American Sculptor and Painter
Summary of Anne Truitt
In the wake of Abstract Expressionism during the Cold War, Anne Truitt created complex, subtly nuanced sculptures that belie their simplicity. Known for her hand-painted columnar sculptures, Truitt explored the realms of her emotional and psychological life with the most minimal of means. Interested in how we walk through and inhabit the physical world, Truitt's sculpture induces an embodied, and not simply an optical, response from the viewer.
While Truitt gained acclaim in the 1960s as one of the earliest Minimalists and was briefly championed by the art critic Clement Greenberg, she remained distant from the New York art scene and spent decades balancing her artistic practice with raising a family. Feeling apart from current artistic trends, Truitt's art and her process would be influential for younger artists interested in the poetics of form and material such as Roni Horn and Rachel Whiteread.
- Truitt's sculptures are resolutely abstract and seemingly non-narrative, but each is steeped in Truitt's own biography: her memories growing up, her time in Japan, and her home in Washington, D.C. The subtle juxtapositions of color and form create emotional resonances with her own memories of certain events and times.
- Often cast as a Minimalist, Truitt, much like the painter Agnes Martin, had more affinities with the earlier movement of Abstract Expressionism than with her contemporaries. Her art was suffused with emotion, and she wished to engage the viewer on a bodily level in order to elicit the viewer's emotional response.
- While Truitt's sculptures stylistically resemble work being done by Minimalist artists like Donald Judd and Carl Andre as well as Washington Color School artists such as Kenneth Noland and Gene Davis, Truitt's artistic intentions were often diametrically opposed to theirs. While many of the Minimalists had their works fabricated by others, Truitt constructed and painted all of her own sculptures. Her personal involvement as well as the personal meanings that imbue her work put her at odds with the more cerebral, conceptual, and anonymous art of the Minimalists. Additionally, her interest in the viewer's physical relation with the work of art contrasted with the Washington Color School's interest in pure opticality.
Progression of Art
Three slender, peaked white planks point upwards to the sky, joined together at the back by two horizontal bands and standing on a thin plinth. At first glance, the work resembles a section of suburban garden fence, but on closer examination the three posts reveal subtle variations from one another in height, width and point shape, giving them a fragile, almost human quality. The central pillar is taller than the two on either side, and the upper horizontal beam resembles outstretched arms holding them together into a tight group, perhaps a reference to the experience of Truitt and her younger twin sisters during their childhood.
As referenced in the work's title, this sculpture was the first Truitt made in a new, pared down abstract style. After a revelatory trip to New York City in 1961, Truitt made a dramatic change in her art practice. She recalled, "I saw Ad Reinhardt's black canvases...then I...saw the paintings of Barnett Newman. I looked at them, and from that point on I was home free. I had never realised you could do it in art. Have enough space. Enough color."
These early sculptures made allusions to her own experiences in the world, resembling the picket fences, tomb stones and clapboard houses in the coastal town of Easton where she grew up. This marriage between minimal geometry and personal experience came to characterise all of Truitt's work even as her sculptures became increasingly abstract, lending her practice an individuality that would prove hugely influential.
Acrylic on wood - Baltimore Museum of Art
An angular form, resembling a rocky outcrop in a barren landscape, spreads across the floor in earthy shades of green, beige, and navy. Truitt carefully choreographed the relationship between the sculpture's color and form to suggest balance, stillness, and the subtlest suggestion of movement, akin to the lull of lapping water.
Truitt made this sculpture after moving to Japan with her family. Although they only stayed for three years to follow her husband's work, Truitt found the experience unsettling, admitting she never felt grounded or at home amidst the unfamiliar surroundings. This disjointed feeling of unease was reflected in the drawings and sculptures she made during this time, which juxtapose sharp, jagged angles and irregular shapes. In the publication Anne Truitt in Japan art historian Anna Lovatt wrote, "[T]he temporal disjunctions of the Japanese works - the unexpected jolts and ruptures that confront anyone who circumvents them - speak at once to Tokyo's startling juxtapositions of old and new and the jarring sense of anachronism that Edward Said has identified with the condition of 'exile,' a word the artist herself used to describe her experiences of Japan."
During her time in Japan Truitt made a departure from wood, choosing instead to work with aluminium in which she discovered a lightness and flexibility that allowed for greater experimentation. Three years later, on returning to America, Truitt destroyed much of the work she made during this three year sojourn and returned to working with wood, yet as Lovatt points out, her largely negative experiences in Japan were part of a "process of discovery" which allowed her to experiment and fail, or as Truitt herself put it, "If I had not gone to Japan, I would not know anything. I would not know what is what."
Marine paint on aluminum - Private Collection
A Wall for Apricots
This tall, elegant tower contains three bands of vivid color stacked on top of one another. The work is deceptively simple, with closer inspection revealing a delicate balance between colors and shapes that invokes order, harmony, and stillness. The rich, ochre yellow brings warmth into the adjoining green, while the white on top suggests the blinding light of summer sun. Truitt's column stands almost 6 feet tall, indicative of its human scale.
Truitt made A Wall for Apricots upon her return to the U.S. from Japan, and she has often spoken of the relief she felt on returning to Washington, to the familiar "latitude and longitude" of her home country. Truitt's color range expanded and became more vivid, which writer Ken Johnston described in the New York Times as "exquisitely nuanced, whether tending to eye strainingly dark combinations...to pale Impressionist pastels or to Pop-like candy bright hues." Johnston points out the multiple references Truitt collapses together into her columnar sculptures, including ancient steles or tombstones and science fiction monoliths. Her upright work also resembles the stance of the human body, yet she creates a sense of weightlessness with a recessed plinth, making it appearas if the work is hovering just above the floor. The sensitive, human quality of her sculptures set her apart from many of her Minimalist contemporaries and proved hugely influential on Post-minimalist artists such as Roni Horn, who combines poetic subject matter with geometric forms.
Acrylic on wood - Baltimore Museum of Art
This expansive canvas is a sea of umber red, while vertical bands suggest slim slivers of light shining through. Their varying widths and intensities suggest depth and space beyond the monochrome surface of the painting. Truitt is best known for her sculptures, prompting writer Lance Esplund to describe her as "a painter working in three dimensions," yet she also made countless drawings on paper and a number of paintings on canvas, exploring the same geometric abstraction and emotive color used in her sculptures.
In the early 1960s, she was profoundly influenced by American abstract painters including the Color Field paintings of Ad Reinhardt and Barnett Newman. Here one can see many formal similarities with Newman's famous "zip" paintings, with both artists exploring the ways a monochrome canvas can be intersected with thin vertical bands of color. Additionally, Truitt shared many ideas with Newman, including a fascination with the simplicity of ancient, geometric forms, which they felt had a greater connection to the raw human spirit, as well as an awareness of the verticality of the human body, and its inherent relationship to a work of art. But in contrast with Newman, Truitt was more concerned with the emotional, expressive properties embedded in color, not just the spiritual implications that most interested Newman, and importantly for Truitt, color and line held deeply resonant associations with her own memories and past experiences, particularly the unique light, land, and seascapes of her childhood.
Throughout the 1960s and '70s Truitt became a leading figure in the Washington Color School, whose work was defined by flat, solid areas of vibrant color, and influenced a new generation of artists, including Barbara Januszkiewicz and Katherine Tzu-Lan Mann.
Acrylic on canvas
Truitt painted a slim, columnar shape with delicate bands of white, pale blue, and a sliver of green, suggesting the light and air of the ocean and surrounding grasslands. The title of this work also alludes to landscape, hinting at gentle movement and energy. Many of Truitt's sculptures at this time were set on recessed bases so they seem to levitate off the floor, suggesting weightless color, creating a tension with the solidity of the sculpture's form.
Although the work has a Minimalist quality, Truitt was often at pains to point out the real world associations in her work, saying that her work was "totally referential. I've struggled all my life to get maximum meaning in the simplest possible form." Landscape was a recurring reference for Truitt, often hinted at through oblique relationships between light, color, shape, form, and poetic titles. Writer John Dorsey points out, "[I]f one could unwrap the color and put it flat on the wall, the verticals and horizontals of landscape would become even more obvious." Truitt grew up in the coastal town of Easton and her sculptures often made references to this place. In her published journal Daybook (1982) she wrote of her childhood home, "[T]he doors were kept open all through the house to catch a breeze."
Acrylic on wood
A warm red square sits on an elevated base like a floating block of pure color. In contrast with Truitt's earlier slender columns, which often suggested a breezy, airy quality, this sculpture has weight and density, suggesting an enduring sense of permanence. Truitt made this sculpture when she was 82, just a year before she died, and its solidity reveals her tenacity, strength, and determination to continue making art.
The shape of this work resembles a painting hung on the wall, yet it floats in space as a free-standing object, forming a solid block of what writer Ken Johnston called "pure, dematerialised color." The shape and scale of Truitt's sculptures often made reference to the human body, and here the red recalls the warmth and life of blood as the driving force that keeps us going, as well as suggesting the bloodlines that continue through family, which was a hugely important part of Truitt's life. She placed great significance on color as a potent carrier of emotion, memory, and experience, and here she distills her life experiences into a single monochromatic unity, encapsulating her ideas with a graceful and concise simplicity.
Acrylic on wood - col
Biography of Anne Truitt
Born Anne Dean in Baltimore, Anne Truitt grew up in the scenic town of Easton in Maryland. As a happy, sprightly child, Truitt and her two younger twin sisters flourished in an affluent household under her mother's maxim: "Children should be brought up like cabbages - with lots of sun and space and let alone to grow." Roaming around the local streets with a sense of wonder and discovery, Truitt later remembered, "[A]nd so it was with the little town of Easton...an orderly scattering of houses, mostly white clapboard, so small that even on my short legs I was able to encompass the town's dimensions."
Truitt struggled with near-sighted vision that her parents did not discover until she was in the fifth grade, and she felt that her poor vision shaped her distinctive way of viewing the world, recalling, "I lived in a world composed of light and color and shape, which I did not see, but which I had to intuit...." As an adult, she linked these experiences with her highly sensitive awareness of color, saying, "[B]ecause I couldn't see, I was forced to develop my kinaesthetic sense to what may perhaps be an unusual acuity."
At school she was not taught art, remembering, "The only art I can remember in my childhood was in Sunday school, where they gave us...these horrible pictures of Christ and... we were given crayons and told to fill in the outline." Visits to her Aunt Nancy's farm were more enlightening, where she helped to make soap, can peaches, and separate milk, learning, in her words, "how to use my hands."
When Truitt turned 12, the Great Depression depleted the family's income, and both her parents' health declined. Her father struggled with alcoholism and depression, and her mother, with whom Truitt was very close, was diagnosed with what was then called neurasthenia, a condition noted for fatigue and anxiety. As a result, Anne often had to fend for herself and her younger sisters.
Two years later, the family moved to Asheville, North Carolina, where her father was treated for his alcoholism, but the Eastern shore stayed with Truitt as she matured. On returning as an adult to her childhood home, Truitt found she was unable to reconcile her memories of the past with her experiences in the present, writing, "I go back and yet I cannot go back. Time has locked it all away from me as if I had died. I am irredeemably thrust into my own mind, and there I find it all, in weight and lines and colours distinctively my own."
Early Training and Work
At the age of 17, Truitt entered Bryn Mawr College to study psychology and earned a Bachelor's degree. While studying, she came down with a major case of appendicitis from which she almost died. Her doctors at the time wrongly diagnosed her as infertile, which she later cited as a reason for focusing on an art career as a young woman, unaware that she would go on to have three children. Several years later, when Truitt was in her 20s, her mother died of a brain tumour. As a mature adult, Truitt described these painful life experiences as "the ground out of which art grows," embedding them into her deeply contemplative artworks.
On graduating in 1943 with a thesis exploring the subject of ego strength, Truitt declined the offer to join the psychology doctoral program at Yale University, choosing instead to pursue hands-on roles to help people in need. Throughout the Second World War Truitt worked at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, during the day as a research assistant in the psychiatric laboratory and at night serving the wards as a Red Cross Nurse's aide, tending to wounded, traumatized soldiers. She wrote, "I was steeped in pain during those war years when we had combat fatigue patients in the psychiatric laboratory by day, and I had anguished patients under my hands by night...."
As an escape from the challenges she faced, Truitt immersed herself in literature and poetry, reading D.H. Lawrence, Henry James, T.S. Elliot, Dylan Thomas, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf, and began writing her own poems and short stories. The magnetic pull towards the arts became stronger as Truitt admitted, "I had begun to see that my natural sympathies lay with people who are unusual rather than usual." Truitt quit her psychiatric work at the age of 24, feeling strongly compelled to be an artist.
In 1947, Anne married the journalist James Truitt, and the pair eventually moved to Washington, where they became part of an elite social circle of government officials and journalists, including CIA official Cord Meyer and his wife, the painter Mary Pinchot Meyer, with whom Truitt later shared a studio. Truitt, however, felt somewhat distant and removed from a society cloaked in secrecy, saying, "I was floating around in that world ... I didn't pay attention to what was going on...much was secret. People were covert."
At this time, Truitt began to attend art classes, including a sculpture course at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Washington taught by Alexander Giampetro. When her husband became the vice president of the Washington Post newspaper, Truitt became increasingly involved in the arts, and over the years entertained such guests as Marcel Duchamp, Clement Greenberg, Isamu Noguchi, Hans Richter, and Dylan Thomas in their Georgetown home. Truitt had three children in the 1950s and early 1960s and continued to make art while raising her family.
A turning point came in 1961 when Truitt visited New York with Mary Meyer and encountered New York's abstract art face-to-face for the first time in the exhibition American Abstract Expressionists and Imagists at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. She was completely taken in by the scale and color of the work she encountered, particularly Ad Reinhardt's Color Field paintings and Barnett Newman's famous "zip" canvases, saying, "The works reversed my whole way of thinking about how to make art." The effect the work had on her was profound, as she remembered, "I was so excited that night in New York that I scarcely slept. I saw too that I had the freedom to make whatever I chose."
In the same year, she first began to make sculptures in the style that would come to define her career, producing simplified wood sculptures that resembled picket fences and tombstones. Although the work was abstract, it was also filled with references to Truitt's life experiences through oblique links to landscapes and family, as she explained, "[T]he 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, winding tidewaters around Easton." The work she made gradually shifted towards vertical wooden columns and towers, layered in dense, carefully applied layers of paint, with subtle shifts in color and tone.
During this time Truitt's friend, the Washington Color School painter Kenneth Noland, invited the art critic Clement Greenberg to see her new work. Greenberg was so impressed that he recommended Truitt to his friend, the dealer Andre Emmerich, who gave Truitt her first solo show at his 57th Street Gallery in 1963. Although she soon became associated with the dominant trend of Minimalism, Truitt always saw her work existing on the periphery of such ideas, saying, "I have never allowed myself, in my own hearing, to be called a Minimalist. Because Minimalist art is characterised by nonreferentiality. And that's not what I am characterised by. [My work] is totally referential. I've struggled all my life to get maximum meaning in the simplest possible form."
The Truitt family moved to Japan in 1964 to follow James' work and stayed for three years. Anne later confessed that she never felt at home in Japan, and though she continued to make sculptures, she later destroyed much of the work she made while living there. The family returned to Washington, but in 1969 James and Anne divorced, leaving Anne to raise their three children alone. Truitt described her struggles to balance making art alongside family life as living a double life, saying, "I worked between carpools and buying food and cooking and whatever else I had to do. I lived an outside life, but really I was living an inside life."
She chose to remain in Washington, supporting herself with teaching at the University of Maryland, where she brought her interests in history, literature, and philosophy to her classes and became a hugely popular professor, continuing to teach for the next 21 years.
Truitt's artistic career continued to flourish in the 1970s, as she expanded into painting and work on paper, culminating in several retrospectives at major American museums. By this stage she had emerged as a central figure in the Washington Color School along with the painters Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis. Truitt began to chronicle her experiences as an artist and a mother in a diary during this time, integrating her interest in psychology with her thoughts about her art practice, and later published these musings as Daybook in 1984. Following its success, she produced two more volumes in the same decade. On juggling motherhood and an arts career, she said in an interview, "It's extremely difficult and you have to make sacrifices.... You can't have it all. You can't. In a way, you can't have much of a personality or anything because everything has to go into your work."
In the 1980s, Truitt developed a connection with Yaddo, a storied artists' colony in Saragota Springs, New York, later becoming its acting director in 1984, where she befriended photographer John Gossage.
Truitt died in Washington in 2004 at the age of 83. Reflecting on the place she was living in near the end of her life she wrote, "The light is wonderful in Washington. I have a lifetime of friends here. It's the latitude and longitude I was born on." She was honoured posthumously by the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington in 2009, and her estate is represented by Matthew Marks Gallery in New York.
The Legacy of Anne Truitt
Anne Truitt is recognized as a leading figure of the Washington Color School along with a predominantly male-centred group of artists who made geometric art infused with resonant, vibrating color relationships. Truitt was also championed by Clement Greenberg as a pioneer of the Minimalist style that arose in New York in the following decades as practiced by Sol LeWitt, Donald Judd, and Dan Flavin. Greenberg stated, "If any one artist started or anticipated Minimal Art, it was she."
Despite these connections with the Washington Color School and Minimalism, her work held a deeper connection to the Abstract Expressionists, who also imbedded emotional experiences into their art. Truitt explained, "I think...the artists who became Minimalists took off from the look of my work, but missed the point of it - that point being the delicate fulcrum between the gravitas of discipline in the form and the intensity of the emotion in the color." Her work's deeper connection to the physical and perceptual properties of the human body were hugely influential on the next generation of Post-minimalist artists working in a broad range of styles throughout the following decades and who were intent on investing greater cerebral content into Minimalist forms, including the poetic, intellectually engaged sculptures of Roni Horn, the powerful, socially aware installations of Felix Gonzalez-Torres, and Rachel Whiteread's sculptural casts of intimate and monumental everyday objects.