Anne Truitt Became an Art Pioneer From the Friendly Confines of Washington

Anne Truitt, shown in 1962, preferred to work in Washington because of its light.
Anne Truitt, shown in 1962, preferred to work in Washington because of its light. (By John Gossage -- Copyright Bridgem)
By Mark Berman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 11, 2009

There were appointments to keep, carpools to arrange, shopping to do, meals to prepare. There was the life as a Georgetown spouse whose husband was high on the cultural food chain, with all the dinner parties and social occasions that such a status implied. Anne Truitt found time for all of it -- wife, mother, grandmother and teacher -- and in her spare time, well . . .

"If any one artist started or anticipated Minimal Art, it was she."

That's what art critic Clement Greenberg said about Truitt in a 1968 issue of Vogue magazine, rhapsodizing about what he thought was groundbreaking work. But her distance from the New York scene hadn't done the artist's career any favors. "She remains less known than she should be as a radical innovator," Greenberg wrote. "She certainly does not 'belong.' But then how could a housewife, with three small children, living in Washington belong? How could such a person fit the role of pioneer of far-out art?"

She married James Truitt -- a journalist at The Washington Post and other publications -- in 1947 when both were 26. She began sculpting the following year.

"Married, I had to fit my own work into a schedule of shopping, cooking, housecleaning, entertaining, and -- very often -- moving from city to city," Truitt wrote in 1982's "Daybook," the first of three memoirs she published. Her husband's work took the family on the road: three years in Tokyo, which Truitt found ill-suited for her art -- the light, which she found so perfect in Washington, just wasn't right. She felt placement impacted sculptors more than other people and destroyed the work she made there.

She wrote that her husband was "an enterprising journalist, which in Washington means a lot of entertaining and being entertained -- very time-consuming, and energy-consuming, too." A woman of her station was expected to commit to her husband's career, period. "I simply took it for granted that I had to fit what I wanted to do within" her situation, she wrote.

Three children -- Alexandra, Mary and Sam -- were born between 1955 and 1960, a period preceded by years fraught with "heartbreaking visits to fertility specialists." For years she lived the life of a wife and mother and, on occasion, a woman with other interests. But she forced herself to work, even if it meant doing so in spare minutes between shopping and carpooling. Alexandra Truitt says her mother was rigorous about going to the studio daily, finding time amid myriad other tasks.

Another thing: Her mother strenuously objected to being pegged as a "woman artist," rather than just an artist. "She never took part in any exhibitions that were just women," says Alexandra, 54, a picture editor in New York. "She rejected any kind of attribution of motive, of narrative or any kind of gender motive to her work."

That's not to say that gender doesn't make a difference, as became clear in Truitt's 1996 book "Prospect." It's worth keeping in mind, she wrote, that the majority of art critics have been male, not unlike the artists who attracted their attention. "The achievement of women tends to be judged in comparison to the achievement of men," she wrote.

* * *

She was born Anne Dean in Baltimore on March 16, 1921, and grew up in Easton on Maryland's Eastern Shore. She was of Washington, later describing the city as the cradle between her birthplace and childhood. Her husband's work took them to Japan, San Francisco and Dallas. But they returned to Washington, where she was based until her death in 2004.

It might seem an unusual home base for Truitt. While producing its fair share of contributors and contributions to the arts (see: the Washington Color School), it's still a company town, the province of lobbyists and scandalists and staffers and blue blazer upon blue blazer. Yet somehow our fair city provided the fertile creative space Truitt needed.

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