PRINT May 2002


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 Brée’s Marcel Proust and Deliverance from Time, a study of her favorite author. In 1963, at forty-one, Truitt had her first show, at André 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. Few artists have been so condescendingly gendered (who but Truitt has been described as a “gentle wife” or, more recently, a “grandmother with heart”?). The critical web around Truitt was dense, making her work difficult to see. As for Truitt herself: The conversations revealed a sensibility and intelligence as formidable as any I have encountered. Don’t let the ladylike demeanor fool you: Ferociously curious and extremely acute, more widely read than most academics I know, Truitt can leave one painfully aware of the gaps in one’s education. (I will not soon forget the embarrassment of admitting that I had only a dim awareness of the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins; to Truitt, he is an old friend.) One senses that this colleague of Greenberg and David Smith has seen it all—and never diverted from the course she set for herself several decades ago. She is, to use a hackneyed word, unique.


JAMES MEYER: Your debut show at André Emmerich, in 1963, was one of the first exhibitions of large-scale geometric sculpture. How did you come to make some of the earliest “Minimal” art?

ANNE TRUITT: The question implies that I did it on purpose, which is not true. What happened is that I began to see how I could make exactly what I wanted to make in a new way. It was a complete volte-face from my previous work. At the time I was making life-size figures of steel pipes with chicken wire and plastic and cloth. They were gothic figures and sort of bestial; I was also making casts of clay heads in very dark, colored cement, very ugly and very primitive. They had nothing to do with art in a way; they had to do with self-expression. In November 1961 I began to make the things I am making now.

JM: It all began with First, that modest little sculpture in the Baltimore Museum that resembles, but isn’t, a white picket fence.

AT: It went in a rather literal progression. I did First, which is a perfectly straight picket fence that I put together myself. And then I did Southern Elegy, which is a perfectly straight tombstone structure, and then Two, and made a jump: I realized that changes in color induced, or implied, changes in shape. That though color and structure retained individuality, they could join forces rather as independent melodies can combine into a harmonic whole. And that when I combined them in a particular way, they had a particular content—particular to me, that is, a meaning that was important to me. Once it had occurred to me that I could use color metaphorically for content, I realized that I could go ahead with new freedom. What I was doing dawned on me as the works got bigger: strange-looking objects that just stood there in the studio for almost a year, where no one came but me.

JM: Why were you dissatisfied with the figurative work?

AT: It was nowhere near broad or wide or deep or open enough. With abstraction you can go as far as you can go. But with the figure you are stuck because you’re dealing with actuality.

JM: What was it about these simple shapes and fields of color that was going to be the language of your work?

AT: I’m sorry, I just don’t think that way. It’s as if you’re asking me to put the cart in front of the horse when I have neither horse nor cart. I just thought, I must make these things.

JM: But why this form and that color to express a particular content?

AT: I never thought about it. The objects came in with their intrinsic subject matter—like baseballs thrown on a curve. I don’t know how to put it into words.

JM: Well, I’m suggesting the forms you used weren’t arbitrary. Your early work is mostly large, bulky shapes.

AT: I think you’d have to say that what I’ve been about is being alone in the world, looking around at it, and trying to absorb it, at first with extremely nearsighted eyes. I didn’t see a damn thing until I was in fifth grade. Nobody knew I couldn’t see. So when you talk about the big things that I made, I think what it may have been is this person going around through the world, either on her legs or on her bicycle, in a place confettied by large, anonymous structures—just big blocks of white or gray. I couldn’t see anything except these big blocks. And I had to go on smell and sound.

JM: And tactility.

AT: And tactility. It’s sort of a frightening way to grow up. I wandered around in a daze.

JM: You’ve said that you wanted to capture memory in a concrete form. Most of the artists who came to be called Minimalists purged their work of metaphor or subject matter. Some of the artists coming along in the ’90s, such as Roni Horn and Felix Gonzalez-Torres—

AT: I know their work.

JM: —embraced a Minimalist vocabulary in reaction to Minimalism’s desubjectivizing impulse. The cube and floor plane and modular repetition became a language for exploring personal content. In your work, the form was generated by the artist herself in order to contend with a particular subject matter. The relation of form and content is not imposed but inextricable. But what’s interesting, what makes your work hard to place within the Minimalist arena yet extremely relevant now, is that you devised the form with an expressive aim.

AT: Let’s not use the word devised, because I didn’t think. I did it intuitively.

JM: Whereas your peers came to a Minimalist vocabulary to purge their work of content and feeling.

AT: My idea was not to get rid of life but to keep it and to see what it is. But the only way I seem to be able to see what anything is, is to make it in another form, in the form in which it appears in my head. Then when I get it made I can look at it.

JM: When you had your first exhibition, at Emmerich, the work must have looked far out and strange.

AT: It was a strange distillation of a person’s life. The works were not devised and they were not art. I didn’t make them out of art. I’ve never understood people who made art out of art.

JM: What do you mean by “art”?

AT: You know. Something devised, something where people live to express themselves. I did that for twelve years—worked and worked and worked to make something on the outside that met and matched my inside.

JM: But I thought your work was expressive. You’ve mentioned that Hardcastle—one of your largest works, a tall black wall held up by red struts—alludes to a man who was run over by a train not far from your parents’ summer home. It was a horrible event from your childhood.

AT: No. This was about trying to objectify my life. It wasn’t about me myself. That was the whole virtue of it.

JM: How did Greenberg come to see your work? Was it through Kenneth Noland?

AT: Yes. First it was Ken, who told David Smith. David was the biggest, strongest supporter anybody could ever have.

JM: So they were the first two people to see your work?

AT: Yes; and then Clem. Clem said, “Now there will be three in Washington.”

JM: You, Noland, and Morris Louis, presumably. In his essay on Minimalism, “Recentness of Sculpture” (1967), Greenberg talks about how difficult your work was for him initially, how he had to go back again until he finally “saw” it. Yet you’ve said he was impressed right away.

AT: Right away. There was no question about it.

JM: He was particularly impressed by Hardcastle.

AT: He backed away from it and said, “Scares the shit out of me.” That’s the only time I ever heard Clem swear. I remember being startled.

JM: That essay and the one he wrote about you the next year, “Changer: Anne Truitt,” marked you as “Greenberg’s Minimalist.” He characterizes your work as a welcome antidote to that of Judd, Morris, and Andre. He praises the handmade quality of your sculpture and its intuitive color and attacks the industrial look of “orthodox” Minimalism. But you’ve also said that you later felt Greenberg was disappointed in you.

AT: He was not supportive all the way through; he was polite. I think he was disappointed—angry in a way—maybe because I didn’t do what he thought I should do. Perhaps he thought that I should pay attention to him and ask him what to do. I’m not quite sure what he wanted. But he didn’t want what I did—which was never to ask him any questions at all, never to ask his opinion, and to go my own way. Maybe what Clem wanted me to do was to stay safe within the language of sculpture, to retain sculptural checks and balances. Actually I just lost interest in that language after 1961. And now my sculptures pivot on the invisible line of gravity that holds them to the ground. I just got simpler.

JM: More “minimal,” which he didn’t like. He said that your work hovered on the look of “non-art,” like Judd’s.

AT: No, he didn’t entirely like it. Maybe he thought I should use color in a Cubist fashion, should fit my work into that art-historical imperative.

JM: Like David Smith or Anthony Caro, whose welding and balancing of parts he traced straight to Picasso: a perfect modernist narrative.

AT: I said to myself, I’m not going to do it. And I just stayed down here in Washington and kept on working.

JM: You decided not to show First (your “fence”) or Southern Elegy, which resembles a tombstone, at Emmerich. That decision presented you as a “pure” abstract artist in your first show. The figurative origins of your work—its allusive nature—were repressed. How was that decision made?

AT: I think it must have been made by Ken and Clem. They were sort of guiding me along. Ken was busy telling me the folk knowledge of what it was like to be an artist. He was as generous as he could be.

JM: You’ve described the first show as a success. How so?

AT: I guess in terms of comment. At that time Clem was really dominating things, and Ken was powerful. Helen Frankenthaler came to see my work and traded. There were all these people in this world around André Emmerich.

JM: And they were all at their height.

AT: It was the apogee for them. February ’63, that was it, you know. There was nobody else around.

JM: Pop was just taking off, yet Greenberg was still calling the shots.

AT: Even I could see that I was at the center of a power game.

JM: Greenberg made you one of “his” artists. What was it like to put up a show with him? I ask because Judd, as you’ll recall, criticized the Emmerich installation in a review. He described the arrangement as “thoughtless,” implying that you didn’t care about how the works were placed.

AT: Let me go back to February 1963, with these three men—Bill Rubin, Clem, and Ken—arranging the stuff in André’s gallery. I was completely floored. I had never thought of the works together. I had simply thought of them as individual sculptures. I was astonished to see how they considered them in relation to one another. And they put two of them in the back room because they didn’t “fit.”

JM: So they installed your show. Did you agree with their choices?

AT: Well, for once in my life I was feeling rather passive. I was very conscious of being a neophyte. And they were very powerful; they were men in their own world.

JM: Much has been said about what an uphill battle women artists faced in the ’60s. One looks at figures like you and Agnes Martin as something like survivors. Are the claims of sexism overrated or exaggerated?

AT: Underrated. Couldn’t be exaggerated.

JM: Yet your shows got reviewed in all the magazines and by major critics. You’ve shown consistently for over forty years.

AT: I know, it’s incredible.

JM: And yet you’ve told me that Greenberg and André Emmerich were disappointed that you never “took off” sufficiently. You didn’t work your career.

AT: I never claimed my place. Louise Bourgeois stayed on the scene. She claimed her place day and night, year in and year out, and she has it and she should have it. Louise Nevelson claimed her place and stayed there and fought for it. Frankenthaler, too.

JM: Does your reserve on this score have anything to do with being a woman?

AT: Let’s say that had I been a man, I would have been an equal. Also, I had been brought up never to call attention to myself.

JM: The successful women of your generation, we can count on one hand.

AT: We didn’t even finish a hand. It isn’t that these artists made a great big ruckus—they just stayed in situ. I think they were right. There’s nothing wrong with it. But my character and my work are very quiet. My work depends on my being quiet. Psychologically, I can’t afford that kind of public attention. I don’t have the temperament for it.

JM: You’ve lived quietly in Washington all these years. Why did you stay?

AT: The light is wonderful in Washington. And I have a lifetime of friends here. It’s the latitude and longitude I was born on . . .

JM: There’s another aspect to your life here. Being in Washington may be unhelpful for a career in the art world but is so interesting in terms of the real world. You were one of the inhabitants of Camelot. Your then husband, James Truitt, was high up at the Washington Post and Newsweek during the Kennedy administration.

AT: Well, I was tangential to the “corridors of power,” if that’s what you mean. For someone who is as simple a person as I, I’ve led a sort of melodramatic life. It was my husband who pulled me into it, of course.

JM: People often try to connect the artist’s life and work in obvious ways: They refract the art through the lens of biography. I can already see a reading that goes like this: “Truitt, living in Washington at the height of the Cold War”—

AT: I’m just agog with interest at what you’re going to say—

JM: —“devised an abstraction that sought to escape, and yet expressed, US imperialist power.” I’m thinking of the old reading of Abstract Expressionism’s manipulation by the US Information Agency to represent an American ideology of “freedom.”

AT: That’s true.

JM: Yet the artists who lived in New York were far removed from power. Newman and Rothko were children of immigrants; they lived modestly. But you’re in Washington—in Georgetown—during the Cold War. And you’re keeping one studio across the street and another in Twining Court.

AT: I worked in 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.

JM: Yet you were a personal friend of the people running the country. A lot of your friends were in the CIA.

AT: I’ve always thought it was peculiar, too. I was floating around in that world . . . I didn’t pay attention to what was going on. And remember, much was secret. People were covert. It was interesting really, looking back on it. But my private feelings about it were that it was just very strange. I don’t understand why fate led me to be in such a situation.

JM: There doesn’t seem to be a clear-cut relation between your work and that situation––which doesn’t mean there isn’t one.

AT: I don’t really see it. But that’s exactly the way it was.

JM: You turned eighty last year. Has age, in some way, affected your work?

AT: I don’t think age makes any difference except that it endows a person with freedom. Age cuts you off, untethers you. It’s a great feeling. The other thing is, when you get to be eighty, you’re looking back and down, out from a peak. I can look down and see my life from my own little hill; I see this plain, all the years of experience.

JM: Does that mean making the work is somehow easier?

AT: No, it’s harder. It costs me much more; I have all those years that I have to face and it takes a certain amount of courage. It’s not a light and foolish thing. Color is getting more complex and harder and harder to mix. There are more complexities in it because my own experience is much more complex.

JM: Is it physically more difficult to work?

AT: It’s not more difficult to be faithful, but I have to be faithful to more and more. And I have less psychic energy as I get older. Heaven knows I have less physical energy!

JM: But it has not changed the fundamental process or ambition of the work. If anything, the ambition has increased.

AT: Yes, I would say, by leaps and bounds.

JM: And the laborious process you use––painting the wood support in layer after layer of crosshatched color—hasn’t changed. What happens if you’re not pleased with the result?

AT: I take the color off and begin again.

JM: All the color? The white undercoats?

AT: Take them all off. Go back to the wood and come forth again. You never make the same mistake twice. Next time I will have learned.

JM: How do you get rid of the twenty or so coats?

AT: It’s a horrible job. You have to wear a mask and rubber gloves and use newspaper and paint remover to take off all the paint. And sand.

JM: To the bare wood.

AT: It’s a patient business. Sometimes you can be on that very last coat and it’ll go wrong. All of a sudden it just won’t do anymore: My hand goes out. So it’s always a question of attention, of waiting.

JM: Do you put the sculpture away?

AT: I take the color off it and begin again. Or I go in the house and wait. Or I move on to another sculpture and look at it out of the corner of my eye. At a certain point I’ll go back to it. I don’t exactly fix it. I just pick up where I am.

JM: And when the sculpture’s ready?

AT: It’s over. The whole thing is over as far as I’m concerned. Then I have to take care of the object itself. The reward is the making. I think all artists would agree with that.

James Meyer is assistant professor of art history at Emory University and author of Minimalism: Art and Polemics in the 1960s (Yale University Press, 2001).