Anne Truitt has always refused to be labeled a minimalist, and the two exhibits of her work that open today at the Baltimore Museum of Art and the C. Grimaldis Gallery bear her out.
Yes, there is a certain relationship, a kind of kissing cousinness, between Truitt's standing objects of painted wood and minimalism as there is a certain relationship between them and the Washington color field school of painters. But if she in part belongs to both camps she also belongs wholly to neither.
Similarly, the question as to whether her works are paintings or sculptures is legitimate but trivial, since they can be called both or neither. But calling them one or the other does them less than full justice, since they float in some indeterminate place between the two.
And float is what they seem to do physically as well, or at least those made after the earliest ones with visible bases. By the mid-1960s Truitt was recessing her bases so that the works seem to hover just above the floor, lending them some degree of the illusion that they're weightless color; one of their strengths is the resulting tension between this illusion and their solid three-dimensionality.
That's not where illusionism stops in these works, however. Another of their sources of tension is that between their seeming non-referentiality and the references given them both by their titles and their relationship to landscape.
Not only has Truitt written of them in terms of the verticals (trees, fences) standing up in the flat land of the Eastern Shore where she grew up. And not only do their titles often refer (if indirectly) to landscape -- "Breeze," "River Rose," "Meadow Child," "A Wall for Apricots." Looking at them, it is possible to see that if one could unwrap the color and put it flat on the wall, the verticals and horizontals of landscape would become even more obvious.
Moreover, the subtle changes among bands of essentially the same color in works such as "Portal" (whites) or "River Rose" (reds), give a feel of the atmosphere of landscape -- of objects changing in appearance in the constant change of light when one is in the landscape. So these works are illusional as well as allusive in that they refer to landscape, but also contain something of the illusion of being landscape, or aspects of it.
Their titles can add other layers to the illusionism of these works, too. "Whale's Eye," for instance, in its very size has the bulkiness which suggests a large solid object, such as a whale, but its blue color, in the suggestion of the water in which the whale lives, works against the object's density thus creating an added degree of tension that makes this one of Truitt's strongest works. One finds one doesn't want to touch it, to feel its woodness and thus destroy the illusion of flesh and/or water.
Other works create illusion in other ways. The yellow horizontal band of "Carson" is so strongly contrasted with the blacks above and below it that it leaves the impression of being light rather than paint. The size, shape and colors (black and dark blue) of "New England Legacy" suggest a night cityscape, even if the "sky" is at bottom, which has the further illusionary effect of making the "buildings" seem to float on air.
If it can be done without undue sentimentalizing, I would suggest that these works have qualities akin to individual character, or even personality. An individual work can be vulnerable ("Posit"), audacious ("River Rose"), serene ("Twilight Fold"), somber ("Ship-Lap").
In other words, there is a lot going on in Truitt's work beyond simply color and form, but that is not to deny their non-referential validity; that is, their validity -- and their beauty -- as color and form.
It is possible, though rare, for their beauty to be a flaw; the lush, organically (rather than geometrically) layered reds of "Speak" border on the romantic, and in Truitt romantic is a weakness, reserve is strength.
The two-dimensional paintings, of which a group are on view at Grimaldis, are less complex than the sculptures, and they even more strongly suggest landscape.
"Anne Truitt: A Life in Art" continues through April 19 at the Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive near Charles and 31st streets. Call (410) 396-7100.
"Anne Truitt: Sculpture and Painting" continues through March 1 at the C. Grimaldis Gallery, 1006 Morton St. Call (410) 539-1080.