Grand Allusion: James Meyer Talks with Anne Truitt

Article excerpt

ANNE TRUITT'S HOUSE IN WASHINGTON, DC, SITS ON A HILL above the city. A typically Mid-Atlantic dwelling of a certain vintage--shingled, with a porch and pale blue shutters--it is easy to miss. The artist's studio in the backyard resembles one of those fishing shacks that dot the coast of New England, quite the opposite of the grandiose compounds and lofts that have become the self-conscious markers of artistic success. John Russell recently wrote in the New York Times that Truitt's work "never calls out for our attention." I'm not sure I agree--some of her sculpture is quite imposing--but the observation would serve aptly as a description of Truitt's home, and of the artist herself.

Truitt is one of the few significant artists of her generation who continue to work. Born Anne Dean eighty-one years ago and raised in Easton, Maryland, and Asheville, North Carolina, she is old enough to remember the slow, plodding sound of horse-drawn ice wagons and the horror of segregation and local lynchings (one allusion of her eerie 1962 Southern Elegy). At Bryn Mawr she studied psychology in her quest to become a therapist. During World War II she worked as a Red Cross nurse's aide in the psychiatric ward at Massachusetts General Hospital, where she treated soldiers suffering from battle fatigue. The trauma Truitt witnessed impelled her to change course and enroll in art school. Marriage to the journalist James Truitt and motherhood did not preclude the quiet cultivation of her work (she made sculpture and drawings in the '50s). In 1955 she published a translation of Germaine Bree's Marcel Proust and Deliverance from Time, a study of her favorite author. In 1963, at forty-one, Truitt had her first sho w, at Andre Emmerich Gallery in New York--a remarkable debut that stands as one of the earliest exhibitions of Minimal-type sculpture.

Truitt has been the subject of retrospectives at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Baltimore Museum of Art, and the Corcoran Gallery of Art; forthcoming projects include Ann Goldstein's group show at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, "A Minimal Future?" and a solo exhibition at the Sheldon Art Gallery in Lincoln, Nebraska, next year. Still, after four decades, Truitt's art is not easy to place. Championed early on by Clement Greenberg, she emerged as a central figure in the Washington Color Field group, a sculptural counterpart to Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis; yet her spare geometric forms more closely resembled the objects of then emerging artists Donald Judd and Robert Morris. Selected for such canonical Minimal shows as "Black, White and Gray" (1964) and "Primary Structures" (1966), Truitt was identified as a Minimalist, yet her hand-painted surfaces, instinctive color, and retention of allusion countered that tendency's literalist impulse, best summarized by Frank Stella's tautological maxim "What you see is what you see." Truitt's titles--Sea Garden, Catawba, A Wall for Apricots--suggest on the contrary a practice that points beyond its material substance toward an opaque yet constitutive subject matter.

When I knocked on Truitt's door some years ago as I was researching the history of Minimalism, I did not know what to expect. After being asked to wait in Marfa for two days before being presented to Donald Judd and having Dan Flavin cancel his interview with me countless times, I was relieved when Truitt received me without the slightest fuss. Our first meeting lasted several days. I was intrigued, yet you could say I was also a bit skeptical at first. After all, it was common knowledge that Greenberg had been "wrong" about the '60s--wrong about Minimalism and Pop, which he dismissed. The inexorable march of art history finally marched against him. Truitt was the artist he'd praised at the expense of Judd; he called her work a happy antidote to unfeeling Minimalism. That Truitt was female--with Helen Frankenthaler, she was one of the only women admitted into Greenberg's canon--made her role more complex. …