Georgetown's Colorful Genius
At the Hirshhorn, Anne Truitt, the Minimalist Who Gave a Little Extra
By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 11, 2009
Anne Truitt's sculptures are sociable. They keep you company.
I think of that one over there as Big Dave Stanford, dressed in a showy red suit, maybe, but with the awkward manner of a tall man not at ease with his height. This one here could be a matronly Martha Cunningham, clad in forest green but with a stripe of scarlet at her hem to show she's still got spunk. There are the Updike girls, modish in tight-fitting lime and pumpkin and pink. And there's that absurd Mrs. Snyder: She's paired a perfectly nice linen suit with shoes in red and black patent leather.
Visit the new Truitt retrospective at the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum, the first show to survey the art of this recently deceased hero of the Washington art scene, and, despite her work's right angles and pure forms, you'll be able to pick out each of these characters. If Truitt's abstract art were "serious," according to the standard measures of such things, it wouldn't encourage such play.
By traditional measures, it's clear she got almost everything wrong. But it's that "failure" that makes Truitt's sculpture, and this exhibition, so absolutely right. Truitt's art is in a class of its own, the best place art can be.
Local boosters needed this survey to be good but secretly worried that it might disappoint; no one's had the chance to take Truitt's measure for decades. The show is better, I bet, than almost anyone had hoped.
From the start of Truitt's career in the early 1960s to her death in 2004, when she was 83, she challenged all the verities of the serious art she was trained in. Serious art was supposed to be either abstract or representational: Her sculptures bridged the two without obeying the rules of either. Serious art was supposed to be either sober and weighty or clever and arch: Truitt's sculptures can instead seem full of a delicate comedy. (It's the same comedy that makes the films of Chaplin and Keaton great.)
When Truitt came of age as an artist, important art was supposed to be legible, clear, pointed; hers is all about illegibility and beating around the bush, even being flustered and unsure. You could say it was gloriously passive-aggressive, at a time when most of its competition was stolidly bold and direct.
At first sight, Truitt's sculptures do mostly read as abstract. Many of them are nothing more than plain, perfectly carpentered uprights, maybe averaging a foot wide per side by six feet or so tall, though with lots of variation from that mean. They are about the size of the box a floor lamp might come in, depending on the size of the lamp. That simplicity has often led Truitt to be seen -- or denigrated -- as someone on the fringes or coattails of the "official" minimalist movement of the likes of Donald Judd and Robert Morris, one of the most influential art trends of her time. She was, after all, shown in the exhibition that gave that movement legs, the "Primary Structures" show at the Jewish Museum in New York in 1966.
And yet, by the terms of the minimalist movement, Truitt once again turns out to have gotten things wrong. "Real" minimalism was supposed to be absolutely legible and "whole," so you could know a sculpture's essence almost at one glance. At the very least, you were supposed to get a clear "gestalt" of any minimalist sculpture just by walking all around it. Truitt's sculptures often mess that up, by striping each side of an upright in very different colors.
In "First Requiem," from 1977, one side's harmony of aqua edged in gray gives way to a peculiar mix of gray and rose and black on another, then on to rose and black alone and then to clashing stripes of rose and mustard and scarlet and gray. As you walk around one of her uprights it unfolds as a constantly surprising, shifting tableau. It's a painted tableau, yes, but one that, unlike almost any normal painting, can't be grasped at once, just by looking. Take in any single side of a Truitt structure, and you'd never guess the others until you come to them. Even the simple act of reversing the direction of your circumambulation fundamentally changes the "narrative" (Truitt's word) you read out of her work.
By "decorating" her objects' surfaces Truitt also broke down the distinction between sculpture and painting -- a miscegenation that abstraction's purists would not tolerate. All these years later, however, it seems precisely what we want to celebrate in Truitt. She had the courage to go wrong.
When Truitt moves away from the most minimal of her uprights, you could say that her sculptures go still further astray. What could be less elegant, less sensible, more willful and even silly-naughty than the almost-crucifix of her "Full Fathom Five"? It's too tall by far, and its arms are too stubby to take seriously; they defeat any tragic purpose you might be tempted to read into its all-black surfaces. It's like a torso in a toddler's drawing, with hands attached at the neck. That's what makes it so refreshing, unpredictable and compelling.
The almost-cross in Truitt's "Signature" is even stranger, with arms still more wonky and uneven and now dressed up in pink, with one wrist cuffed in orange. Truitt's forms can be unruly enough; when she adds color still more rules get broken.
In her time, and well into our own, the most "significant" abstraction was either bold and heroic, in macho colors like red, black and midnight blue, or subject to such rarefaction that it vanished into grays and white. Truitt's best sculptures, even at their most soberly geometrical, tend to "girlish" pastels or fashion brights -- or worse, she mixes the two.
The analogy to fashion seems right. It feels as though Truitt has realized that the so-called "rules" of art are more like fashion etiquette than laws of nature. You imagine that it's simply not possible, dahhling, to wear blue with green -- until the year that some new designer has everybody doing it. If you have the courage to get there first, you'll either make a fool of yourself or be recognized as fashion forward. The truly bold don't care which happens. That's Truitt.
At a time when most abstract artists were busy exploring and distilling art's fundamental categories -- surfaces and shapes, corners, faces, edges and colors -- she showed them massive disrespect. With Truitt, you can't always tell what's a surface and what's a stripe, what's the edge of a beam and what's a border between colors, what's a new shade and what's an old hue under new light. In her abstraction, Truitt revels in the undecidable.
The element of figuration in her art is no more clear or law-abiding. Since Truitt refuses any distillation to pure form divorced from the world, almost all of Truitt's work can read as some real object or being. Her Hirshhorn show could almost be a theater set, full of props and characters.
Her sculpture called "Sentinel" is that linen suit with patent-leather shoes; "Odeskalki" is the matron in forest green and scarlet; "Mid Day" is the too-tall man in red. And I didn't even mention "Nicea," wearing a pink Chanel suit -- but with a length of scruffy red braid as a choker.
In some of Truitt's earlier work the connection to reality is even more direct than this.
Her very first mature work came in 1961, and is appropriately named "First." (You wonder whether she knew right away that she'd started something, or fixed on the title later.) "First" looks like an abstract sculpture trying to pass itself off as three slats from a plain white picket fence. Looking at it from in front, where it's at its most fencelike, I can't think of any other work quite like it. Where Jasper Johns and others had found the abstract in the ordinary, Truitt seems to find the everyday in the abstract -- a much stranger thing to do.
From behind, the piece gets even odder. Truitt has stuck on a kind of armature of uprights and crossbars that look as though they're there for support but clearly serve no true structural function. It's almost as though a constructivist sculpture is hiding in someone's front yard, all ready to leap out.
In a work titled "Southern Elegy," from 1962, it looks like it's a color-field painter who's been hiding, in a cemetery. The perfect tombstone shape of the piece has been painted shades of sober green and black.
In the pop-art moment that coincided with Truitt's arrival as an artist, figuration was most often sly and ironic (Warhol, Lichtenstein) or slightly retrograde in its reaction against abstraction (Freud and Hockney and the whole English school). The bits and pieces of the world that creep into Truitt's geometries don't belong to either camp: They seem both heartfelt and forward-looking.
From in front, a fabulous 1962 piece called "Hardcastle" looks like a pure minimalist plank, in tasteful black; from behind, you see the two unnecessary braces Truitt has stuck onto its back and painted fire-engine red. It's as though she wants to say that, yes, this object is a sculpture, but that's not to deny that it's also something normal in our world, needing to be carpentered for standing up.
Where did Truitt get the courage to boldly go where no man had gone before? It could be that she was helped by being a woman, and by being based in small-town Washington. Both left her just enough out of the swing of things to act, at least, as though she didn't know the rules of the boy's club in New York. "Provincialism," social and geographical, may have its occasional upsides.
If there's one Old Master I'd compare Truitt to, it's the great Renaissance painter Correggio. He worked in the provincial town of Parma, away from Rome and Florence and the overpowering effects of Michelangelo and Raphael in those two cities. That let him do his own thing. Like Truitt he dared -- dared, I tell you -- to turn delicacy and lightness into the ingredients of the most serious art, heroic on its own very unique terms.
Truitt herself said that her art reflected her life, by which she had in mind the childhood troubles and moody inner life she recorded in a series of memoirs and diaries. That's a standard story of how art happens that I almost never buy, if only because it's the cliche so many artists have struggled to live up to.
I'm more interested in the very public life that Truitt led in Washington, as the tony, well-born wife of one of this newspaper's top editors -- a founder of this very Style section, no less -- and as one of the town's top doyennes and culturati. That's the Washington I feel in her Hirshhorn show: a world of peculiar characters and surface appearances, of fashion queens and fashion victims, of play-acting and props, of ever-shifting alignments and values.
It's a comedy of manners worthy of Sheridan or Marivaux, with its profundities buried in elegant style.