There's a new exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum from October 8, 2009–January 3, 2010 that might be of interest to Writer's Center members and readers of this blog. This piece was originally published in Hirshhorn's Magazine, and they've allowed us to reprint it here. It was written by Associate Curator Kristen Hileman.
Abstraction is not easy.
Rather than working in representational imagery that depicts such things as everyday objects or human forms, some artists express themselves exclusively in a vocabulary of color, shape, and compositional arrangements. Broadly speaking, people are used to receiving information in words or pictures that have a fairly direct and recognizable relationship to the reality in which we live (think photography, film, and television, as well as the entire genre of illustration). How then does communication unfold when an artist intentionally distances her or his images from reality, abstracting experience and ideas? Does this process of abstraction make concepts more personal or more universal? And what sort of role should/do art historians, curators, and critics play in mediating abstraction through more familiar modes of exchange?
It seems important to raise these questions in relation to the art of Anne Truitt, the subject of the Hirshhorn’s exhibition Anne Truitt: Perception and Reflection. Truitt is a pioneering but under-studied figure in the history of twentieth-century abstraction. She was a contemporary of Color Field artists Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis, and her reduced geometric sculpture, notably her hallmark columns, developed in tandem with the work of Minimalists like Donald Judd during the early 1960s. However, her work has not occupied as prominent a place in the discourse of post-1960s art as theirs. Among the reasons that could be proposed to explain this, a particularly provocative one is that Truitt’s work eludes (and given the artist’s independent personality one might even say intentionally eluded) easy categorization, and categorization is a key strategy by which critics, scholars, and curators interpret abstraction, indeed any kind of art, for a broader public.
While her palette was incredibly important to her work, unlike the Color Field artists, Truitt explored color in three dimensions, rather than on canvas. And although she had the rectangular and columnar infrastructures of her sculptures fabricated, Truitt transformed them through non-primary, hand-painted color in a way that distinguished her from the Minimalists. Further, the artist’s work was inflected with the correspondences of its physical dimensions to the human body and architectural elements from her childhood on the Eastern Shore, as well as evocative color compositions and titles that comprise the names of places and literary allusions, among other references. In retrospect, it is the human stamp that Truitt gave to streamlined, geometric shape that seems a crucial and unique link between the generation of Abstract Expressionists that preceded her and the radically reduced abstraction that developed over the course of the 1960s.
However, one senses from writings of that same decade by Judd and others that this connection to art of the past was demoted in favor of the “new” Minimalist mode of art-making in which expressive gestures were replaced by manufactured objects that, broadly speaking, claimed to have no references or dependencies outside of the relationships initiated during a viewer’s physical encounter with them. Interestingly, here we are faced with a more general question of whether the scholarly and critical interpretation of abstraction is not just a matter of analytical categorization, but of taste, judgment, and even fashion, with the result that one kind of artistic practice is promoted over another.
So where does that leave Truitt’s work? Her art is ripe for rediscovery and ready to be considered on its own terms. By the late 1960s, critical dialogue emphasized the “far-out” and forward-looking. Today, we are currently in a scholarly moment that welcomes a re-evaluation of the past and acknowledges the interplay between an artist’s output and his or her individual experience. Anne Truitt: Perception and Reflection and its accompanying catalogue, offer a contemporary study of the artist’s career, documenting its evolution from the late 1940s until her death in 2004. The project also recognizes the essential need to enable new generations of viewers to draw their own conclusions through firsthand exposure to pieces from collections across the United States, brought together in the Hirshhorn galleries.
Truitt was born in Baltimore in 1921 and raised on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, a geographic and architectural setting that influenced the art that she came to make. In 1947, she moved to Washington, DC, where she would spend the majority of her adult life. Having worked in the field of psychology and also writing fiction, Truitt delved into the visual arts in the late 1940s, enrolling in Washington’s Institute of Contemporary Art. Throughout the 1950s, she primarily made figurative sculpture in such materials as clay, cast cement, and stone, much of which she intentionally abandoned or destroyed in the early 1960s. Also during this period, the artist and her husband, journalist James Truitt, were part of a lively Washington social circle that brought together artists, journalists, politicians, and government officials.
After visiting the Guggenheim Museum’s American Abstract Expressionists and
Imagists exhibition in November 1961, where she was impressed by the paintings of Ad Reinhardt and Barnett Newman, Truitt’s work took a dramatic turn toward reduced, geometric abstraction, establishing the focused and individualized area of artistic exploration that she pursued for the next forty years. In addition to producing sculpture, paintings, and drawings (all of which are represented in the exhibition), Truitt also published three auto-biographical books, Daybook (1982), Turn (1986), and Prospect (1996). Truitt lived in Northwest Washington’s Cleveland Park neighborhood since 1969. She passed away in December 2004, after completing the remarkable columnar sculptures Return and Evensong, both on view at the Hirshhorn.
The almost 100 works in Anne Truitt: Perception and Reflection embody Truitt’s “life in art,” to quote the title of an exhibition of the artist’s sculpture organized by Brenda Richardson for the Baltimore Museum of Art in 1992. They also present themselves for the contemplation of today’s audiences who will ultimately arrive at their own meanings for Truitt’s rich language of abstraction. No doubt, some viewers will appreciate the work because of its place in the trajectory of art history while others will connect with it by developing their own associations for Truitt’s forms. Still others will look for a universalizing of experience in the artwork—whether that be a shared investigation of how we perceive color and light or how beautiful objects have the power to prompt emotional response and reflection that transcends particular circumstance. But happily and hopefully, many will respond in a way that not only cannot be categorized, but also cannot be fully articulated, just as abstraction in general and Truitt’s art in particular is so much more than the attempts to explain it.
So while abstraction is not easy, it can be as rewardingly and endlessly rich and complex as those who make it and those who consider it.
Anne Truitt: Perception and Reflection is organized by the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. The exhibition is made possible by the Henry Luce Foundation, The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, The Judith Rothschild Foundation, and the Anne Truitt Patrons Committee, with additional support from the Hirshhorn Board of Trustees and the museum’s Annual Circle donors. The Anne Truitt Patrons Committee co-chairs are Tim Gunn and Martin Puryear.