From Left: Anne Truitt, Parva XXIX (1993) and Blythe (1998).

Not So Carefree
Anne Truitt: An Appreciation

by Deanna Sirlin

I have been thinking a lot about Anne Truitt this year. She is an artist for whom I have the utmost admiration, and I have thought of her often since her death in 2004. We met at the artists’ colony Yaddo in the summer of 1983, which seems like a million years ago. I was at the beginning of my life as an artist—a young pup of a painter—while she was at a mature state of her artistic life, generous with her thoughts and ideas and friendship.

At the time I met Anne I knew very few woman artists of her generation. I neither knew her work nor had heard of her books. The fact that I thought Minimalism was just a movement from the early 70s was not a great reflection on my education, but every school has its biases.

But I did understand her paintings, sculptures, and drawings. They were so like her: clean and clear, and yet so personal in their touch. You felt the presence of her stroke even in works where you saw no stroke. The colors were rich and flat, yet luminous and bright.

I remember Anne in her starched oxford shirts, big glasses, and bowl-shaped white hair. She must have been about 62 when we met. What a contrast with me at 24, in my floral pattern shirts, brightly colored in colors like magenta and teal, often with paint stained body parts that were as bright as my clothes. The contrast between us was dramatic, but the language of painting transcends superficial values like clothing and age.

Not to say that age makes no difference at all. I remember reading Anne’s book Turn sometime in 1986 after the book was published. Later that year I saw Anne at the Phillips Collection in Washington where we met in the Bonnard room, more to my taste than hers, perhaps, and we talked bout her book. When I told her I found Turn depressing, Anne reassured me that if I were to reread the book in 20 years, I would find in it comfort rather than sadness. I did reread Turn more than 20 years later and discovered, of course, that she was correct. I found her description of the effort of going up and down a ladder to paint coat upon coat of color on her sculptures, even through pain and exhaustion, exhilarating. Was I hearing her voice or my own? Her voice reaffirmed my belief in the process of making art. Artists face obstacles throughout their lives: the young artist’s angst gives way to the physical trials of the mature artist. But reading Anne’s writing made me realize that although making art does not become easier as one gets older, the process remains energizing. 

This past summer, Anne’s work was part of a group exhibition titled Painting: Now and Forever, Part II at Matthew Marks Gallery in NYC, which opened on the tenth anniversary of Painting: Now and Forever Part I which showed originally at both the Mathew Marks and Pat Hearn Galleries.

One of Anne’s works included in this exhibition was her acrylic painting Blythe (1998), a lovely sky blue, sleekly painted square with a small curvilinear dark blue shape that stretches across the bottom. I have to admit that the title confuses me. The spelling Anne used is usually used as a woman’s first name, though the evocation of “blithe,” which can mean carefree or casually indifferent, makes me wonder to whom or what she was referring. Was she being ironic, or just naming something the way it felt to her, something personal or perhaps even autobiographical in nature? 

Other works by Truitt in the exhibition were brightly and lovingly painted monoliths, strong and straight and bold, so like the artist herself. Although painted sculpture, or three-dimensional painting, has always been a bit hard to pigeonhole, this form is the perfect articulation of her aesthetic. Rectilinear columns with intense color wrapped around them became the hallmark of her work.

It is interesting to compare the hand of Mary Heilmann, the only lucky artist who got to be in both editions of Painting: Now and Forever, with Truitt’s. Mary‘s stroke is of the thick, clean, liquid, you-do-it-once-so-you’d better-get-it-right variety, while Anne’s reflects the Puritan ethic of layering and layering until it is right, or starting over from scratch.

So was Anne gently mocking her own earnestness with her title? Was the mother of Minimalism so carefree? Was she trying to escape the tireless worker bee, who works the painting until it seems effortless, in herself? Or does any of that process stuff matter anyway--isn’t it form that leads us to the content of Blythe ?

When I climb the ladder in my studio to reach the top of a painting, or get on my hands and knees in the course of working, I delight in having known one whose work and voice inspire me to go on. 

Thank you, Anne. 

The first major exhibition of Truitt’s work since 1974, Anne Truitt: Perception and Reflection, a survey of two- and three-dimensional works made during the artist’s 40-year career, will open at the Hirschhorn Museum on October 8, 2009. “Truitt has been largely under-recognized for her contribution to post-1960 art. The exhibition is organized by associate curator Kristen Hileman and will be accompanied by the first complete monograph on the artist.”

Deanna Sirlin is Editor-in-Chief of The Art Section and an artist. www.deannasirlin.com.