I first met Anne Truitt, whose major retrospective opens at the Hirshhorn Museum in October, 30 years ago, a few months before I married her daughter. She was the driest, most detached person I had yet encountered, so removed that she toasted us young newlyweds at our reception by remarking that "it is like watching them go down Niagara Falls in a barrel."
Truitt, who died in 2004, attributed her objective persone to her early training in psychology, but, as a girl, born Anne Dean, from a prominent family on Maryland's Eastern Shore, she would dress up in elaborate costumes and await on her porch for her father to return home from work in hopes that he would not recognize her. Anne spent much of her life controlling pain, from severe diverticulitis, from the murder of her close friend the artist Mary Meyer in 1964, and from the eccentricities of her journalist husband James Truitt, who, among other things was the first American journalist to interview Jimi Hendrix and was present at the famous London orgy at which Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were busted for drugs.
James used to lightly mock Anne's columnar sculptures by calling them "telephone booths." Anne had an eclectic list of influences. She was obsessed with Alexander the Great, kept a picture of her Indian guru, whom she had never met, on her kitchen wall, and, at one point, conspired with other powerful Washington wives to drug their husbands’ cocktails with LSD in order to end the Vietnam War, though this plot was probably never realized.
In the politics of art, she had helped Morris Louis' widow unroll his canvases, enjoyed a collaborative relationship with Kenneth Noland and was championed as an original by Clement Greenberg. Precisely because she worked so intensively and personally on her sculptures, Anne was dismissed by Minimalists such as Donald Judd for being too subjective (and, of course, too female) to create true "specific objects." Anne was deeply respectful of her dealer, Andre Emmerich, who criminally ignored her for a long time, giving her the occasional show, but little practical assistance.
In the studio, Anne was painstaking to a fault, finding the right piece of wood, sanding it for months to the point where it could properly absorb and reflect her chosen color and then applying layer upon layer of paint in order, counterintuitively, to achieve maximum transparency. The tiny bands of color at the base of her sculptures, which were subsequently borrowed by Haim Steinbach for his marvelous series of black paintings, were a clue to their meaning. There are two interpretive elements to Truitt's sculpture, a forbidding armor which blocks out the viewer at first glance and then a slowly revealed intimacy which invites further discovery.
In this sense, all of Anne's sculptures were portraits of her own personality, but each is also a tribute to a specific relationship in her life. Creswell, which I watched Anne work on in 1980 when she was exploring a sky blue period, represents a certain innocence and clothing color belonging to the daughter I married. Sorcerer's Summer comes from a later period in Anne's life when she was being especially and unjustly oppressed by certain figures on the Washington art scene. Tribute, with its shimmering evocation of the sun, marks the beginning of a self-enforced calm as Truitt gained acceptance for her series of memoirs, which manage to be honest and forthright while revealing nothing.
In addition to her large and adoring family, Anne was also the product of some especially fecund friends, in the thinking sense, such as the gay, in all senses of the word, anthropologist Tobias Schneebaum, author of the classic Keep the River on Your Right. Like Barnett Newman, the last thing Anne did on earth was apply paint, yellow paint, to a sculpture in her studio. The Hirshhorn retrospective should vault her into a special pantheon of her own, one which she occupied in privacy during her own life and in public now that her work belongs to the world.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).