PRINT January 2010


The work of Anne Truitt has always stood slightly apart: Concurrent with Minimalism and Color Field painting, but never quite commensurate with their terms, her oeuvre has long eluded categorization and, for that matter, sustained critical reception. On the occasion of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden’s recent groundbreaking retrospective, the late artist’s first in thirty-five years, Artforum asked art historian Anne M. Wagner to revisit Truitt’s inimitable engagement with temporality, shape, and medium.

Anne Truitt, First Requiem, 1977, acrylic on wood, 90 x 8 x 8". Four views.

“THE PAST,” WROTE L. P. HARTLEY in The Go-Between, “is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” But where does the border lie between past and present? Why do some events and experiences feel unbearably distant and others not estranged at all? How far away, to choose a less than random example, are the major and minor happenings of 1974? That was the year that a sitting president resigned under threat of impeachment, an heiress was kidnapped and (temporarily) radicalized, computers arrived in the nation’s newsrooms, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre made movie history, and the Corcoran Gallery of Art hosted the first—and, until now, only—museum retrospective of Anne Truitt’s work. In 2004, she died at the age of eighty-three.

Thirty-five years is an unforgivably long time between retrospectives for an artist of this caliber. Why the delay? Was it that Truitt’s work was not quite foreign enough, or that it lacked the measure of pastness that earns an artist a retrospective in the first place? This might well have been what happened, given that Truitt never stopped producing as the decades went on: She was still making delicately novel pieces—for example, Return and Evensong—the year of her death.

Or perhaps the time was not yet ripe to grasp just what seems so different about Truitt’s art—until now. With the new exhibition, “Anne Truitt: Perception and Reflection,” at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC, her work has again become part of the present, if in a whole new way. Retrospectives themselves are meant to serve as go-betweens; the beautiful and meticulously installed show conceived by Kristen Hileman could not have been a better emissary. It did everything possible to make sure that Truitt’s astonishing individuality comes clearly into view. And in so doing, the show forged the necessary link between present and past. It remains to be seen how long the bond will endure. Waiting thirty-five more years to look again at Truitt will surely shatter even the strongest connection: Let both the tastemakers and the feminists among us take heed!

Arriving at such a pointed installation was presumably no small task, given the fundamental antipathy between Truitt’s work and the spaces of the Hirshhorn. Quite distinct conceptions of sculpture and architecture are in play. On the one hand is the assertive volume of Gordon Bunshaft’s structure (which by pure coincidence was completed the year Truitt, a longtime Washingtonian, was given her first retrospective at the nearby Corcoran), which he termed a “functional sculpture,” a hollowed-out cylinder with squat legs set on a low-slung base. Curved galleries wrap around an empty core that all too often, in my experience, seems like a desolate waste of space. On the other hand, there is Truitt’s basic idiom, the upright wall or column transformed into an utterly nonfunctional presence, a physical object whose every aspect (its color, dimensions, surface, depth, front, back, and sides) is designed to produce a quandary as to the nature of its presence as an experiential thing.

It is one of the great achievements of the Hirshhorn installation that it managed to make Bunshaft’s pie-slice galleries cohabit peacefully with the strangers in their midst. (Though by rights the galleries in question actually resemble slices once a bite has removed their narrowest point.) Gray walls and floors and white ceilings quieted the spaces, as did an impeccably evenhanded use of lighting—it was perfect, I think. Yet the same pacific devices, however paradoxically, brought each work to active life. Truitt’s art is nothing without the light and space its perception necessitates—any and every photograph is a travesty, which is not to say that some aren’t better, others worse. (Those in the catalogue are as good as they can be.)

Truitt’s other nonnegotiable requirement is time. Not only did she ask it of herself, over the weeks and months she spent coating her surfaces with acrylic, then sanding and coating them again (and again and again), but the viewer is also required to invest in a similar coin. How much is enough? It may be that anyone who would ask such a question is doomed from the start. There is no cut-and-dried answer: The sort of seeing that’s in question doesn’t function punctually; it is all about contingency, the how and when of a comprehension that can arrive only gradually. Late in life, the artist spoke of the moment at which she understood how time and sculpture go together: “I was standing in the sunshine of our living room one morning when it suddenly came to me perfectly clearly that a sculpture stood . . . on a line of gravity that disarmed time. Stood alone as a person stands alone, bathed in the light that marks the passage of time, not subject to time but illuminated by it.”¹ In this astonishing reflection, the emphases are Truitt’s own.

View of “Anne Truitt: Perception and Reflection,” 2009, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC. From left: Viking, 2002; View, 1999; Return, 2004; Elixir, 1997; Evensong, 2004.

What kind of standing is this? The force of Truitt’s statement makes it all the more essential to give an account of how her works inhabit the space around them, and what they give us to see. And perhaps to feel, though this, as always, is more tentative ground. Yet Truitt herself was certain that feelings—her own, first of all—were essential to the production of her art (it showed her “pain, despair, delight, and bafflement”), and in this certainty she agreed with one strand of the aesthetic thinking of her time.² Remember that it was Clement Greenberg, her sometime champion, who in 1952 titled an essay on the Abstract Expressionists “Feeling Is All.” An early encounter with one of Truitt’s sculptures, so he told her, left him feeling scared. And fear was not an emotion from which he quickly turned away.

It is not easy to explore the question of how looking and feeling converge in Truitt’s art. Nor was this a problem that the Hirshhorn show overtly asked its viewers to take up. All it really required was that they look at the artist’s work. Yet even this much is not straightforward, no matter how much a monographic exhibition seems to assume the opposite: All you do is start at the beginning, then move from youth to death. Which more or less is how this retrospective was staged.

The earliest work on view in Washington—as the piece itself declares—was First, 1961. Not surprisingly, the show’s first gallery gave it pride of place. How could it not? I know of no sculpture quite like it, before or since, not even among the artist’s own works, which is to say that it fully deserves the primacy its title asserts. Yet it wasn’t really the artist’s first work. From 1949 onward she had plugged away at wood, clay, and metal pieces and tried cement, Sculp-metal, and stone. None of the results were in the show, though some survive. Instead, the exhibition started, as I say, with First. Like a white-painted stela of 1962, a piece she labeled One, it suggests a Pollock-like taste for beginnings.

First seems to be, or perhaps to represent, the briefest possible stretch of a white picket fence. How much of a fence does it take to convey the general type? Truitt’s thinking is quasi-mathematical in its precision: It is as if she is proposing a category, one whose constitutive elements need not be identical to join the set. Here the size and shape of each upright are declaratively different, yet the work is fencelike even so. For one thing, it is tied together structurally by means of two horizontal supports, both precisely overlapping a vertical picket to suggest the next one in the row. And then there is the impeccably white coat of paint. Tom Sawyer’s recruits could not have done better by Aunt Polly. Nor could Truitt have imagined a more economical evocation of the decorous social and spatial boundaries that governed small-town American life.

Much of Truitt’s work of the early 1960s has this evocative cast. In some pieces, her shapes are tomblike and her tone commemorative, while other pieces loom above the viewer like walls. And in every instance the works are painted, in schemes that sometimes reinforce but just as often undermine the implications of their forms. In Two, 1962, for example, the eponymous pairing takes the form of separate upright panels emerging from a single base. Imagine the twinned gravestones of a wedded couple. Two is painted black and brown, by which I do not mean that each upright bears a different color. On the contrary, each panel shares both hues. Truitt found a design that manages not only to suggest a healing-over of the gap between the panels but also to invoke a continuity with some imagined wider world. In Two, that is, the title roles are played by equals that are physically separate but conceptually one. And this, in turn, can happen because in Truitt’s work those supposedly separate media, painting and sculpture, likewise work as one.

Nowadays, we might call Truitt a pioneer of intermedia. Certainly her practice seemed to some viewers elusive, even anomalous, back in the day. Hileman’s catalogue essay highlights Donald Judd’s overtly defensive dismissal. He insisted, for example, that “the partitioning of the colors on the boxes is merely that”—a fairly egregious misreading, given that Truitt’s “partitioning” of color does real work to disturb the boundaries between image and object, thing and event. What a strange verdict for a critic who a few years later would famously champion the “specific object”—work that is neither painting nor sculpture—as the new and necessary order of the day. In Judd’s own terms, Truitt’s objects are as specific as they come.

Even more telling is Michael Fried’s bemusement at this same aspect of her work. The context is a text that Hileman also astutely invokes. In a 1963 review for Art International, Fried went so far as to admit that he found the interplay between shape and color in Truitt’s work “a bit confusing,” as if, in his words, “there were two rationales to look out for instead of just one.”

Anne Truitt, Autumn Dryad, 1975, acrylic on wood, 76 x 13 x 8".

Precisely. As so often with Fried, what gives him trouble goes straight to the heart of the matter. In Truitt’s work there are always at least two rationales—and sometimes more. As her career continued, and she arrived at the sort of work she is now known for—the pillars or columns that (to repeat) stand alone, as a person stands alone—the roles of the two systems remained distinct and describable, yet we always know that we are still quite artificially prizing them apart. If sculpture is the vehicle for presence, then color does its best to challenge or undo that presence over time. Color, which Truitt certainly conceived of as painting, remains optical—it will always be a retinal phenomenon—but is nonetheless deployed to undo the earthbound intransigence of shape. And its effects are only visible as time goes by. In other words, for Truitt sculpture is no longer, as Rosalind Krauss once vividly put it, the medium located “at the juncture between stillness and motion, time arrested and time passing.” Or if it occupies this position, it does so thanks to the transformative magic that color works.³

Let me put the inevitable generalities of this description in touch with a few chosen works. Take the magnificent 1977 First Requiem, which at the Hirshhorn was given a room of its own. To see the work, it is essential to walk around it, even though doing so reveals nothing about its columnar shape, not least because that shape is effortlessly, automatically graspable; like other artists of her moment, Truitt gets enormous mileage from her chosen gestalt. Even so, everything changes as one makes the tour. The column simply is different from side to side, and these transformations are brought about by changes of color. Each side of First Requiem bears its own set of stripes in a vertical pattern—stripes that differ slightly in width yet enormously in hue, so much so that there is no way to predict (or remember) how any one side will look. This inability occurs despite the fact that a trip around the piece cannot be anything but brief. There are only four flat eight-inch sides to this tall column (its height is ninety inches), and their footprint forms nothing other than a compact square. Yet even so, it is the column’s color, not its shape, that determines what we see.

Vertical stripes and fields were Truitt’s favorite arrangement. But she often gave her columns horizontal bands in addition to, or in place of, the stripes. These have their own distinct effects. One major thing they accomplish is to respond to the way that each of her pieces makes contact with the ground. From the beginning—which is to say, from First on out—Truitt resolved the issue of how her pieces should stand before us by adding to the bottom of each four invisible wood strips (or in some cases a single piece of wood) that just slightly lift the work off the floor, so that each work casts its own fine shadow and each seems, however minimally, to float. And that effect of floating is directly answered—and sometimes countered—by the colors chosen for the horizontal stripes. A dark band along the bottom can elevate the entire column above it, while a soft border at the top of the piece can seem, like mist swallowing a building, to disperse or evaporate its terminus, as if it had somehow managed to become a cloud.

Truitt’s titles sometimes speak to these effects, though I, for one, am not certain I always know precisely how. But in one set of works—a quartet of columns made over a four-year period, 1971 to 1975—it seems that there is no mistaking what was on her mind. The pieces share more than their identical dimensions. Each was dubbed a “Dryad,” and each stood for a season as well. Truitt made Summer Dryad first, then Winter in 1973. The Autumn and Spring Dryads followed, both being finished the same year. Within this group, color transforms the constancy of structure so very strikingly that it seems to offer a primer on what hue can do.

For Truitt to invoke a dryad was risky: The verticality of her columns may be bodily, but their spare geometries never duplicate the human. Here, though, by virtue of their titles, the Dryads invite us to see the pillar’s volume (the figure) as a concentration or intensification of Nature—a body in which nature and woman are one. They are a tree. The simplicity of the upright cedes to the changing seasons of the imagined forest, and an all-too-human romance with the “magic of nature” stands waiting in the wings.

Sylvia Plath, too, invoked dryads in a pair of poems of 1957. Or at least she tried to. Both texts proclaim the difficulty of the task. Here is a stanza from one:

But no hocus-pocus of green angels
Damasks with dazzle the threadbare eye;
‘My trouble, doctor, is: I see a tree,
And that damn scrupulous tree won’t practice wiles
To beguile sight:
E.g., by cant of light
Concoct a Daphne;
My tree stays tree. . . .’

Anne Truitt, First, 1961, latex on wood, 44 1⁄4 x 17 3⁄4 x 7". Two views, front and back.

I think it is easy to imagine Truitt reading this poem with careful sympathy and acknowledging an unexpected sisterhood between the younger Plath’s predicament and her own creative goals. The relationship lies in the way in which each artist regards the “treeness” of her tree. To Plath, the tree stands for the mundane materials she must use to create. Her words are only grass and leaves—no wiles or hocus-pocus there. The same with Truitt. Her tree, too, “stays tree,” even when a dryad is invoked: It cannot stop being the wooden column that it is. And the only wiles she deploys are the fundamental properties of color, appearances that, if they dazzle, never wear out. If the light stays steady, the marvels of aura and afterglow, halo and radiance, show themselves again and again. This, I think, is one thing Truitt means by “disarming time.” We cannot stop seeing, as the artist well knows. Occasionally, exhibitions like this one give us the opportunity to begin that rich process all over again.

“Anne Truitt: Perception and Reflection” is on view at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC, until January 3.

Anne M. Wagner is a professor of modern and contemporary art at the University of California, Berkeley.


1. Anne Truitt, from a lecture delivered in 1998, as quoted by Kristen Hileman, “Presence and Abstraction,” in Anne Truitt: Perception and Reflection (Washington, DC: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 2009), 19.

2. The full quotation reads, “I had hustled my pain, my despair, my delight, my bafflement onto paper and into clay and wood and stone, and fixed them there as if in magic enchantment.” Anne Truitt, Daybook: The Journey of an Artist, as quoted by Hileman, 12.

3. Rosalind Krauss, Passages in Modern Sculpture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1977; paperback edition, 1981), 5.

4. Sylvia Plath, “On the Difficulty of Conjuring Up a Dryad” (1957), in The Collected Poems (New York: Harper, 1981), 62. The second of the two is “On the Plethora of Dryads” (1957).