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Anne Truitt's Life as Color

The major exhibit at the Hirshhorn Museum this fall, Anne Truitt: Perception and Reflection, is a great way to spend a couple blissful hours lost in thought. Although Truitt grew up in Easton, on Maryland's eastern shore, and worked for most of her career right here in Washington, D.C., her work flew under the radar. Most of what I knew about her before this show is because of Tyler Green's pieces at Modern Art Notes.

In her Cleveland Park studio from the 1970s until her death in 2004, Anne Truitt quietly created sculptures in an emblematic style. In her preference for geometric shapes and solid colors, Truitt is related to the Washington Color Field School, just in three dimensions instead of two. Really, it's four dimensions when you experience her sculptures as she intended, according to her writings in Daybook and elsewhere, taking in all sides of the piece as they unfold to a circumambulating viewer over time. "The emotional impact of the work depends on memories accumulated as one walks around the sculpture," she said. "The impact is cumulative, available to remembered experience rather than immediate visual impression." The object carries in it the potential image, like a Sumerian cylinder seal, waiting to be realized as an image when it is impressed on the pliant clay of a willing viewer's mind.

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Anne Truitt, Daybook
Truitt's favorite shape, well represented in the show, was the rectangular prism, tall and narrow and standing on one end. Truitt dropped hints about the shape's meaning and how it evolved in her work, from stories about her childhood as an intrepid explorer looking through fences (the fence makes a literal appearance in some early pieces). She also wrote about how she had an image of herself as a citadel, shielding her interior life from life's challenges (the thick wall was also an important early stage). She certainly had enough of them: illness, her family's loss of its earlier wealth, a divorce, her ex-husband's eventual suicide.

In her last decade Truitt had the chance to travel and saw in person some of the works she realized had been an influence on her, including those of Giotto and Piero della Francesca, in which architectural elements like columns and segmented façades are used to assist formal organization of the picture plane. Outlines of houses and buildings, from her upbringing on the Chesapeake shore, also appear, both in drawings and silhouette pieces. Her work combines the seemingly contrasting feelings of solid groundedness and upward-yearning flight, of "wanting to set color free in three dimensions for its own sake," as Truitt wrote, adding "as if in some mysterious way I felt myself to be color."

Her favorite medium was wood, which she covered with acrylic paint, brushed on in layers, sanding after each one. The long rectangular prisms are hollow but weighted to the bottom, standing on narrow bases that are recessed so that the object appears to hover. Truitt began using regular house paint but switched to mixing her own colors, which she did meticulously, with some shadings that modulate over the surface in almost imperceptible ways. (She worked out many of her ideas in large white drawings with just a few faint pencil lines on them.) The exhibit closes with a screening of Jem Cohen's short film Anne Truitt: Working, which combines some beautiful stills and film footage of Truitt working in her studio with the artist's narration of her working methods, made during a stay at Yaddo. One of the images is of shelves filled with her jars of mixed colors, as well as modifying agents, bowls for mixing, sanders, and brushes. At last, the color is set free.

Anne Truitt: Perception and Reflection will be on view at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., through January 3, 2010. Sadly, it will not travel to other museums.


Ben Gage said...

this is a great show for an artist we should remember...

As Color said...

very nice pictures