The main gallery space of the National Gallery's Anne Truitt exhibition is a modestly large but tall room, where for years the museum displayed the beloved cutouts of Henri Matisse. Upon entry, you encounter what seems to be a family gathering, a collection of wooden pillars and wall-like forms, in different colors, upright and erect, as though they all the shared the same DNA that Americans prize as markers of wealth and good health. They are mostly long and lean and stand apart from one another with a certain WASP-ish reserve.
Truitt was born on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, went to Bryn Mawr, married a journalist who rose high in the ranks of The Washington Post and Newsweek, and found herself "one of the inhabitants of Camelot," as curator James Meyer puts it in an interview with the artist published in 2002. One of the earliest sculptures on view is a yellow and white form with a sleek, sunny disposition. The 1962 "Mary's Light," honors Mary Pinchot Meyer, an artist and friend of Truitt's, who was found shot to death in 1964 on the canal in Georgetown.
Anne's husband, James Truitt, was a player in a major story about Mary's affair with John F. Kennedy, and Mary's ex-husband, Cord Meyer, was a high-level CIA figure and himself the subject of rumors about the Kennedy assassination. Her death remains a mystery that still embroils some of the most storied figures in this city's imaginary golden age of intrigue and glamour.
Truitt's work remains reticent, if not indifferent, to all of that. She seems to have lived peripheral to multiple different worlds of preening ambition. Truitt, who died in 2004, found studio spaces in the interstices of Washington, raised a family and made her art. She was given the benediction by prominent critics, such as Clement Greenberg, but remained on the edge of the social and professional circles of the New York art scene. Her work was some of the earliest to focus on stripped-down, basic geometric forms, an aesthetic often called minimalism, but she rejected that label, too.
In James Meyer's interview with Truitt, conducted when she was in her 80s, the scholar presses her on the meaning of the forms and meticulous color combinations that define her sculpture. Thrice he asks her the same question, and twice she demurs. Only on the third try does she offer a clue: "I think you'd have to say that what I've been about is being alone in the world, looking around at it, and trying to absorb it, at first with extremely nearsighted eyes." Until she was in fifth grade, she says, no one knew how bad her eyes were. So, it seems, she moved through the world seeing large forms as large, soft blocks of white and gray.
It's hard to know whether she said that only to be polite, to offer a persistent interviewer something to go on. It certainly helps make sense of some of the early works, in which she seems to reduce architectural forms to basic shapes. The earliest of the proto-minimalist forms looks to be a piece of white picket fence, but could just as easily be the pale silhouette of three distended buildings with peaked roofs.
Her later works become more about color, the interplay of color and then the absence of color. The forms are so simple that one has but two choices: Take them in as a single, solitary object, beyond the possibility of interpretation; or dig into their details and find meaning in the smallest gestures. And so the absence or presence of a supporting base becomes a small drama, as does the specificity of how she applied color, the texture of the surface and the fine play of light on subtly different applications of paint.
In this, she was different from the mostly male artists with whom she was often linked, including Donald Judd, who used more industrial manufacturing processes to give his work an anonymous perfection. She spoke directly about the role of sexism in her career, saying that the impact of the boy's-club control of the larger art world "couldn't be exaggerated." But sexism isn't just about loutish male figures double-plating the glass ceiling. It marginalizes personality types, and forms of behavior that are gendered "female." One gets the sense that Truitt enjoyed or at least needed her solitude, and that the constant tending of reputation and social position were repellent to her. She had the potential for an enormous career, but "I never claimed my space."
That phrase haunts this exhibition, full of work that inhabits but never claims its space. Some of the pieces are large, but not domineering. Truitt's work can seem standoffish when juxtaposed with more assertive sculptures, and more reductive forms of "minimalism." The bases and struts that support early works disappear in later pieces, so they refuse even a connection to the floor. A late work, from 2002, named after one of her studios, "Twining Court," is a single, tall, retiring plinth of black. Among the most compelling is "Parva XII," from 1977, which takes her basic stellalike form and turns it on its side, so that it can inhabit a shelf, like a cat.
The problem with interpreting, and worse, over-interpreting, Truitt's art is that the descriptions become more and more inextricable from metaphors of femininity. And yet, what exactly is wrong with that?
In the Tower: Anne Truitt is on view at the National Gallery of Art through April 1. For information, visit nga.gov.