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Tribute, by Anne Truitt (Photo courtesy of Anne Truitt)

More thoughts about Anne Truitt, mostly through commentary by others:

Her son-in-law, art critic Charlie Finch, wrote an essay about Truitt that brings her work and her persona closer together. He begins the essay by describing Truitt as “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.'” But he puts her detachment into perspective, and his insights into her work are memorable.

From his article on Artnet:

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. Precisely because she worked so intensively and personally on her sculptures, Anne was dismissed by Minimalists such as Donald Judd for being too subjective (and, of course, too female) to create true “specific objects.” Anne was deeply respectful of her dealer, Andre Emmerich, who criminally ignored her for a long time, giving her the occasional show, but little practical assistance.

In the studio, Anne was painstaking to a fault, finding the right piece of wood, sanding it for months to the point where it could properly absorb and reflect her chosen color and then applying layer upon layer of paint in order, counterintuitively, to achieve maximum transparency. The tiny bands of color at the base of her sculptures, which were subsequently borrowed by Haim Steinbach for his marvelous series of black paintings, were a clue to their meaning. There are two interpretive elements to Truitt’s sculpture, a forbidding armor which blocks out the viewer at first glance and then a slowly revealed intimacy which invites further discovery.

Another commentary on her work was written by Peter Plagens in response to a show of Truitt’s work in Baltimore in 1992.

Truitt’s work is deceptively simple. Take “Autumn Dryad” (1975), for instance. It’s a boxy wooden column, a little taller than most people, painted entirely orange except for a grayish mauve brand around the bottom. At first glance, it seems like a design fillip for a Scandinavian airport lobby. But as you continue to look at it (and you cannot help but look at it), you notice that the acrylic paint has been lovingly applied in untold coats. Simultaneously, the sculpture looks like it’s solid color, like butter is yellow all the way through. The piece makes your mouth water (which is, by the way, the test of all good abstract art). “Autumn Dryad” is visceral-as opposed to conceptual-minimalism. As Truitt puts it, “Everything is written on the body. Your experience stains your body like color dyes a canvas. [That’s why] the paint sinks into the wood. It marries the wood.” In almost all the works on view, the bride and groom indeed live happily ever after.

Additionally, my response to her most recent show at the Hirshhorn Museum can be read here.)

A scanning electron microscope image of a nerve ending. It has been broken open to reveal vesicles (orange and blue) containing chemicals used to pass messages in the nervous system. (Photo: Tina Carvalho)

Sally Reed, friend and artist, left the following quote from Anne Truitt’s Daybook as a comment to the posting below. It is such a powerful concept I couldn’t leave it buried:

The most demanding part of living a lifetime as an artist is the strict discipline of forcing oneself to work steadfastly along the nerve of one’s own intimate sensitivity.

That wise and sober counsel is coupled with another sentence that stopped me in my tracks. This came to me by way of Lisa who is friend, poet and fellow traveler into the deeper folds of Elizabeth Bishop’s life and work. Bishop’s biographer Brett C. Millier (Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It) identifies what he considers “may have been the most important single piece of criticism Elizabeth ever received” when Marianne Moore questioned her young protégé about the aesthetic problem of “depth”:

I can’t help wishing you would sometime in some way, risk some unprotected profundity of experience.

One interpretation of this advice is contextual: In the 1930s, Moore was advocating that Bishop turn to the moral and metaphysical Christian critique that was being explored by the philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr. That wasn’t the path that Bishop ended up taking for a number of reasons. But the admonishment as it stands has a powerful call to action. Moore’s phrase, “risk some unprotected profundity of experience” is enough to fill the rest of my day with its implications.

Thanks Sally and Lisa.

Installation view of “Anne Truitt: Perception and Reflection,” at the Hirshhorn Museum (Photo: Lee Stalsworth)

I have been a fan of sculptor Anne Truitt’s writing since I read her book Daybook many years ago. First published in 1982, Daybook is Truitt’s personal journal while working at Yaddo, and her insights into the squirrely nature of the creative process spoke to me. Her style is nonlinear and yet insightful, personal and yet not too. When the book came out all those many years ago, there weren’t a lot of witnessings available of how women artists were navigating that behind-the-scenes art making life. There are lots of them now.

Truitt went on to write a few other similarly styled books, like Turn and Prospect. But none had as powerful an impact on me as that initial exposure so many years ago.

Her sculpture was harder for me to connect with. A Truitt was always easy to spot because almost every piece in a public collection is a slender wooden column painted with care and artfulness. Most collections have one. I liked her essential idea—a minimalist, Supremacist project that combines 3D and a feathery fine-tuned sense of color—but my “in the flesh” experience of the work just never held me in awe.

But that all changed when I visited Truitt’s retrospective, “Anne Truitt: Perception and Reflection” at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC. This is her first major show since the 1970s and includes both paintings and sculpture from her 50 year career. (Truitt died in 2004.) In the literature that accompanies the show (curated by Kristen Hileman), the column sculptures are referred to as Truitt’s “profoundly focused practice. Acting as a painter as well as a sculptor, the artist wrapped color around the corners of these sculptures, creating visually poetic relationships between structure and surface. Throughout her work, she investigated proportion, scale and color, as well as perception and memory.” Profoundly focused practice is a perfect phrase. The work has a meditative, disciplined, higher state of mind quality to it.

This is work that needs to be seen with its full gaggle of siblings. Placeholder pieces, token Truitts, cannot do the job. This is not one-up work. It is a body of art that demands your complete and undivided attention. You need to be able to lift out of the gallery, out of the museum, out of this terrestrially bound existence so that you can levitate in and around these silent, slender plinths, listening for the hum of their ethereal subtlety.

Truitt was a color ecstacist, a superlative neologism that goes beyond the everyday concept of being an ecstatic. At one point she says that the columnar format dominated her efforts to “set color free in three dimensions for its own sake,” a pursuit she saw as “analogous to my feelings for the freedom of my own body and my own being, as if in some mysterious way I felt myself to be color.” That’s the language of spiritual ecstasy, of finding oneness with god. Which in Truitt’s case is the Polychroma itself.

In a video that accompanies the show, Truitt talks about her process of choosing colors. It is like listening to someone channeling in an altered state. I sat and listened to her rapture with a sense of awe and amazement. If you go, take the time to sit and hear what she is saying.

Talking about her extremely minimalist painting series called Arundel, Truitt had this to say:

In these paintings I set forth, to see for myself how they appear, what might be called the tips of my conceptual icebergs in that I put down so little of all that they refer to. I try in them to show forth the forces I feel to be a reality behind, and more interesting than, phenomena.

The reality behind and more interesting than phenomena. That nails it.


Balancing intuition against sensory information, and sensitivity to one’s self against pragmatic knowledge of the world, is not a stance unique to artists. The specialness of artists is the degree to which these precarious balances are crucial backups for their real endeavor. Their essential effort is to catapult themselves wholly, without holding back one bit, into a course of action without having any idea where they will end up. They are like riders who gallop into the night, eagerly leaning on their horse’s neck, peering into a blinding rain. And they have to do it over and over again. When they find that they have ridden and ridden – maybe for years, full tilt – in what is for them a mistaken direction, they must unearth within themselves some readiness to turn direction and gallop off again. They may spend a little time scraping off the mud, resting the horse, having a hot bath, laughing and sitting in candlelight with friends. But in the back of their minds they never forget that the dark, driving run is theirs to make again. They need their balances in order to support their risks. The more they develop an understanding of all their experiences – the more it is at their command – the more they carry with them into the whistling wind.

–Anne Truitt, from Daybook

This has been a quote I have paraphrased to others so many times that it became a litany. It struck me deeply the first time I read Truitt’s book 25 years ago. But you know how a story or a memory takes on a life of its own over time, and I recently realized I needed to reconnect with her original words to make sure I was remembering it properly.

So I began looking for my copy, lovingly marked and highlighted, amid the chaos of books that have been waiting in stacks for over 2 years to be properly ensconced in the new library we have been hoping to build. Using the space that was once the children’s playroom, the plan was to build floor to ceiling shelves designed by my son and arrange the volumes by topic, from art to poetry, ancient megaliths to mythology, fiction to food.

For a series of complex reasons, it has not yet happened. Meanwhile the only access to my books is the randomness of choosing a card from a deck. Sometimes it’s the two of clubs, sometimes a King. But rarely the book you really want or need.

So Whiskey River came to my rescue (once again) and posted the very passage I was looking to reread. Bless you WR for picking up my longing, something you have demonstrated an uncanny ability to do time and time again.

That little tirade of a detour aside (is my frustration too obvious?), I want to return to the passage by Truitt. Her image, “like riders who gallop into the night, eagerly leaning on their horse’s neck, peering into a blinding rain” cuts right into the piercing vulnerability of the lonely ride anyone who does their making all alone knows well.

And this line—“the more they develop an understanding of all their experiences – the more it is at their command – the more they carry with them into the whistling wind”—means more to me now than it ever did when I was younger and significantly less seasoned by the acidic marinade bath that is life. Whistling wind, indeed.