Georgetown's Colorful Genius

At the Hirshhorn, Anne Truitt, the Minimalist Who Gave a Little Extra

The Hirshhorn mounts a survey of art from this recently deceased hero of the Washington art scene.
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.

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