December 17, 2009

Truitt & A Pithy Quibble

Without a doubt, the current Anne Truitt retrospective (“Perception and Reflection” at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden to Jan. 3, 2010) will help solidify her reputation as a unique individualist who explored color within a “minimalist” framework. Truitt was often overshadowed by the dominant males of Minimal Art – Donald Judd, Tony Smith, Robert Morris and Carl Andre – and her work has been critically underserved to date. Even with Clement Greenberg solidly in her corner, Truitt’s monolithic wooden sculptures are not generally recognized as “key” works among the Minimalist canon. That may change with this retrospective’s exhaustive survey of her work. Truitt’s signature wood sculptures abound in this show and their assertion of form yielding to color is powerfully represented here.

A significant number of critics lump Truitt in with the “Washington Color School” instead of calling her a minimalist. Their theoretical connection of Truitt to Morris Louis and Ken Noland may be comprehensible in theory, yet harder to accept in a practical sense when approaching her sculpture. First, obviously – it’s sculpture; three-dimensional, floor-bound and (almost) exclusively vertical. But the clear demarcation between Truitt’s work and Washington’s colorists lies in its presence. As Greenberg noted in his essay, “Recentness of Sculpture”, her sculptures had “the look of non-art” and it was with Truitt that he discovered “how this look could confer an effect of presence.”(1)

Clem also got it right when he wrote that it was “hard to tell whether the success of Truitt’s best work was primarily sculptural or pictorial.”(2) I think this gets at the crux of a particular reading of minimalism that helps unpack Truitt’s work and explain why she’s considered a “closet” minimalist.

Minimal Art, especially as practiced by Judd and Morris, rejects the relational aspects of what they viewed as “European” ways of art making; part-to-part relationships within paintings or sculptures were rejected in favor of unitary forms and “specific objects.” As viewed by Michael Fried, their works dealt with “the nonrelational, the unitary, and the holistic.”(3) The minimalists’ creation of unitary forms like cubes or I-Beams was a result of their rejection of “part-to-part” composition. Furthermore, their belief in “wholeness” included unification of the object with its color; if there was color at all, it was generally primer gray or “rust.”

In Truitt we have a “sculptor” who happens to make three-dimensional “paintings.” Her use of her forms become similar to a painter’s use of supports, as her primary focus remains what can occur with color when it is applied to forms like hers:

“I realized that changes in color induced, or implied, changes in shape. That though color and structure retained individuality, they could join forces rather as independent melodies can combine into a harmonic whole. And that when I combined them in a particular way, they had a particular content.”(4)

It becomes abundantly clear then that Truitt’s exclusion from the patriarchal minimalists has to do with her preference for “metaphorical” color and the illusory relationships within the form of her work. Predominantly “boxes,” her preference for shifting the tonalities of her colors from plane to plane within a single structure focuses attention on the corners. Given the physics of light falling upon these geometric forms, the result is that corners more often than not appear to be fluctuating from three-dimensional to “two-dimensional.” Moreover, the actions of her hand-applied colors on those boxes often involves relationships between the changing colors on nearby, perpendicular planes that frequently produce more illusions; visual “trickery” of false depth, corners that appear to reverse and fold in on themselves.

Granted, we have to admire the maverick quality of Truitt but it is clear that her work has been critically positioned over the years as lacking the “toughness” associated with the minimalists' “boys club” of Judd, Morris, Andre, et al. That, too, may soon change. As Kristen Hileman notes in printed materials accompanying the Truitt show, “We are currently in a scholarly moment that welcomes a re-evaluation of the past and acknowledges the interplay between an artist's output and his or her individual experience.” Our appreciation of Truitt lies in her conflation of painterly sensibilities within an obdurate and “scary” structure.(5) And, indeed, there is one series of Truitt’s works on exhibit that scared me, albeit, for different reasons.

The “Pith” series is a group of canvas swatches that Truitt painted thickly with black pigment. The canvas pieces have frayed edges and irregular shapes and are encased in typical museum cases with the pieces laid horizontally. By some accounts, the “Pith” works were to be hung vertically on a wall like paintings.(6) In fact, with their gestural and impasto brushwork, and in their horizontal address, they seem to speak now of Pollock and his choreographed “action painting,” rather than how Truitt may have envisioned them. There is some speculation that the frayed edges of “Pith” pieces may relate to that fuzzy “cut” on the “throat” of “Nicea.” Whether a curatorial decision or an estate preference, the decision to lay “Pith” flat is apparently something other than what the artist had in mind.

Image: Installation view of “Anne Truitt: Perception and Reflection” showing “Pith” piece in the foreground; Photograph © Copyright by Lee Stalsworth.


1. Greenberg, Clement. “Recentness of Sculpture,” reprinted in Minimal Art: a critical anthology (G. Battcock: ed.), Berkeley, 1995, 185.

2. Ibid., 185.

3. Fried, Michael. Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews, Chicago, 1998, 156.

4. Meyer, James. “Grand allusion: James Meyer talks with Anne Truitt,” ArtForum, May 2002.

5. In her 2002 conversation with James Meyer, Truitt talks about how Greenberg found her work “difficult” and that he visited again until he finally “saw it.” She recounts how when Greenberg first saw Hardcastle he “backed away from it and said, ‘Scares the shit out of me.’

6. In conversation with a Hirshhorn guide, I discovered that photographer John Gossage has recalled Truitt intended that “Pith” works were to be hung.

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