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Anne Truitt - Biography and Legacy

American Sculptor and Painter

Anne Truitt Photo

Born: March 16, 1921 - Baltimore, Maryland

Died: December 23, 2004 - Washington, D.C.

Biography

Childhood

Born Anne Dean in Baltimore, Anne Truitt grew up in the coastal town of Easton on the shores of Maryland. As a happy, sprightly child, Truitt and her two younger twin sisters flourished in an affluent household under her mother's maxim: "Children should be brought up like cabbages - with lots of sun and space and let alone to grow." Roaming around the local streets with a sense of wonder and discovery, Truitt later remembered, "[A]nd so it was with the little town of Easton...an orderly scattering of houses, mostly white clapboard, so small that even on my short legs I was able to encompass the town's dimensions."

Truitt struggled with near-sighted vision that her parents did not discover until she was in the fifth grade, and she felt that her poor vision shaped her distinctive way of viewing the world, recalling, "I lived in a world composed of light and color and shape, which I did not see, but which I had to intuit...." As an adult, she linked these experiences with her highly sensitive awareness of color, saying, "[B]ecause I couldn't see, I was forced to develop my kinaesthetic sense to what may perhaps be an unusual acuity."

At school she was not taught art, remembering, "The only art I can remember in my childhood was in Sunday school, where they gave us...these horrible pictures of Christ and... we were given crayons and told to fill in the outline." Visits to her Aunt Nancy's farm were more enlightening, where she helped to make soap, can peaches, and separate milk, learning, in her words, "how to use my hands."

When Truitt turned 12, the Great Depression depleted the family's income, and both her parents' health declined. Her father struggled with alcoholism and depression, and her mother, with whom Truitt was very close, was diagnosed with what was then called neurasthenia, a condition noted for fatigue and anxiety. As a result, Anne often had to fend for herself and her younger sisters.

Two years later, the family moved to Asheville, North Carolina, where her father was treated for his alcoholism, but the Eastern shore stayed with Truitt as she matured. On returning as an adult to her childhood home, Truitt found she was unable to reconcile her memories of the past with her experiences in the present, writing, "I go back and yet I cannot go back. Time has locked it all away from me as if I had died. I am irredeemably thrust into my own mind, and there I find it all, in weight and lines and colours distinctively my own."

Early Training and Work

At the age of 17, Truitt entered Bryn Mawr College to study psychology and earned a Bachelor's degree. While studying, she came down with a major case of appendicitis from which she almost died. Her doctors at the time wrongly diagnosed her as infertile, which she later cited as a reason for focusing on an art career as a young woman, unaware that she would go on to have three children. Several years later, when Truitt was in her 20s, her mother died of a brain tumour. As a mature adult, Truitt described these painful life experiences as "the ground out of which art grows," embedding them into her deeply contemplative artworks.

On graduating in 1943 with a thesis exploring the subject of ego strength, Truitt declined the offer to join the psychology doctoral program at Yale University, choosing instead to pursue hands-on roles to help people in need. Throughout the Second World War Truitt worked at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, during the day as a research assistant in the psychiatric laboratory and at night serving the wards as a Red Cross Nurse's aide, tending to wounded, traumatized soldiers. She wrote, "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...."

As an escape from the challenges she faced, Truitt immersed herself in literature and poetry, reading D.H. Lawrence, Henry James, T.S. Elliot, Dylan Thomas, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf, and began writing her own poems and short stories. The magnetic pull towards the arts became stronger as Truitt admitted, "I had begun to see that my natural sympathies lay with people who are unusual rather than usual." Truitt quit her psychiatric work at the age of 24, feeling strongly compelled to be an artist.

In 1947, Anne married the journalist James Truitt, and the pair eventually moved to Washington, where they became part of an elite social circle of government officials and journalists, including CIA official Cord Meyer and his wife, the painter Mary Pinchot Meyer, with whom Truitt later shared a studio. Truitt, however, felt somewhat distant and removed from a society cloaked in secrecy, saying, "I was floating around in that world ... I didn't pay attention to what was going on...much was secret. People were covert."

At this time, Truitt began to attend art classes, including a sculpture course at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Washington taught by Alexander Giampetro. When her husband became the vice president of the Washington Post newspaper, Truitt became increasingly involved in the arts, and over the years entertained such guests as Marcel Duchamp, Clement Greenberg, Isamu Noguchi, Hans Richter, and Dylan Thomas in their Georgetown home. Truitt had three children in the 1950s and early 1960s and continued to make art while raising her family.

Mature Period

A turning point came in 1961 when Truitt visited New York with Mary Meyer and encountered New York's abstract art face-to-face for the first time in the exhibition American Abstract Expressionists and Imagists at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. She was completely taken in by the scale and color of the work she encountered, particularly Ad Reinhardt's Color Field paintings and Barnett Newman's famous "zip" canvases, saying, "The works reversed my whole way of thinking about how to make art." The effect the work had on her was profound, as she remembered, "I was so excited that night in New York that I scarcely slept. I saw too that I had the freedom to make whatever I chose."

In the same year, she first began to make sculptures in the style that would come to define her career, producing simplified wood sculptures that resembled picket fences and tombstones. Although the work was abstract, it was also filled with references to Truitt's life experiences through oblique links to landscapes and family, as she explained, "[T]he 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." The work she made gradually shifted towards vertical wooden columns and towers, layered in dense, carefully applied layers of paint, with subtle shifts in color and tone.

During this time Truitt's friend, the Washington Color School painter Kenneth Noland, invited the art critic Clement Greenberg to see her new work. Greenberg was so impressed that he recommended Truitt to his friend, the dealer Andre Emmerich, who gave Truitt her first solo show at his 57th Street Gallery in 1963. Although she soon became associated with the dominant trend of Minimalism, Truitt always saw her work existing on the periphery of such ideas, saying, "I have never allowed myself, in my own hearing, to be called a Minimalist. Because Minimalist art is characterised by nonreferentiality. And that's not what I am characterised by. [My work] is totally referential. I've struggled all my life to get maximum meaning in the simplest possible form."

The Truitt family moved to Japan in 1964 to follow James' work and stayed for three years. Anne later confessed that she never felt at home in Japan, and though she continued to make sculptures, she later destroyed much of the work she made while living there. The family returned to Washington, but in 1969 James and Anne divorced, leaving Anne to raise their three children alone. Truitt described her struggles to balance making art alongside family life as living a double life, saying, "I worked between carpools and buying food and cooking and whatever else I had to do. I lived an outside life, but really I was living an inside life."

She chose to remain in Washington, supporting herself with teaching at the University of Maryland, where she brought her interests in history, literature, and philosophy to her classes and became a hugely popular professor, continuing to teach for the next 21 years.

Late Period

Truitt's artistic career continued to flourish in the 1970s, as she expanded into painting and work on paper, culminating in several retrospectives at major American museums. By this stage she had emerged as a central figure in the Washington Color School along with the painters Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis. Truitt began to chronicle her experiences as an artist and a mother in a diary during this time, integrating her interest in psychology with her thoughts about her art practice, and later published these musings as Daybook in 1984. Following its success, she produced two more volumes in the same decade. On juggling motherhood and an arts career, she said in an interview, "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."

In the 1980s, Truitt developed a connection with Yaddo, a storied artists' colony in Saragota Springs, New York, later becoming its acting director in 1984, where she befriended photographer John Gossage.

Truitt died in Washington in 2004 at the age of 83. Reflecting on the place she was living in near the end of her life she wrote, "The light is wonderful in Washington. I have a lifetime of friends here. It's the latitude and longitude I was born on." She was honoured posthumously by the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington in 2009, and her estate is represented by Matthew Marks Gallery in New York.

Legacy

Anne Truitt is recognized as a leading figure of the Washington Color School along with a predominantly male-centred group of artists who made geometric art infused with resonant, vibrating color relationships. Truitt was also championed by Clement Greenberg as a pioneer of the Minimalist style that arose in New York in the following decades as practiced by Sol LeWitt, Donald Judd, and Dan Flavin. Greenberg stated, "If any one artist started or anticipated Minimal Art, it was she."

Despite these connections with the Washington Color School and Minimalism, her work held a deeper connection to the Abstract Expressionists, who also imbedded emotional experiences into their art. Truitt explained, "I think...the artists who became Minimalists took off from the look of my work, but missed the point of it - that point being the delicate fulcrum between the gravitas of discipline in the form and the intensity of the emotion in the color." Her work's deeper connection to the physical and perceptual properties of the human body were hugely influential on the next generation of Post-minimalist artists working in a broad range of styles throughout the following decades and who were intent on investing greater cerebral content into Minimalist forms, including the poetic, intellectually engaged sculptures of Roni Horn, the powerful, socially aware installations of Felix Gonzalez-Torres, and Rachel Whiteread's sculptural casts of intimate and monumental everyday objects.

Most Important Art

Quotes

"As I work to understand my life, its scale seems to diminish, as a tree I gaze up into flattens when I walk up a mountain and look down on it. Humility is really more natural than pride, which seems to me always to involve a lie."
"This life, a gift of grace for an unknown reason, must be lived purely, because at death we return with its accruements to our source. Life is entrusted to us, does not belong to us, and has to be restored in honorable condition. We are responsible for this trust, and must live with this fact in mind."
"The hallmark of a decision in line with one's inner development is a feeling of having laid down a burden and picked up a more natural responsibility."
"Perhaps the human lesson is always submission. We have a choice: to rebel or to recognize our powerlessness while maintaining our faith."
"By keeping on being what we most intimately are, we can continually redefine ourselves so that we become what we have not been able to be. If we live this way, we surprise ourselves."
"I refused, and still refuse, the inflated definition of artists as special people with special prerogatives and special excuses."
"I am, and I am going to be, the kind of person I have trained myself to be. In a way that almost amounts to just retribution, I am stuck with the results of all my choices."
"Love...is the honoring of others in a way that grants them the grace of their own autonomy and allows mutual discovery."
"Artists have no choice but to express their lives."
"Balancing intuition against sensory information, and sensitivity to one's self against pragmatic knowledge of the world, is not a stance unique to artists. The specialness of artists is the degree to which these precarious balances are crucial backups for their real endeavor. Their essential effort is to catapult themselves wholly, without holding back one bit, into a course of action without having any idea where they will end up. They are like riders who gallop into the night, eagerly leaning on their horse's neck, peering into a blinding rain."
"It is not true that only artists understand art, for there are in every generation some people who not only understand it but also enhance its reach by appreciation."

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