- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 18, 2009

Imagine paint leaping off the canvas to be liberated as an object in space. Washington artist Anne Truitt spent most of her career striving for that freedom through tall columns of colors meant to be seen in the round.

Truitt, who died in 2004 at age 83, developed her reductive art during the 1960s in the wake of abstract expressionism. Her painted sculpture is considered a forerunner to minimalism, but is little known compared to the work of male artists such as Ellsworth Kelly and Donald Judd who pursued a similar style.

The Hirshhorn Museum has stepped up to burnish Truitt’s reputation with a long overdue retrospective of her art. This well-paced, elegant survey allows her columnar sculptures to be seen from all sides so their faces, corners and edges can be perceived as parts of faceted abstractions.

The totems are meant to rest on the ground, but are grouped on low, curving risers in the galleries so that they can be compared to one another. This arrangement sometimes works well, as in the “Dryad” quartet of posts, their colors reflecting seasonal changes in nature.

Other clusters of sculptures mistakenly suggest a multipart installation instead of separate pieces meant to be viewed individually.

Truitt’s work is easily described as minimalist, but her austere art doesn’t truly belong in that camp since she hand-painted her posts rather than having them manufactured by machines in the minimalist way.

With their brushed-on surfaces and subtly varied shades, her sculptures are more closely related to the color-field paintings championed by influential New York critic Clement Greenberg, who promoted Truitt’s work in the 1960s.

Their perceptual tricks are akin to the paint-saturated effects created by Washington’s color-school artists, whose influence is downplayed in the exhibit. The logic of Truitt’s sculpture can’t be understood at a glance like so much minimalist art.

Chronologically organized by curator Kristen Hileman, the exhibit offers visual surprises at every turn. “Landfall” appears to be monochromatic but on closer inspection reveals barely discernible variations in matte and glossy blue and green.

“First Requiem,” the only piece to be displayed in its own niche, startlingly shifts from vertical stripes of navy and pink on one face to yellow and red on another.

The tall, slender dimensions of Truitt’s mature pieces, most rising from six to eight feet, suggest crucifixes, buildings, monuments and bodies, but their gravity is denied through color and design. Recessed bands placed between the sculpture and ground make the pillars appear to float. Horizontal strips of paint at the top act similarly to separate the vertical shafts from the spaces above them.

Truitt’s strong vision is all the more remarkable considering she first developed her colorful sculptures while in her 40s. In one of her published diaries, the artist writes of fitting her work into a busy schedule of shopping, cooking, cleaning and entertaining as a wife to journalist James Truitt and mother of their three children.

Born Anne Dean in Baltimore, the artist grew up in Easton on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. She studied psychology at Bryn Mawr College but became disillusioned with the field while working in a psychiatric ward at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

After marrying Truitt and moving to Washington, the young housewife enrolled in the city’s Institute of Contemporary Art where she was taught by painter Kenneth Noland. The Truitts relocated to Texas, New York and San Francisco where she continued to study and make sculpture while raising two daughters.

In 1961, a year after the birth of the couple’s son, Truitt found her own voice. Her inspiration was a visit to New York’s Guggenheim Museum to see an exhibition featuring works by Mr. Noland, Ad Reinhardt, Barnett Newman and others.

Impressed by the freedom of their abstractions, Truitt rapidly shifted the direction of her work. She simplified her sculpture into painted constructions of wooden slats supported on platforms.

The initial piece in this series, called “First,” recalls part of the white picket fence from the artist’s childhood home in Easton. A later creation, “Southern Elegy,” resembles a tombstone painted in green and black, perhaps a symbol of the artist’s buried past as she moved in a new direction.

From these early works, Truitt started making thicker, taller slabs in brighter hues with allusive titles. Painted in bright and dark reds, “Valley Forge” suggests the blood spilled by George Washington’s Continental Army and the scarlet uniforms worn by British troops.

The Truitts separated in 1969, prompting the artist to buy a house in the District’s Cleveland Park neighborhood and build a studio in the backyard. Her husband, who had moved to Mexico, committed suicide in 1981, a decade after the couple’s divorce.

Over time, the artist perfected a technique of layering many coats of paint onto her prefabricated wooden pillars, alternating horizontal and vertical brushstrokes to achieve smooth surfaces. Only rarely does an imperfect stroke enter her work, as in the fuzzy red band encircling the pink sculpture called “Nicea.”

In her 80s, Truitt changed direction again to create the flat “Pith” series. These thickly painted black canvases, their edges frayed, have a morbid, foreboding quality as if anticipating the artist’s death soon after they were made.

The exhibit concludes with a film made of Truitt working in her Cleveland Park studio with a voice-over by the artist. She describes one of her jars of paint as “sickish,” noting “when I put that with another color, it’ll just zoom into being.”

This retrospective shows how she accomplished such juxtapositions, making painting come alive in three dimensions.

WHAT: “Anne Truitt: Perception and Reflection”
WHERE: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Independence Avenue and Seventh Street Southwest
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily; through Jan. 3
ADMISSION: Free
PHONE: 202/633-1000
WEB SITE: www.hirshhorn.si.edu

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