The Chesapeake lighted the art of Anne Truitt


Anne Truitt was a bold, confident artist with the courage to make the simplest of works. She was still making the marvelously spare, elegant pieces that made her famous almost until her death at 83 on Dec. 23.

The cognoscenti of the art world cast her firmly among the minimalists who rose to prominence in the 1960s, but her work was also deeply grounded in the Chesapeake Bay region where she grew up. She was born in Baltimore, spent her childhood in Easton and lived much of her life in Washington's Cleveland Park.

"The light of the bay and Washington," said James Meyer, an associate professor of art at Emory University in Atlanta who interviewed her at length. "She couldn't give up the light and the place. She had a firm belief she belonged in that latitude and longitude.

"The core of her subject matter is her life in the Eastern Shore and in Washington," Meyer said during a telephone interview. "The very early work, which is really so beautiful ... that early work has to do with her childhood in Easton."

But no one should mistake her as a regional artist, he said. Her art transcended regionalism. She was a major American artist.

In her journal, published in 1984 as Daybook: The Journey of an Artist, she talks about discovering her subject matter.

"Discovering," Meyer said, "that she could use abstract form -- which to her was the most open -- to evoke Easton, essentially her neighborhood, the early experiences of a girl in a town. The wood and the paint certainly evoke the houses of Easton, the fences and the environment that was her first environment."

Truitt was a graceful writer who produced three books of meditations on her life and work.

She chafed under the rubric "minimalist" -- much like Agnes Martin, another maker of simple forms who died a week earlier at 92. But Truitt's paintings and sculpture dating from the early 1960s prefigured minimalism. And the new Museum of Modern Art in New York City displays her work in its minimalist and post-minimalist galleries.

"Preconceptions preclude new ideas, fresh conceptions," Truitt told this writer 30 years ago. "And I think that's dangerous. Change is vitality. Vitality is crucial to art."

Courage admired

Spare as her work was, it had vitality aplenty. "Anne Truitt's curious upright planks of painted wood suggest abstract paintings that have popped into three dimensions and leaped out into the room," said Christopher Knight, a Los Angeles Times writer reviewing a survey of minimalist art at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art in May.

In his two books on minimalism, Meyer placed her at the center of the development of the movement. She started making her three-dimensional geometric sculpture in 1962, early in the history of the form.

"I've struggled all my life to get the maximum meaning in the simplest form," Truitt said in 1985.

Meyer said last week that "if there is one thing one can say about Anne Truitt, it's that she was a courageous person. She valued deeply the quality of courage in others and she exemplifies personal courage in all respects. To develop that art at that time took guts."

Meyer, who earned his doctorate in art history in 1995 at the Johns Hopkins University with a dissertation on minimalism, organized a show of Truitt's art in June at Emory University. Her work was unique in minimalism, he said.

"Because unlike most of those artists," he said, "she painted by hand. [The work] was composed. ... She instinctively applied the color to evoke subject matter, to evoke, oftentimes, memory."

Minimalists in general sought to purge their works of art of subject matter. "They no longer believed that art could express a content," Meyer said, "where Anne's work does."

Exacting craftswoman

Although Truitt had taken classes in art in the late 1940s and painted throughout the 1950s, her career blossomed and she found her personal style in 1961, a year after the birth of her third and last child. She was 40 and the wife of the late James Truitt, a journalist who became a vice president of The Washington Post. The marriage ended in divorce. First, a fence-like form that is probably her first "minimalist" work, is in the collection of the Baltimore Museum of Art. The BMA has the largest holdings of her art in the country, 16 of her works, including paintings, painted sculpture and drawings. Two are now on view.

Truitt was an extraordinary craftswoman. She'd redo a sculpture if it were 1 / 16th of an inch off plumb.

"The fabrication of these wooden towers that she would then paint is perfect," said Jay Fisher, deputy director for curatorial affairs at the BMA. "Every joint is absolutely perfect. And the paint she applies to them is so pristine and perfect that we're always worried [that someone might touch them]. She had a very precise, very demanding, rigorous conception, a kind of intellectual rigor.

"She was well read, wrote beautifully, spoke beautifully. And there's almost a sublime sense of perfection to the work itself. It's quiet but rigorous."

"One can't help but think of the peace and simplicity of the bay and the Eastern Shore," he says. "I'm just looking at a picture of the fence right now, and I'm thinking of the small houses, and the flatness, and the quietness -- especially when she lived there."

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad