One of Washington's foremost artists, Anne Truitt, acclaimed for her graceful sculptures and for her sensitive, deeply learned writings about her life and work, died Dec. 23 at Sibley Memorial Hospital at age 83. She developed peritonitis and other complications from emergency surgery more than a week before. She had been a Washington resident since 1947.
For more than 40 years, Mrs. Truitt was a major figure in American art, best known for her richly painted sculptures of vertical blocks of wood. As early as the 1960s, she was considered a leader in the minimalist school of art, a label she reluctantly accepted even though her work defied simple classification.
Anne Truitt painted many coats of paint on large wooden blocks.
(1963 Family Photo)
A supremely disciplined artist, she rose early each morning to work in the studio behind her home in Cleveland Park. She occasionally did drawings or paintings, but she most often made abstract sculptures from standing blocks of wood five to seven feet high. After sanding the wood to a smooth finish and priming it with several coats of gesso, a plaster of Paris mixture, she applied coat after coat of acrylic paint until the blocks acquired a mesmerizing visual intensity.
"They became almost translucent," said Renato Danese, who represented Mrs. Truitt at his New York art gallery since 1997. "Painting and sculpture were conjoined. They were one and the same."
She was admired by other artists for the integrity and independence of her vision, which seemed to burn more intensely as she grew older. After she turned 60, Mrs. Truitt published three autobiographical books, each subtitled "The Journal of an Artist," that explored her views on womanhood, aging and art in prose as polished and precise as the surfaces of her sculptures.
"I've struggled all my life to get maximum meaning in the simplest possible form," she said in an interview with The Washington Post in 1987. "That's what I've spent my life doing, and it's never been understood."
She was finally gaining the recognition many in the art world thought was her due. In the past five years, she had no fewer than 17 exhibitions throughout the country, including at the Corcoran Gallery of Art and Hirshhorn Museum. One of her sculptures is on display at the recently reopened Museum of Modern Art in New York. Her work is in the permanent collections of many leading museums, including the National Gallery of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of Art in New York.
"In the last seven years, her achievements have become more and more acknowledged," said Danese, who met Mrs. Truitt in 1968. "A lot of people understood that Anne was a seminal figure in her early days."
Anne Dean Truitt was born in Baltimore on March 16, 1921, and grew up in Easton, on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Her eyesight was so poor when she was a child that until she got glasses she didn't realize trees had individual leaves. She saw them as large masses of color and form, which some critics have suggested was an influence on her later work.
In her late teens, she was sent to North Carolina to recover from a burst appendix and spent a summer playing volleyball with the writer and 1920s cultural celebrity Zelda Fitzgerald, who was a patient at a nearby psychiatric hospital.
Mrs. Truitt graduated in 1943 from Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania with a degree in psychology. She worked in psychiatric research in Boston and as a volunteer nurse's aide for the Red Cross, treating soldiers returning from World War II. She soon left psychology for art because, in her words, "the clearest beacons of aspiration that I had in my own life, I found in the work of artists -- writers as well as sculptors and painters."
She was immensely well-read and casually dropped references to Homer, Marcel Proust, William Faulkner and Willa Cather in everyday conversation. She could quote the Roman poet Ovid from memory. She had recently reread Russian novelists, including one of her favorites, Leo Tolstoy.
But her imagination was most fully engaged by color and shape. In her third volume of journals, "Prospect" (1996), she wrote, "When I swept wide brushes over large areas, I felt profoundly attuned to both structure and paint, as if I were doing what I had been born to do."
In 1961, she discovered her mature style, creating standing rectangular sculptures painted in subtle, precisely shaded colors. Set on slightly recessed bases, they appear to hover just above the floor. She was immediately identified with the emerging minimalist movement.
"If any one artist started or anticipated Minimal Art," the influential art critic Clement Greenberg wrote in 1968, "it was she."
Yet Mrs. Truitt resisted the connection because her work was painstakingly made by her own hand rather than through the industrial processes that are the hallmark of minimalism.
"I have never allowed myself, in my own hearing," she told The Post in 1987, "to be called a minimalist." She also resisted being identified as a member of the Washington Color School of the 1960s and 1970s.
She spent almost four years in Japan in the 1960s when her husband, James Truitt, was Tokyo bureau chief of Newsweek. After trying other styles in Japan, she destroyed all her experimental artwork and soon returned to her wooden sculptures.
Mrs. Truitt received many awards through the years, including a Guggenheim fellowship and five honorary doctorates. In 1984, she was acting director of Yaddo, the artists' retreat in New York.
She and her husband, a former vice president of The Washington Post, were divorced.
Survivors include three children, Alexandra Truitt of South Salem, N.Y., Mary McConnell Truitt of Annapolis and Sam Truitt of Brooklyn, N.Y.; two sisters; and eight grandchildren.
"Artists have no choice but to express their lives," Mrs. Truitt wrote. "They have only . . . a choice of process. This process does not change the essential content of their work in art, which can only be their life."