpture seems to declare an attitude toward white picket fences—to put a spin on the idea of them. It’s not an aspirational attitude, nor a normative one (Robert Frost probably wouldn’t find this a good enough fence to make good neighbors). The spin is personal, but not especially emotive. Truitt wrote that the sculpture recalled the Eastern Shore of Maryland—the region in which she grew up—though her explanation only went so deep as to embed the sculpture in a general landscape of childhood memory. This kind of controlled association runs throughout her work, even after it became more abstract beginning in 1962.
The writing on Truitt has largely situated her behind a more clichéd white picket fence: she has often been characterized as housewife first, artist second. Clement Greenberg championed her work in the early 60s (later in the decade she went in directions of which he didn’t approve), but condescension showed through his support: “gentle wife of James Truitt” that she was, she could not possibly bear the fatal flaw of 60s art, a taste for the far-out; her work was good precisely because she knew her own, specifically feminine, limits. The Hirshhorn exhibition and accompanying catalog present her much more seriously than that, but hints of Greenberg’s attitude reappear throughout the writing on the show. A Washington Post profile called “A Dutiful Wife Who Sculpted Her Own Identity” suggests that art was something Truitt did “in her spare time”; the paper’s review trades the image of housewife for that of frothy society hostess and describes her work as “gloriously passive-aggressive” and “girlish.” This is all much too easy. Truitt used pastels sometimes; so did de Kooning. She also used a lot of black, and murky greens and browns. And while she makes clear in published journals such as Daybook (1974) that she put the needs of her family first, she also describes an intense studio discipline that would prompt most people today to describe her as a working mother, not a housewife with an art habit on the side. After her divorce in 1971, in fact, she was not a wife at all—and along with a small inheritance that provided a helpful but inadequate base, art was her primary means of supporting herself and her three children. Truitt was a serious artist.
Sexism isn’t the only reason she hasn’t always been taken that way. When she came on the scene—she lived in Washington, D.C., but exhibited in New York—minimalism set the intellectual bar. Her work bears some superficial resemblance to minimalism, but it has different intellectual stakes. Minimalist artists, however much they may have differed on other fronts, aimed to a man for absolute self-evidence; Truitt wanted depth and dimensionality. She often painted and sanded her sculpture repeatedly, applying as many as 30 or 40 coats, creating a surface both smooth and deeply saturated, and resulting in a very handmade look. Truitt’s work was also much too optical for many of her contemporaries: red seen face-on is not the same red seen at a receding angle, even if they are composed of the same pigments, and Truitt deliberately plays these perceptual differences off of each other. While the ideal minimalist object is “just one thing” (Judd) or takes “the relationships out of the work and makes them a function of light, space, and the viewer's field of vision” (Morris), internal relations are very important in Truitt. In works like “First Requiem,” colors bend around corners, half-merging planes that are distinct in their orientation and different in their appearances. Following these movements involves memory of what’s just disappeared around the corner, anticipation, and often thwarted expectations—qualities that Truitt, a fiction writer before she turned to sculpture, rightly described as “narrative.”
From 1962 on, Truitt made a great many columns—a form that is, tellingly, anthropomorphic at a remove: an anthropomorphic invention to support buildings designed for veneration of the anthropomorphized form. There’s not much worship in Truitt, but she has said that working with the line of gravity is the whole point of sculpture for her, and there is a definite thrill in the vertical. Nearly all of her sculptures sit on quarter-inch risers that are invisible unless you press your nose to the ground; as a result the sculptures’ lengths seem to hover above the ground. Over the years her use of color grew increasingly intense and varied, but whether her columns are composed of a wild mix of brights or a soft palette of pastels the overall sense tends to be one of lightness and lift.
This is basically a memorial exhibition (Truitt passed away in 2004). The Hirshhorn is its only venue, which is doubly unfortunate. Truitt often wrote about how no light complemented her sense of color so well as Washington’s —but better to see the works in any region’s natural light than in this dim, bureaucratic airlessness. And while Truitt’s minimalist contemporaries may have felt that her work didn’t speak much to theirs, that seems less likely to be true of artists working today, when so many artists are revisiting minimalism and high modernism but working to give it a more personal spin.
Anne Byrd is a visual artist based in Houston, TX.