Minimalist or maximalist, artist layers experiences in abstract sculptures


Washington -- I don't have any ax to grind," says Anne Truitt. "None whatsoever. I don't have any dogmatic position and I don't have any theory I'm trying to promulgate. What I'm trying to do is to record, as honestly as I can, my experience, for what it's worth."

A record of experience? As in work, marriage, children? Birth, death, pain, joy?

From such a statement it might be expected that Anne Truitt writes novels, not that she creates rigorously abstract sculptures and paintings that don't appear referential at all. The archetypal Truitt -- which viewers will see in shows opening at the Baltimore Museum of Art and the C. Grimaldis Gallery this week -- is a column of color, a rectangle of wood of something like human height, clothed in 10 to 40 coats of acrylic paint.

That is all -- or that at least at first appears to be all, and maybe it's not surprising that while Mrs. Truitt's work has been described by various adjectives from austere to seductive, it has perhaps most often been called minimalist. But she rejects that. "I've never allowed myself to be called a minimalist to my face, and every time it comes up I slip out from under it. I'm a maximalist, if anything."

Indeed, the 70-year-old artist puts much more than form and color for their own sakes into these works. She remembers the time when one of her children came into her studio when she was mixing color and said, " 'What color are you after?' And I said 'I'm not after color, I'm after feeling.' "

A writer, too, Mrs. Truitt has published two elegant books of journals, "Daybook" and "Turn," recording her own feelings and thoughts on subjects ranging from motherhood to art. While she does not deal with her works individually, she touches at times on where her art comes from -- including the landscape of the Eastern Shore in Talbot County where she grew up (her home and adjacent studio are now in Washington). And on what her art means to her.

Of a previous show at the BMA she wrote, "When I entered the gallery in which my sculptures are installed, I fell back -- actually stepped back -- before the force of my own feelings distilled into forms rendering visible their own beings. Tears rose to my eyes ** and from that freshet of feeling the unchangeable and unchanging truth: I am always, and always will be, vulnerable to my own work, because by making visible what is most intimate to me I endow it with the objectivity that forces me to see it with utter, distinct clarity."

It is remarkable that one who can write about her work in terms of tears and intimacy should create works that are quite so -- well, she names it: "formal." And explains it.

"I am formal. I was brought up formally. My ancestors were formal. There was nothing in my life that wasn't formal. When I opened my eyes I saw a formal world around me. I began to study Latin in the fifth grade, and I fell in love with the structure of Latin, and I fell in love with the structure of grammar. So that's the way that my mind began to develop toward structure."

Another formative experience was her mother's "extremely correct speech and her lovely voice. I was read to a great deal," encouraging "a certain interior world." And there was "what I observed with my own two eyes."

Later, "I observed that although I lived in a formal sort of way, there was an awful lot of disorder and an awful lot of pain [in the world], and I think I hoped that by pouring pain into order you render it accessible. And you to that degree alleviate it. And if the form can be made to even touch beauty -- whatever beauty is, and I don't know what it is -- approximate it, then there's a tremendous alleviation of pain, just for a split second, and I think it's worth spending a lifetime for that.

"That's the reason I'm formal."

As a formal and in her own way reserved person, Mrs. Truitt is reluctant to discuss the meaning of individual works because "I don't want it [the art] to be attached to my person; I like to keep my person separate." But also, she says, because, "You remember T. S. Eliot's 'Book of Practical Cats'? You remember each cat had a secret name it never told. So do my sculptures. Sometimes I'll go back two or three layers for people, just to make it a little clearer, but I never tell the secret. I can't actually tell it, it doesn't have a word. It doesn't have a meaning in the sense of linear meaning. I can talk about it until the cows come home, but I can't get it. If I could talk about it I wouldn't be driven to make it, would I? Wittgenstein, I think, was right that you can use words up to a certain level of experience, and then you kick the ladder away. Well, I just happen to like to live without the ladder."

Nevertheless, she does consent to discuss an individual sculpture in the BMA show, and chooses "Whale's Eye," a column of blue with bands of darker blue at top and bottom. The title comes from lines in a poem her mother read her, "The Forsaken Merman" by Matthew Arnold:

Where great whales come sailing by,

Sail and sail, with unshut eye,

Round the world for ever and aye.

"The whale does sail and sail with unshut eye. The whale is trying to understand -- this is all my imagination, you understand -- just as I'm trying to understand what it is to be alive, and without much equipment for doing it. And I don't feel I have much equipment for doing it, either. Maybe even less than the whale. I don't have as big a body, so I can't feel things in the same way. And we're caught in a matrix of circumstances. The number of circumstances in which a whale is caught is relatively few, compared to that in which a human being is caught.

"The medium in which the whale lives is water, so it is not subject to gravity in the same way we are, and one of the great efforts in my work has been to obviate gravity; I'm obsessed by that.

"[And] water is the most important element to me. The infinite inflections of color in the water have been a matter of fascination with me all my life. The first time I realized it is when I went to England when I was 10, and we hit the Gulf Stream. I'd never seen water that color, and I realized there was a dimension of beauty I had never taken in before, and it was all around me. I had to open my eyes to look at it and feel it."

"That's what that sculpture is about. . . . [And it's about] permeability [and] nourishment. The whale swims ahead, just as we do, and opens its mouth, and the element in which he or she swims enters the body, and then the whale closes the baleen and keeps in nourishment, and the rest of the material gets filtered out. So that to me is a kind of paradigm for the way in which experience is best understood. You take it all in and then you magnetize to yourself that which is nourishing to you -- not only physically, but spiritually and psychologically and intellectually.

"Now I can get the filter. By concentrating, I can inflect the hue in such a way as to mark the edge between the whale and the water, thus pointing to the way in which experience is assimilated.

"I don't think anybody's going to get that, are they? They're not going to see it, but they may feel it."

People do feel her sculptures, she says -- not all, but some.

"I think many people when they look at a sculpture, they think, 'there's a post with color on it,' and they then dismiss it. They think they've got it, and then they go on to something else. Now, for those people who stay with it, something else happens, I hope.

"I know it does, because in all the exhibitions I've had there's always been one person who's written to say, 'It changed my life. I walked in off the street, and it changed my life, and I want to thank you.' They don't have any more to say. They don't talk in terms of art, just as I'm not thinking in terms of art when I'm making them."

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