Anne Truitt in her Twining Court studio, Washington, DC, 1962
Photo by John Gossage
October 8, 2009 – January 3, 2010
The Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden presents the first retrospective of the work of Anne Truitt (1921–2004), a pioneering figure in the development of American abstract art. “Anne Truitt: Perception and Reflection,” on view Oct. 8–Jan. 3, 2010, is organized by Hirshhorn associate curator Kristen Hileman. The exhibition features more than 35 two-dimensional works alongside 49 examples of the radically reduced and evocatively painted sculptures that were the hallmark of the artist’s profoundly focused 50-year career. Accompanied by the most comprehensive monograph on the artist to date, the exhibition explores Truitt’s under-recognized role in the development of geometric abstraction during the second half of the 20th century.
“This exhibition is a long-awaited look at the depth and scope of this significant artist’s work,” said Richard Koshalek, director of the museum. “We are pleased to present this exhibition here on the National Mall and to recognize her unique contribution to art history.”
Following a loose chronology that traces the arc of Truitt’s career from initial abstract sculptures through pieces made only weeks before her death at age 83 in 2004, “Anne Truitt: Perception and Reflection” investigates the artist’s use of proportion, scale and above all, color. Truitt’s early works, such as “First” (1961), “Southern Elegy” (1962) and “Watauga” (1962), were made from wood painted with acrylic and, in part, were inspired by her exposure to the paintings of Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhardt in 1961. These early pieces seem to reflect the built environment and topography of the artist’s childhood on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and that of her teenage years in Asheville, N.C. In work from this period up to 1964, Truitt established her interest in making sculptures with dimensions that relate to the human body in ways similar to architectural barriers and monuments. Equally important, her concern for grounding her art in personal experience is suggested to viewers through form, color and allusive titles, a concept that continued throughout her career.
By the late 1960s, important critics such as Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried had noted Truitt’s work in their discussion of trends in abstraction that had come to be categorized as Minimal. Vividly hued selections from the end of this decade, such as “A Wall for Apricots” and “Morning Choice” (both from 1968), are representative of the expansion of the artist’s palette after living in Tokyo between 1964 and 1967. During her years in Japan, Truitt replaced the wood armatures of her sculptures with aluminum. Dissatisfied with the result, she destroyed most of these works in the early 1970s after she returned to working in wood. This exhibition documents her time in Tokyo with rarely seen works on paper.
The second half of the Hirshhorn’s project comprises a unique overview of Truitt’s sculpture and major two-dimensional series from the 1970s, spanning three decades of Truitt’s career not previously considered in its entirety. “Anne Truitt: Perception and Reflection” examines her sculptural practice from the 1970s, when she began adding horizontal extensions to her columnar shapes, through the early 2000s, when she was most often creating gracefully proportioned vertical works. The major two-dimensional series included in this presentation are the “Arundel” paintings that she started in 1973, and the “Piths,” begun around 2001. The “Arundels” feature barely visible graphite lines and accumulations of white paint on white surfaces. The “Piths,” canvases with deliberately frayed edges and covered in thick black strokes of paint, indicate Truitt’s interest in forms that blur the lines between two and three dimensions. Both these series reveal an artist who was pushing into new areas of exploration, even at the end of her life.
At the conclusion of the exhibition, a separate gallery features the short film “Anne Truitt: Working” by Jem Cohen, a colleague and friend of Truitt’s. The film includes images of Truitt’s studios in Washington, D.C., and at Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, NY, and features the artist working and speaking about her practice and the role of color in her art.
Born Anne Dean, Truitt grew up in the town of Easton on Maryland’s remote Eastern Shore. She studied psychology at Bryn Mawr College and, during World War II, worked at Massachusetts General Hospital as an assistant in the psychiatric lab and as a nurse’s aide. She left the field of psychology in the mid-1940s, first writing fiction and then enrolling in courses offered by the Institute of Contemporary Art in Washington, D.C., a city to which she relocated with her husband, James Truitt, in 1948. As a result of her husband’s profession as a journalist, the artist found herself placed among the political and cultural leaders of Washington during the Kennedy era.
A recipient of Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, Truitt was a highly influential professor at the University of Maryland at College Park (1975–1996) and was the acting executive director of Yaddo in 1984. She was also the author of the acclaimed autobiographical journals “Daybook” (1982), “Turn” (1986) and “Prospect” (1996).
The exhibition is accompanied by the most comprehensive monograph on the artist to date, with essays by Hileman and James Meyer, Winship Distinguished Associate Professor of Art History at Emory University, and a chronology of the artist’s life and career. The fully illustrated book is co-published with D Giles Limited, London and distributed in the United States by D.A.P. (Distributed Arts Publishers).