Anne Truitt was many things — a sculptor, author, professor and mother — and above all, it seems, she was beloved by her students and friends for her spirit, integrity and seriousness of purpose. With work spanning five decades, Truitt became known for her large-scale, hand-painted minimalist sculptures exploring proportion, scale and color. The first major retrospective of Truitt’s work since 1974, “Anne Truitt: Perception and Reflection,” is now on exhibition through January 3 at the Smithsonian Hirshhorn Gallery and Sculpture Garden.
Art Beat spoke with Hirshhorn curator Kristen Hileman; Tim Gunn, chief creative officer of Liz Claiborne, co-host of Project Runway and former Truitt student; and filmmaker and photographer Jem Cohen about Truitt’s life and work:
Born in 1921 in Baltimore and raised on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Truitt was inspired by the natural and architectural environment of her childhood. After a stint in clinical psychology and fiction writing, Anne Truitt began her art career in the late 1940s, sculpting figurative objects with clay, cast cement and stone. It wasn’t until she was exposed to the paintings of Ad Reinhardt and Barnett Newman in a 1961 Guggenheim exhibition that her concentration on abstract, minimalist sculptures took form.
It was “an epiphany…that led her to feel that art should be oriented toward concept rather than material,” Hileman explained. Later, Truitt’s abstract figures of the 1950s shifted to wood sculptures painted with acrylic paint, a stylistic continuity that persisted from 1961 to her death in 2004.
Yet finding a fit for Truitt within any 20th century movement isn’t an easy task. Hileman points out the individuality of Truitt’s work, taking elements from both minimalism and abstract art, while maintaining an artistic uniqueness. Also a factor was her reluctance to promote her own work.
“She developed an independent art that has elements that resonate with…larger movements in American art,” Hileman said. “And I think that’s one of the reasons she’s so important, because she demonstrates an alternative kind of minimal abstraction.”
It wasn’t merely Truitt’s artistic discipline that inspired students, colleagues and friends, Gunn and Cohen insisted, but it was also her integrity and spirit, which make the retrospective even more compelling, rich and overdue.
“She wasn’t a self-promoter,” said Gunn, who studied under Truitt at the Corcoran College of Art and Design and then at the University of Maryland. He credits Truitt for having a profound impact on his life and work, inspiring him to regularly self-edit. “She wasn’t out there in people’s faces saying, ‘Write about me, exhibit my work.’ She was very quiet. She was almost monk-like in her existence…But when you see the work, when you look around you, it does attract an audience unto itself.”
Truitt’s exploration of color was an endeavor to “lift the color up and set it free in three dimensions.” In Cohen’s film “Anne Truitt, Working,” which is part of the Hirshhorn retrospective, she explains: “Now that’s what they teach in school — is the family of color, so it’ll be logical. But I just ignore it…I never studied color. And I never intend to study it and I don’t like that kind of thing. So I always do something that you don’t expect.”
“One of the reasons I began to do this work was because I found out in 1948 that I wasn’t interested in a narrative and I couldn’t solve the problem of time,” Truitt says in Cohen’s film. “So it occurred to me that sculpture just stood and time went on around it. So that’s what led me into sculpture. It’s very simple really. There’s nothing to it. A whole lifetime just goes galloping past while you try to get clear about one simple thing.”