Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
Anne Truitt’s multihued columns stand about the height of a person. Thick bands of paint — she would lay on up to 40 layers — give each one a personality of sorts with which viewers engage based on conscious and unconscious associations with particular colors. Yet Truitt did not envision her columns as representations of the human form. As curator Kristen Hileman explains in the catalogue to this smart retrospective, the artist imbued them with natural, architectural, and psychological references deriving from her experiences growing up in rural Maryland and her early career as a clinical psychologist.
Truitt was dabbling in wood, clay, and wire when she saw works by Ad Reinhardt and Barnett Newman at a group show in New York in 1961. She then turned to radically distilled form and geometric abstraction, creating pieces that explored subtle shifts in color and the vertical shape’s totemic power. Landfall (1970), for example, is a study in barely perceptible gradations of powder blue and green that evoke the ever-shifting line between land and sea, or between seeing and not seeing.
From the late ’60s until her death, in 2004, Truitt lived in Washington, D.C., and worked most often in the columnar format. She did venture into other sculptural areas, such as planks, walls and horizontal forms — which were, interestingly, some of this show’s strongest pieces. Grant (1974) stretches gracefully across the floor in layers of beige and brown like sediments of sand, and Insurrection uses two red fields, suggesting competing bloodstreams, on an upright plank to express violent upheaval. She made acrylic paintings and works on paper, both of which were well-represented here but looked a bit dour next to the vibrancy of her three-dimensional work.
Because all the piece here had been mounted on white risers, with up to six sculptures crowded together, visitors could not fully apprehend each pictorial story as Truitt intended. This was too bad, but it detracted little from a brilliant show that laid a convincing claim for Truitt’s pivotal role in postwar American sculpture.