Minimalist or maximalist, artist layers experiences in abstract sculptures

February 02, 1992|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

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,

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