Simply Truitt


Local Artist’s Minimalist Forms Belied Expansive Vision

At first glance, Anne Truitt’s minimalist art seems not only minimal but simplistic. Lots of common shapes — mostly three-dimensional rectangular sculptures — and seemingly basic palettes.

But look a little closer. Walk around the pieces. When you do, an unmistakable complexity emerges, whether it’s a new shade of color that appears in the museum’s light or a realization that the form morphs slightly from different angles.

Truitt’s work gets a loving tribute in “Anne Truitt: Perception and Reflection,” an expansive and intelligent retrospective at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden — the first for this pioneering figure in the development of American abstract art.

Truitt, a native of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, was not only an artist but an acclaimed writer. In fact, she didn’t take up art until she was 40, which makes her seem all the more prolific in retrospect. She taught art at the University of Maryland in College Park for many years and served as interim president of the artists’ colony Yaddo, as well.

The exhibition follows a loose chronology of her career, from the early abstract pieces to those assembled just before her death at age 83 in 2004. Without knowing her history, it might be difficult to decipher the meaning of her work. But in the Hirshhorn’s able hands, we learn that her early wood and acrylic sculptures — such as “First,” “Southern Elegy” and “Watauga,” each created between 1961 and 1962 — reflect the environment and topography of her Eastern Shore childhood home.

“First” is particularly interesting, not only because it was literally her first official piece of art, but because of the contradictory image it presents. A white picket fence — the very embodiment of order — is presented without the typical uniformity. The slats, while level at the bottom, are of different heights and widths. One might speculate that the individual nature of the pickets could relate to human dynamics — that while we are all basically the same, we are also all quite different.

In the mid-1960s, Truitt moved to Tokyo for a couple of years and sculpted on a regular basis, but when she returned to the United States a few years later she destroyed all of the pieces, declaring them “lifeless.” Visitors to the exhibition, however, can still get a sense of her Tokyo creations from a series of works on paper that demonstrate the shapes and brightly colored angular forms she used during that period.

After her return to the States, Truitt began to solidify her style — monochromatic schemes capped by a band of color or anchored at the base with a horizontal band of color.

“First Requiem” — a pink piece with a black stripe running up it — is a good example of what Truitt called counter-pointing. It’s an interesting dynamic in which the three-dimensional form and the painted composition don’t line up. It encourages the viewer to walk around the piece and engage it.

“Stand in a corner and observe instead of just straight ahead,” suggests exhibition curator Kristen Hileman. “It provides another interesting vantage point.”

Truitt, a remarkable academic and artist, spent a lifetime creating interesting and illuminating vantage points. This Hirshhorn’s retrospective does her vision justice.

About the Author

Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.