Soon after, Truitt made First, a wooden sculpture that resembled a white picket fence. She also made more room for her work amidst her husband’s social engagements and her children’s needs, and she invested the money she had inherited from her family in her career. There weren’t many women artists of her stature and seriousness that were also wives and mothers, says James Meyer, a professor of art history at Emory University. Truitt didn’t have to get rid of everything else in her life to make her art, nor was she a dabbling amateur, he notes.
Over time, Truitt began constructing more abstract, vertical wooden forms covered in dozens of layers of paint. She had her first show at the André Emmerich Gallery in New York in 1963. Critic Clement Greenberg deemed her a forerunner of the Minimalist movement. But while minimalist artists sought to purge their work of meaning and strip their work down to its most fundamental features, Truitt tried to fill her work with meaning and trigger emotional associations in viewers, says the Hirshhorn’s Kristin Hileman. As Truitt explained in a 1987 Washington Post interview: “I have never allowed myself, in my own hearing, to be called a minimalist. Because minimal art is characterized by nonreferentiality. And that’s not what I am characterized by. [My work] is totally referential. I’ve struggled all my life to get maximum meaning in the simplest possible form.”
She was very protective of her art, says James Meyer. “She would defend her art very intensely if it were exhibited wrongly or she felt it was misunderstood.” Truitt was particularly frustrated when critics—nearly all men in the 1960s—connected the form and content of her work to her gender. She was once described in an article as the “gentle wife” of James Truitt.
An Artist’s Life
The end of Truitt’s marriage in 1969 “set me free to examine and reexamine my own standards, to reaffirm some, discard some and to form new ones for myself, and for my family,” she wrote in Turn, her second book. On the day her new house became hers, she says, “I opened my own front door with my own key, and went straight out to the ground behind the house and lay down on it, among the tall May grasses, knowing it was mine.”
To make ends meet, she taught at the University of Maryland, first as lecturer and then professor, and incorporated art history and literary and philosophical context into her classes. She gave college-wide lectures on contemporary art and was honored as a “distinguished scholar-teacher. Truitt fell in love with teaching and remained with the university for 21 years, enriched by “seeing students go out into the world.”
Truitt became a regular at Yaddo, an artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., where she served as acting director in 1984. And she began to follow a non-sectarian spiritual practice that originated in India. Her vegetarian diet, abstinence from alcohol and meditation bore little resemblance to her social life 20 years earlier.
Neither did she participate in the city’s art scene. Photographer John Gossage, who became friends with Truitt when she used a studio in the same building as his, says she didn’t fit in with the “macho male” bohemian art bar world. With her old-school, Bryn Mawr manners, she came across as more of an art historian, he says.
She was proud of how she successfully balanced work and family life and insisted it was possible for women to have both. “You just have to make up your mind to do it,” she said. “It has to be valuable enough to you for you to work harder, get up earlier, go to bed later, keep your temper.” With a Guggenheim Fellowship, she built a small fisherman’s shack studio in her backyard, just steps from where she raised her children.
Yet she acknowledged that the energy her work required left little room in her life for anything but her family. “It’s the human experience that is distilled into art that makes it great,” she said in the oral history interview. “It’s very difficult to do. It’s difficult to hold the line and it’s difficult to stay true, true in very many ways. True to yourself, true to your experience so you don’t lie about it, don’t fudge it. … It’s extremely difficult and you have to make sacrifices. …You can’t have it all. You can’t. In a way, you can’t have much of a personality or anything because everything has to go into your work. So often you just look dull.”