Anne Truitt’s Artistic Journey

Balancing the two lives of a Washington, D.C. sculptor—1950s hostess and emergent artist

Anne Truitt in her Twining Court studio, Washington, DC, 1962. (© John Gossage)

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Yet her work as a nurse’s aide was not her first encounter with pain and sickness. Born into an affluent family, she spent her first decade happily exploring the shore near Easton, Md. She and her younger twin sisters were taught by a private teacher and her Radcliffe-educated mother regularly read to them. But when Truitt was 12 years old, the Depression ravaged the family income and her parents’ health began to decline. Mr. Truitt struggled with alcoholism and depression and her mother was diagnosed with neurasthenia, characterized by chronic fatigue and weakness. The young Anne was often responsible for running the household.

She and her sisters spent one year with an aunt and uncle in Charlottesville, Va., and then joined their parents in Asheville, N.C., where their father was undergoing treatment and where Truitt felt “exiled.” She entered Bryn Mawr at age 17, but at the end of her first semester, she almost died when her appendix burst during a visit to a friend’s house on the Eastern Shore.When her family’s finances plummeted further, a scholarship saved her from having to drop out of college. The next year, Truitt’s mother was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and Truitt spent many hours on the train between Pennsylvania and Asheville until her mother died later that year.

Truitt would later distill these places, events and memories into her work. She believed experiences—particularly difficult or painful ones—were “the ground out of which art grows,” as she said in her oral history interview. “People talk as if art were something that you did with your eyes and your brain, but it’s not. It’s something that grows out of a ground.”

Life in Washington, D.C.

Truitt arrived in Washington with her new husband in 1947, and the experience of moving to into the city’s upper social circles felt like moving into a shoebox, she said. “I could not believe the consistency,” she said in 2002. “I guess it was…the fact that everybody was so well taken care of and there was a certain level of everybody being the same. They’d all been educated. The women had never worked. So I simply rode on top of all my experience. I didn’t mention it. I never talked about myself, for one thing. Of course, it’s not polite to talk about yourself.”

Her husband James initially worked for the U.S. Department of State, and many of the Truitts’ friends were in the CIA, including top official Cord Meyer and his wife Mary Pinchot Meyer, an abstract painter with whom Anne once shared a studio. “I was floating around in that world…I didn’t pay attention to what was going on. And remember, much was secret. People were covert,” she told art scholar James Meyer in a 2002 interview published in Artforum.

James became Washington Bureau Chief of Life and then vice president of the Washington Post. Through his position and Anne’s involvement with the Institute of Contemporary Art, the Truitts regularly entertained the towering figures of their time, including Truman Capote, Marcel Duchamp, Clement Greenberg, Isamu Noguchi, Hans Richter, Ruffino Tamayo and Dylan Thomas.

A Turning Point

It was in 1961 that Truitt experienced an artistic turning point while viewing the work of Ad Reinhardt, Barnett Newman and Nassos Daphinis in the exhibit “American Abstract Expressionists and Imagists” at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. The works “Reverse[d] my whole way of thinking about how to make art,” she wrote in Prospect, the third of her published journals. Instead of waiting for art to emerge out of material, she realized she could, like these artists, take control of the material to render visible her own ideas.

“I was so excited that night in New York that I scarcely slept,” she wrote. “I saw too that I had the freedom to make whatever I chose. And, suddenly, the whole landscape of my childhood flooded into my inner eye: plain white clapboard fences and houses, barns, solitary trees in flat fields, all set in the wide winding tidewaters around Easton. At one stroke, the yearning to express myself transformed into a yearning to express what this landscape meant to me…”


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