How a Sculptor Made an Art of Documenting Her Life
The artist Anne Truitt began keeping a journal in 1974, at fifty-three, after retrospectives of her work at the Whitney Museum and the Corcoran Gallery of Art left her feeling “crazed,” she wrote, “as china is crazed, with tiny fissures.” Seeing her sculptures again—all together at once, exposed to public view—she was faced with the “reactivation of feelings” she had sought to contain within them. Keeping a journal became a way to integrate her identity as an artist alongside her roles as a mother and breadwinner—after her divorce, in 1971, from the journalist James Truitt, she took on financial responsibility for their three children. Journalling also allowed her to refine her sense of purpose in making art, or what she describes as “the strict discipline of forcing oneself to work steadfastly along the nerve of one’s own most intimate sensitivity.”
Truitt’s frankness and intellectual curiosity about the hows and whys of a working artist’s life has made “Daybook: The Journal of an Artist,” which was published in 1982, something of a touchstone for aspiring artists and writers. (“She was . . . somebody who had a life,” the installation artist Liza Lou recalled in a 2013 podcast. “She wasn’t just ‘the auteur’ . . . the self-centered artist who only lives for her work.”) “Daybook” was followed by two more volumes of Truitt’s journals, “Turn” (1986) and “Prospect” (1996); this month, a fourth, “Yield,” edited by one of her daughters, Alexandra, will be published posthumously by Yale University Press. When Truitt died, in 2004, at eighty-three, she left behind a body of sculptural work—squared-off wooden columns, human-scaled and covered with bands of color—that challenged viewers to contemplate the limitations of their own senses. Similarly, in her journals, Truitt is often pushing to articulate something at the edge of discernment; much of the pleasure of reading them is in experiencing her thoughts still in formation as she sought to illuminate “the dark, driving run” of art-making.
Truitt exhibited work early and prominently—she had her first solo show at New York’s André Emmerich gallery in 1963, at forty-one; three years later, she was one of the few women included in the Primary Structures exhibit at the Jewish Museum, the exhibition that served to establish Minimalism as a formal direction a tonal galaxy away from Pop art and Abstract Expressionism. But her work didn’t sell well—her sculptures weren’t meant to hang on walls. Nor did she play the art-world game, schmoozing at parties or writing treatises that would launch her into publicity’s slipstream. She lived in Washington, D.C., not New York. While Judy Chicago and other feminist artists had, by the early nineteen-seventies, begun overtly questioning the authority of a male-dominated Western canon, Truitt’s formal explorations spoke more obliquely to the aims of second-wave feminism. But looking at “Insurrection,” a 1962 sculpture bisected into two clashing shades of red, completed the year before Betty Friedan published “The Feminine Mystique,” one can imagine the kinds of revolution that were on the artist’s mind.
Much of the current fascination with Truitt has to do with the ways in which her body of work—pillars or plinths handmade from wood and painted, in a painstaking process involving the application of as many as forty layers of acrylic, sanding between each to eliminate her brushstroke—pushes back against precisely the kind of categorical thinking that seemed to sideline her. Looking as if they were carved from pure pigment—it seemed as though you could cut her sculptures in half and find the color running all the way through—her blunt geometries were related to color-field painting, with its clean-edged shapes of vibrating hues; for Truitt, color wasn’t merely an optical experience but an emotional one. “I slowly came to realize that what I was actually trying to do was to take paintings off the wall, to set color free in three dimensions for its own sake,” she wrote in “Daybook.” “This was analogous to my feeling for the freedom of my own body and my own being, as if in some mysterious way I felt myself to be color.”
The art critic Clement Greenberg placed Truitt at the forefront of Minimalism, writing in 1968, “If any one artist started or anticipated Minimal Art, it was she, in the fence-like and then box-like objects of wood or aluminum she began making, the former in 1961 and the latter in 1962.” If they’d been monochrome, he added, they would have counted as the “first examples of orthodox Minimal Art.” Donald Judd, who deemed her work unserious, objected to her being given such credit, replying that Greenberg’s claim was “in the category of ‘if the queen had balls, she would be king.’ ” The irony of wanting to liberate art from historical baggage only to re-create it on boys’-club terms wasn’t lost on Truitt, whose approach was, in fact, distinct from that of other prominent Minimalists such as Judd, Robert Morris, and Sol LeWitt, with their emphasis on industrially fabricated objects that conveyed nothing beyond their own materiality. By contrast, Truitt, who was interested in abstraction as it refracted perception, believed that life experiences were “the ground out of which art grows.” Her work alluded to a private language of sense memories drawn from the subconscious and rigorously condensed. “Artists have no choice but to express their lives,” she wrote in “Daybook,” a perspective reflected in her evocative titles: “Morning Child,” “A Wall for Apricots,” “Summer ’96.” However unfashionable in that moment, the idea that our characters might be entwined with our art, whether or not what we’re making is explicitly autobiographical, is largely embraced today. Echoes of Truitt’s humanistic, contemplative conceptualism might be detected in Roni Horn’s cast glass shapes, or in the approach of a younger generation of abstract painters such as Laura Owens and Amy Sillman—artists who convey private meaning without relying on narrative or easily read imagery.
Truitt’s hybrid forms are, at last, being recognized as the breakthroughs they were. Her visibility has profoundly expanded since her death, in 2004, at eighty-three, with a 2009 survey at the Hirshhorn; acquisitions made by Dia:Beacon and the National Gallery of Art; and a half-dozen shows at Matthew Marks, most recently of her white paintings with delicate graphite lines, a series begun in the nineteen-seventies titled “Arundel,” in Los Angeles. In 2024, she’ll have her first European survey exhibition at Madrid’s Museo Reina Sofía. Like many women who made their mark on conceptual art —including Agnes Martin, Lorraine O’Grady, and Agnes Denes, to name just a few—Truitt has the dubious honor of being both revered and undervalued, “rediscovered” by contemporary critics and curators while having been there all along.
The focus of Truitt’s life was family and the studio, and many of her journal entries are devoted to navigating the tenuous threshold between the two. There’s the thrill of a new sculpture’s conception: “a magical period in which we seem to fall in love with one another,” she observed in “Daybook.” But we’re also allowed into long days in the studio, the tolls on the body, the killing administrative tasks and financial anxieties. Playing in the bath, Truitt’s daughter, Mary, asked her whether artists are “just born that way,” and Truitt replied that she thought they might be. “I had been absorbing her brown body against the white tub, the yellow top of the nail brush, the dark green shampoo bottle, Sam’s blue towel, her orange towel, and could make a sculpture called Mary in the Tub if I ever chose to.” Reading Truitt, one is reminded that the concept of the “art monster,” a woman who sacrifices everything and everyone for her creative ambition, is absurdly reductive; the demands of art and the demands of love aren’t necessarily oppositional, each coming at the expense of the other, but can often be mutually complicating and enriching. In each volume of her journals, Truitt approaches her past from a slightly different vantage point: she wrote the entries that became “Turn” after her ex-husband’s suicide, and those in “Prospect” around the time of another retrospective, this one at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
In “Yield,” which Truitt began writing in 2001, at eighty, the lens is wide-angle; old age may be “a radical situation,” she acknowledged, but it was also another perch from which to cast her eye. Greenberg makes a cameo in her memories (over martinis and oysters at Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel); as does Marcel Duchamp, casually informing her that she might not, in fact, exist. Places changed—she visited friends in her childhood landscape of Easton, on Maryland’s shore, with its memories of “crushed oyster shell roads; pale whites, yellows, tans, and grays, sharp to your feet but tender to your eyes blending into marsh and field”—only to learn that many of those fields were now filled with big-box stores. The world was changing: “Actuality mocks art,” she noted after September 11th. And her physical capacities were changing, too: “I long ago decided that if the things I make ever cease to emerge into my mind’s eye, I would stop making them,” she wrote. “It never occurred to me that they might simply continue to rise up as long as I live, bid into a body no longer able to rise to meet them.”
Once again, the prose is as unembellished and direct in impact as her sculptures, and Truitt remained an even-handed witness to her own life, the pleasure of visits from grandchildren running alongside her grief at a friend’s passing. There are notably few regrets in Truitt’s sense of an ending: a critic’s query about her feminism touches off a reflection on the “dammed-up force of individuality” that characterized her marriage and the quiet defiance that fuelled her work in the studio; a graduate student’s question about money provokes rueful thoughts of sculptures she wouldn’t have the chance to make. As in her art, Truitt was constantly making monoliths of memory—including the moment a half century before when she understood what she wanted to do with her life: “And one day . . . it occurred to me that if I made a sculpture it would just stand there and time would roll over its head and the light would come and the light would go and it would be continuously revealed.”
Truitt often described her life as a series of departures or “turns” away from the future she’d expected, and the one that had been expected for her. Born Anne Dean, in 1921, she grew up in Easton, where she was taught at home by a private teacher and read to by her mother, with whom she was very close. When she first went to school, in fifth grade, she was discovered to be severely nearsighted: before she got glasses, she mostly saw light, color, and shape. By twelve, the Great Depression had ravaged the family finances and her parents’ mental health; Truitt and her younger twin sisters were sent to live for a year on their aunt’s farm in Virginia, where she learned to work with her hands. A burst appendix, followed by a nearly fatal bout of peritonitis during her freshman year at Bryn Mawr, was another deviation, one that circuitously fed her interest in psychology. She recovered while taking a physical rehabilitation course at a hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, where she played volleyball with psychiatric patients, including Zelda Fitzgerald. During the Second World War, Truitt volunteered as a Red Cross nurse’s aide (she was also a researcher in the psychiatry lab) at Massachusetts General Hospital, in Boston, working with traumatized soldiers, but opted against pursuing her doctorate in psychology at Yale. The demands and rituals of care—from hauling bedpans and washing dying bodies to finding the right words to reassure—had deepened her moral imagination, allowing her “to open up the ducts,” as she put it, that would eventually connect life and art.
After her marriage, in 1947, Truitt accompanied her husband to New York before eventually settling in Washington, where he would work for the Washington Post. As a result of her teen-age illness, she was infertile early in her marriage, years that she later acknowledged as a crucial period of creative incubation that few women of her era enjoyed. She was mostly writing fiction then, only to grow increasingly frustrated with the conventions of storytelling. “I had less interest in narrative than I had thought, and no knack for how things happen in time,” she recalled in “Yield.” In 1955, the same year a surgeon at Johns Hopkins made it possible for her to have children, she translated a book about one of the authors who had influenced her most, Germaine Brée’s “Marcel Proust and Deliverance from Time.” But it wasn’t until she turned to visual art, studying sculpture at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, in Washington, where she befriended the color-field painter Kenneth Noland, that she found her calling. In 1961, at the Guggenheim, she saw her first painting by Barnett Newman. “My whole self lifted into it,” she recalled in “Daybook.” “ ‘Enough’ was my radiant feeling—for once in my life enough space, enough color. It seemed to me that I had never before been free.” The understanding set her on the course she would follow for the rest of her life.
Truitt wrote as she sculpted, returning to the past again and again to find fresh truths. Where her art’s eloquent allusion ended, her journals seem to begin, offering a model of discipline and open-ended inquiry and a welcome counterweight to the kind of anxieties that so often accompany a creative practice. As Rachel Kushner confides in her forward to “Yield,” we read Truitt not only out of curiosity about her biographical details, but for “selfish reasons”: “I was looking for hygiene, perhaps, of a particular kind: in thought and habits, in temperament and mood. I wanted instructions, silly as that might sound, for parsing the world with care, and honoring my own life.”
The paradoxes of creative work that defined Truitt’s being—the balance struck between our senses and our intellect, between the subtle self and the pragmatic one—are not so unlike the tensions at play in our own ambitions to make a mark on the world, to push beyond the formal confines of our particular existence. Perhaps this is why many of us are drawn to artists’ memoirs and journals: to see what’s behind those beautifully lit objects in a gallery, the uncertainty and struggle in pursuit of something subjective and fundamentally unknowable. Artists “catapult themselves wholly, without holding back one bit, into a course of action without having any idea where they will end up,” Truitt wrote in one of “Daybook” ’s best-known passages. “When they find that they have ridden and ridden—maybe for years, full tilt—in what is for them a mistaken direction, they must unearth within themselves some readiness to turn direction and to gallop off again.”