“The light is wonderful in Washington, [D.C.]” said artist Anne Truitt in an interview near the end of her life. “I have a lifetime of friends here. It’s the latitude and longitude I was born on.”
From This Story
Truitt, largely known for her richly hued columnar sculptures and often associated with Minimalism and the Washington Color Field, claimed the city as her home for more than 50 years. “It’s as if the outside world has to match some personal horizontal and vertical axis,” she wrote in Daybook, the first of three autobiographical journals she published during the 1980s and 1990s. “I have to line up with it in order to be comfortable. … I place myself in Washington, almost precisely on the cross of latitude and longitude of Baltimore, where I was born, and of the Eastern Shore of Maryland where I grew up.”
The first retrospective of Truitt’s entire 50-year career, on display from October 8 until January 3 at the Hirshhorn Museum, features more than 80 abstract sculptures, paintings and drawings that never fully meshed with the critics’ definitions, nor brought Truitt the notoriety enjoyed by peers like Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis and Donald Judd.
Although some critics contend that she might have become a bigger star had she moved to New York City, Truitt knew Washington was where she did her best work. It was a place to which she returned again and again with her husband, journalist James Truitt, between his stints working in Texas, New York, California and Japan for Life, Time, Newsweek and the Washington Post. Her years with James in the Kennedy era were a blur of endless socializing with journalists, artists, politicians and other Camelot-era officials.
After their marriage ended in 1969, she lived a quieter life. She bought a house in Washington’s Cleveland Park neighborhood, where she raised her three children, built a studio and made sculptures until her death in 2004 at age 83.
Truitt prized continuity, and like Washington, her artworks provided another sort of axis for her life. For Truitt, they were objects that existed outside the linear progression of her life, objects that embodied her physical and emotional encounters with people, places and other works such as literature. “She came to feel that sculpture for her was a way that time essentially stood still,” says Kristen Hileman, associate curator at the Hirshhorn. Truitt initially started out writing fiction, but became frustrated with the conventions of the narrative, she says.
“One day I was standing in the living room of our house on East Place in Georgetown, a lovely, sunny little living room, and I thought to myself, ‘If I make a sculpture, it will just stand up straight and the seasons will go around it and the light will go around it and it will record time,’” Truitt said in a 2002 oral history interview conducted by the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art. “So I stopped writing and I called up the Institute of Contemporary Art and I enrolled myself, and I began in January and studied for one year. That’s all the art training I ever had.”
The Formative Years
Before moving to Washington, Truitt lived and worked in Boston for several years. A graduate of Bryn Mawr College, she had declined an invitation to pursue a Ph.D. in Yale’s psychology department after realizing she preferred working directly with people. Truitt worked by day in the psychiatric lab at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital and, at night, as a nurse’s aide. Without her experiences in nursing, she said, she would never have become an artist. The work cultivated in her a kind of physical empathy for others.
“The more I observed the range of human existence—and I was steeped in pain during those war years when we had combat fatigue patients in the psychiatric laboratory by day, and I had anguished patients under my hands by night—the less convinced I became that I wished to restrict my own range to the perpetuation of what psychologists would call ‘normal,’” Truitt wrote in Daybook. “And in the light of what I was reading—D.H. Lawrence, Henry James, T. S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf—I had begun to see that my natural sympathies lay with people who are unusual rather than usual.”