Anne Truitt’s Journals Strike a Proustian Note

In 1963, when Anne Truitt had her first solo exhibition, at André Emmerich Gallery, many visitors wondered where the art was. The objects — generally human-scale wooden columns with careful divisions of color — could be mistaken for pedestals without statues. Truitt’s family and friends were similarly confused; up to that point, she was primarily thought of as a sister, a mother, the wife of a prominent Washington journalist. Her austere sculptures, which had overtaken her abruptly in the winter of 1961, were seen as a kind of odd hobby. “Nobody really knew what I was doing,” the artist later recalled. “Everybody thought I was just sort of batty.”

The intensely productive period leading up to Truitt’s first show is understood today as a central part of a major art-historic upheaval, in which the Abstract Expressionist paintings of the 1950s virtually leapt off the wall, becoming the “specific objects” of 1960s Minimalism. Though Truitt never identified herself with that movement, it’s easy to see how she got grouped in with it: her sculptures generally lack adornment or representative form, with sharp blocks of color bisecting clean shapes. As a body of work, they are demanding, precise and ambiguous. Their regal simplicity calls for heightened attention. And their titles — “Hardcastle,” “Summer Child,” “Insurrection,” “Bloomsday” — confirm the impression that they have stories to tell.

Truitt was that rare artist whose words are regarded as highly as her works. Her published artist’s journals — Daybook (1982), Turn (1986), Prospect (1996), and Yield (2022) — are cult classics of art literature, revealing a mature and confident artist who ceaselessly interrogates her process without ever doubting it. But to know how she became Anne Truitt in the first place — and to grasp some of the astonishing experience that informed her early work — one must instead to turn to Always Reaching: The Selected Writings of Anne Truitt, a new collection of  selected writing, letters, lectures, and interviews that span Truitt’s career, compiled and edited by her daughter, Alexandra.

Truitt jacket
Always Reaching: The Selected Writings of Anne Truitt, edited by Alexandra Truitt, Yale University Press, 2023 (image courtesy Yale University Press)

Always Reaching begins with a journal entry from 1946, when Truitt was 25 and living alone: “I am always reaching toward meaning, seeking in every act, every observation, to discover, as one moving rapidly past a grilled garden gate, the expanse behind the phenomenon.” Her precise metaphors would define her artist’s journals decades later. And, indeed, the germ of her artistic breakthrough is already encapsulated in this first sentence. Her seminal sculpture “First” (1961) is, as she would later admit, a “perfectly literal” work; formed of three peaked slats held together by a cross-beam, it resembles a section of a white picket fence. “When I was about eight or nine or ten I used to walk along fences and look at the boards,” Truitt later explained. “When I was little I often couldn’t see over fences, so I became conscious right away of the spaces, the distances between the boards, the distances between things, and the intermittent nature of observation.”

In 1953, newly married and still striving to be a fiction writer, Truitt was asked to assist in the translation of a book about Proust. What she found in his writing “set a kind of spine along which my thought has developed ever since. I saw perfectly plainly how an artist’s life folded into art, rather as air is folded into egg whites in a soufflé: spirit into the material.” Again, the perfect metaphor describes the dynamics of something we can otherwise scarcely perceive: the confluence of memory and materiality that permeates her creations. With her titling, fabrication, and especially her use of color, the artist sought to distill certain sense-memories of childhood — the breeze of a summer morning, the terrifying randomness of death — into abstract form. Taking in a Truitt is like eating a spiritual soufflé.

This Proustian quality is the secret behind her sculpture’s strange powers and her writing’s peculiarly exhilarating thrust — there’s some detective work involved in tying her memories to her monoliths. But the most valuable part of the collection by far is the “Title Tapes” interview from 1997, in which Truitt’s daughter, Alexandra, simply asks her mother to explain the title of each work — probing that most confounding of questions: Where inspiration comes from.

For instance, when Alexandra asks Anne to talk about “Watauga” (1962), an imposing partition of black and purple planes, the artist is instantly transported to 1934. She was 13 when both her parents had breakdowns in response to the Great Depression, landing them in a mental hospital in Asheville, North Carolina. Anne, the eldest of three, was left to maintain the financial stability of the family in Easton, Maryland. She talks at length about the indignities she suffered, and the psychological toll of maintaining a semblance of order for her siblings.

And when my parents steadied off, they did a thing which they shouldn’t have done, […] they sold the house in Easton, the big house, for $5,000. […] My beautiful house and my beautiful land was taken from me. Easton was taken from me — I was just exiled. […] My parents had left the hospital and were staying in a boarding house on Watauga Street [in Asheville], which was around the corner from the hospital. We all spent two or three nights there, and it depressed me more than I’m able to say.

“So that’s ‘Watauga,’” she adds, pulling herself out of the memory. “I got a lot into the sculpture, didn’t I?”

Always Reaching: The Selected Writings of Anne Truitt, edited by Alexandra Truitt (2023), is published by Yale University Press and is available online and in bookstores.

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