Anne Truitt’s Art Has Gestated, Her Works Are Now in a Show at the Corcoran Gallery

On view are 30 of her wood sculptures that mystify some viewers, and 50 works on paper

The Washington Star-News, April 21, 1974: For 13 years, Anne Truitt was what she calls an underground artist. Married, with three small children, she spent secret hours sculpting in clay and stone, doing welding and cement casting.

“I just kept quiet about it. I just worked. I was gestating. Things gestate in darkness like babies and if you talk about them too soon they may be aborted.” In 1961, when Anne Truitt surfaced, the first thing she did was destroy nearly all her works. “I had reached a point where all my technical information and training and experience coalesced.” In short, she felt she was, finally, an artist. What had gone on before was important to the process but it was not what she considered the work of the artist she had become.

With some artists, the gestation time is longer than others, she says. “It is a question of persevering in examining your experiences, trying to understand them and doing it long enough with enough clarity of mind and with sufficient emotional passion.”

A retrospective of Anne Truitt’s art since 1961, in which she feels she has distilled her emotional and intellectual experiences, opens at the Corcoran Gallery. It is the first local major museum show this Washington artist has had locally and consists of 30 of her wood sculptures and 50 works on paper.

Ms. Truitt expects there will be some viewers who will be put off, or angered by her work, even now. “It took 10 years for people to get used to my work,” she says. “At first people thought I was crazy. They’d come into the Andre Emmerich Gallery in New York and ask, “Well where’s the art?’ And then they would look at the rectangular boxes painted in tones so subtle as to be almost indistinguishable, and they’d say, “Oh, hell, is this art? Any old person could do that.”

Walking a holding room in the Corcoran where Mrs. Truitt’s work was lined up in rows waiting to be set up for the exhibition, one had the feeling of her presence. Of quiet and order. Of simplicity.

It is the same feeling one gets walking into her living room in the charming brown cottage in Cleveland Park to which she moved with her three children when she and her husband were divorced in 1969. Yet the house is furnished with period pieces. Art books are ranged in neat rows on a Victorian coffee table on which there is a beautifully arranged bouquet of fresh azaleas from her garden.

On the wall over the fireplace, in a peeling frame, is the portrait of “an ancestor, one Pullen; he guarded the door of the old North Church while some one hung up the lanterns for Paul Revere. It’s amusing to have.” On the dining-room wall is a painting of her mother at 20, by William Lockwood. “Obviously after Sargent,” she says, with a loving look at the beautiful girl in a romantic setting.

There are only two contemporary works, both retrieved from an extensive collection when she and her husband parted. One is a lucite sculpture by her friend Helen B. Stern, “Anne’s Church.” It sits on the windowsill and makes rainbows on the blue carpet. The other, an immense painting of what looks like a bull’s-eye covers an entire wall. Its title is “Mandarin” and it is the work of another friend, Kenneth Noland.

Ms. Truitt sits in a simple white rocker, as spare and as pared down as her life. “I don’t like anything flossy. I like things plain,” she says, referring to her life and her work. “My aim is to have my feelings and my meaning come straight through my works without my being in it. I want it clean. I don’t want me in there.”

In what she considers her objective judgment, “the same faculties I use to assess others’ works,” she believes her sculptures and drawings succeed. “I don’t understand why I’m able to do it. I hope to understand it. It’s a mystery to me. I’m just grateful. There are plenty of artists who work like hell and don’t get there. She has dealers in New York and Washington, D.C. Her work has appeared in 18 group shows in major museums nationally, and in three other one-man shows, the last in 1969 at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Her Corcoran exhibit is supported by a grant from the National Endowment of Arts and by the Women’s Committee of the Corcoran. A Guggenheim grant enabled her to build a studio in the back of her house two years ago. It is a private place and one that with quiet determination she keeps for herself; no one is allowed inside.

Ms. Truitt’s particular art form is so physically tiring, that she goes to great lengths to conserve her energy, accepting few engagements, seldom staying out late. Her pieces are hollow forms of marine mahogany plywood, constructed by a cabinet-maker to her specifications. They arrive in her studio in “impeccable condition” and her work begins. She applies between 12 and 40 thin coats of paint, sanding in between each one “first with a heavy machine, then a lighter machine, then by hand.” A work may take three weeks of intensive concentration.

“You have to be passionate, you have to be obsessive. It is a curious business. If I’m a sixteenth of an inch off, I’ll redo the whole sculpture. If you’re off, you’re off; if you’re on, you’re on.”

She was not “on” during the three and a half years she and her husband were in Japan from 1964 to 1967, and upon her return she destroyed everything she’d done there. “I had worked in aluminum, so shipping it home wouldn’t be a problem.”

Ms. Truitt’s exhibition is entitled, “First,” and it consists of three white picket shapes, each a different height and width, on a stand. It looks like and is a picket fence. “I grew up on the Eastern Shore of Maryland where there were many picket fences and beautiful houses with beautiful 18th century proportions. I tried to make the beauty of what I’d seen shine through that fence.”

But what really fascinated her were the proportions. “I abstracted the proportions out of the fence. I counterpoint the color with that form to enrich its emotional meaning.” Ms. Truitt says the two “crucial” aspects of her work are the amount of space displaced by the form, and color.

At 53, she says she has reached a time in her life when she feels comfortable. She enjoys “shifting one role against another,” leaving her studio, showering and changing and sitting down to dinner with her children, Alexandra, 18; Mary, 16, and Samuel, 13.

“I like being a woman,” she says, smiling. “We have so many more resources.” A man, for instance, wouldn’t have the luxury she had of being an underground artist. During those years she was supported by her husband and by her earnings as an art teacher. An inheritance from her mother enabled her to make the immense outlays for materials and construction of her works, and for the household help she had when the children were younger. “I couldn’t have done it without good full time help.”

For a woman, particularly a mother, to achieve as an artist, she says, is “Aristotle’s improbable possibility. It is possible. But you have to maintain an independent personal course of action and that requires thought and planning, and a scale of priorities.” Her children come first; her work, second. There is scarcely time for anything else.

“There’s a price. Your life has to have a kind of purity, you can’t indulge yourself so much. And you have to give up a part of feminine charm, a certain graceful acquiescence to other people’s wishes.

“I sometimes look at women who don’t work. It gives them a soft, rested quality. They’re not driven. I’ve been driven all my life”

…from Judy’s notebook

I had the real joy of interviewing artist Anne Truitt, thanks to a request from the paper’s art critic who was too busy at the moment to take the time. As we sat in a quiet room in Ms. Truitt’s house, a beautiful Siamese cat suddenly came through the door and I was stunned. “What’s the matter?“ Ms. Truitt asked of the look that must have been on my face. Well, two weeks before, our beloved Siamese cat, Willie (named by our sons after baseball great Willie Mays) had been killed crossing our street.

And that’s how we got Timothy and Thaddeus, two Siamese kittens, the just born offspring of two Siamese cats, belonging one each to two of Ms.Truitt’s artist friends. When my husband and I went to choose a kitten from the litter, one of the women taking care of the cats during the pregnancy said, “Oh, do take this one, too, he will be sad to lose his brother.”

Original Headline:

Evolution of an Artist: ‘I just kept quiet about it. I just worked. I was gestating. Things gestate in darkness like babies and if you talk about them too soon they may be aborted.’

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