Monday, June 21st, 2010

Beauty en bloc: Anne Truitt finds her form at Matthew Marks

Anne Truitt: Sculpture 1962-2004 at Matthew Marks Gallery

May 8 to June 26, 2010
522 West 22nd Street
New York City, 212 243 0200

installation view of the exhibition, Anne Truitt Sculpture 1962-2004 at the Matthew Marks Gallery, May 8 to June 26, 2010

installation view of the exhibition, Anne Truitt Sculpture 1962-2004 at the Matthew Marks Gallery, May 8 to June 26, 2010

Anne Truitt has not always been best served by her admirers.  A case in point is her retrospective last fall, at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.  Although respectfully and lovingly undertaken, it went on too long. The opening space, with its rarely-seen early white and black sculptures, was revelatory, and the ensuing galleries, with their signature square columns, were beautiful at first.  However, given the ultra-simplicity of these columns, the large number of them made them begin to seem repetitive. The dinky miniature sculptures toward the end of the show, and the dirge-like final gallery, devoted to yet more of the artist’s work in black, did not enhance her reputation.

The current exhibition is a very different story. Since the artist’s death in 2004 (at the age of eighty-three), Matthew Marks has been chosen to represent the Truitt Estate. This is their first exhibition from it, and they have wisely chosen to keep it simple.  Only thirteen sculptures are displayed (all painted wood, the artist’s chosen medium for sculpture). Three from the 1960s, large and magisterial, occupy one alcove each at the three corners of the gallery (the fourth corner being given over to the reception area and entry from the street). In the center, a spacious, high-ceilinged & elegantly lit square space, are arranged ten somewhat smaller, classic columns, dating from 1971 to 2004, and rising between 60” and 81” in the air.  They create a magical miniature forest through which gallery-goers stroll, looking at each column from every side, and comparing all with their neighbors.  No two columns are exactly alike.  They vary in dimensions and in coloration, but maintain their high quality, and their cumulative effect far surpasses the sum of the individual works. The whole works as an installation, and more than one visitor seems to have wished to take the ensemble home en bloc.

After a childhood on the isolated Eastern Shore of Maryland, Truitt graduated from Bryn Mawr with a BA in psychology. She spent most of her adult life in Washington, DC, where her husband was a journalist, and where they raised their three children.  Anticipating the entrance of the women’s liberation movement into the art world by nearly a decade, she had to struggle to overcome the perception that she was merely “a housewife who made art.”  Later on, she was instead known not only as a gifted artist, but as a stimulating teacher (at the University of Maryland), and the successful author of Daybook, Turn, and Prospect, all based on journals she kept that chronicled the intimate relationship between her life and her art. Despite decades of exhibitions, reviews and sales, her art has always been difficult to categorize. An early supporter was Clement Greenberg, who, in a 1967 catalogue essay for the Los Angeles County Museum, described how moved he’d been by the “box-like” pieces in her first New York exhibition, at André Emmerich, in 1963.  Still, given her resolute reductivism, she never fitted in with the more complex modernist sculpture of Anthony Caro or Willard Boepple. Still less could she be classed with minimalists of the 1960s such as Robert Morris, Donald Judd, or Sol LeWitt. Aligning themselves with pop by reveling in the machine-made origins of their work, these artists had an edge or bite to them that constituted an opposite pole from Truitt’s serenity. Her intention was evidently to make art that looked handmade and was beautiful, even seductive, to contemplate.  Her nearest aesthetic kin are the first-generation abstract expressionist painters from whom she drew her initial inspiration, especially Barnett Newman.  She was also close to Kenneth Noland, while he still lived  in Washington.

 Anne Truitt, Gloucester, 1963. Acrylic on wood, 73-1/2 x 72 x 13 inches.  Courtesy of Matthew Marks Gallery

Anne Truitt, Gloucester, 1963. Acrylic on wood, 73-1/2 x 72 x 13 inches. Courtesy of Matthew Marks Gallery

All the work in this show is beautiful, especially the columns in the central space.  The colors range from the off-white of Threshold (1997) to the yellow of Sun Flower (1971) and the delicate lavender of Prescience (1978), with its little bands of blue and mauve around the bottom.  But the real muscle is in those three corner alcoves, beginning with White-Four (1962), a narrow, towering white slat on a small white pedestal, and continuing on to Gloucester (1963), composed of two sturdy rectangular slabs, one black, the other deep purple. Third of this triumvirate is Pith (1969), a massive olive-green column that floats slightly off the ground.  Although some columns in the central area were included in the retrospective, the three mighty sculptures in those corner alcoves were not, nor have they been seen in New York in many years.