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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)

Truitt said she first did work she respected in 1961 at age 40; she deemed the dozen preceding years an "apprenticeship." That was the age when she felt she was working almost effortlessly; two years later, she had her first exhibition in New York, which she then called the only thing she had truly done on her own.

"I was completely and totally transfixed by the experience of being with her work," says Tim Gunn, of "Project Runway" fame, who was born and raised in Washington; he watched construction of the Hirshhorn and was at the opening. "I'm a huge lover of art, but it's not that often that one feels as if they're suspended a few inches above the floor while looking at a work of art."

He saw Truitt's work as a student at the Corcoran in the 1970s and asked the school to have her visit with students, enabling a friendship between them. (She dismissed his reverence by telling him, "Hero worship sets my teeth on edge," he recalls with a big laugh.) He later visited her class at the University of Maryland, where she taught from 1975 until 1991, just to hear her speak.

"She was an artist's artist," says John Gossage, a photographer who lives in Kalorama and a longtime friend of Truitt's. "The people who mattered knew about her."

Gossage, 63, met Truitt at the Calvert House, a Calvert Street dwelling between Woodley Park and Adams Morgan that once provided space for painters, sculptors and photographers. (On evenings at the neighborhood bar in the early '70s, artists would mingle with the West Virginia miners in town to tunnel the Metro system.) Gossage remembered her children phoning while she was sculpting in her studio.

" 'You wouldn't understand. It was a very different time when James and I got married,' " Gossage recalls her telling him. " 'It was about being a wife and a mother.' "

James Truitt's work brought them into an elevated social circle where she fit in -- she was "Bryn Mawr, very proper, well educated, well-read," as Gossage puts it -- but it was a different time. The men were in power, and then there were their wives. Among them was Truitt's good friend Mary Meyer, known both for an alleged affair with President John F. Kennedy and her 1964 murder along the C&O Canal in Georgetown.

"These are women who were married to the 'Mad Men' of Washington in the 1950s," says Nina Burleigh, author of "A Very Private Woman," a 1998 book about Meyer. "What was fascinating to me about Mary Meyer [was] these women. They knew the secrets, the state secrets from their dinner parties, but they were powerless to do anything. . . . But they were also women who were also really well educated, so they found these outlets in art."

After she and James separated in 1969, Truitt moved to Cleveland Park while he moved to Mexico. They were divorced in 1971, and she often worried about providing for the children. For her ex-husband, a different darkness followed: He killed himself in Mexico in 1981.

"Self-inflicted," she wrote in 1987's "Turn," her second book. "The hand I had known so well and had loved so much, turned against the life I had cherished."

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People still seem to agree with Greenberg's assessment: Had she gone to New York, her stature and fame might have grown. But she loved her house, the studio she built in the back yard with the Guggenheim fellowship she won. She loved the Cleveland Park library, too; Truitt was a voracious reader. Above all, she loved the Washington light.

Her works required careful handling and could be difficult to comprehend. Gunn recalled a grisly scene occasioned by one Truitt show: A visitor was angered enough to throw one of her monoliths over the second-floor railing.

While her daughter, Alexandra, warns against reading too much into her mother's work, it's hard not to see a parallel between the art and the artist. Her life was precisely constructed and not what it seemed at first glance, much like Truitt's sculptures. The works are disciplined, delicate -- vulnerable but solid.

Knowing this, John Gossage refused to unwrap a Truitt sculpture he owned for 15 years. "Full Fathom Five" was finally freed when he gave it to the Hirshhorn for this exhibition.

"The measurement of how great an artist is . . . you open the piece, and Anne was in the room again," he recalled. "And everybody got it. It was an amazing experience. It's what great art does."

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