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Anne Truitt and Sculpture
By Miguel de Baca
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
In 1961, Anne Truitt made a sculpture, about fifty-four inches tall, called First (plate 1). Truitt's title signaled a critical shift in which the artist broke away from the highly wrought sculptural experimentation characteristic of her style in the late 1950s and began to concentrate on formal simplicity. These concerns are articulated clearly in First, which is pared down to basics: three vertical, white, painted wooden planks cut to resemble the pickets of an iconic American picket fence. The simplicity of design and construction suggest that Truitt was forging connections to minimalism. Yet if we are to properly historicize First as a work of sculpture, we must consider it — perhaps unexpectedly — as a response not to sculpture itself, but to painting, specifically to the formal and conceptual concerns of modernist painting.
We must also consider the sculpture's allusion to a white picket fence and what that might have meant in the early 1960s, both popularly in American culture and more narrowly within emerging styles of contemporary art usually antithetical to such narrative references. It is tempting to assume that the fence is a nostalgic citation, perhaps reflecting the optimism of President Kennedy's New Frontier politics, which celebrated American exceptionalism as embodied in the folkloric aspects of the landscape.
But this chapter will make something of the opposite case, arguing that Truitt's First, itself a stubbornly vernacular symbolic object and an autonomous, abstract sculpture, represents a significant revisionist discourse. First also preempts the tendency of minimalist orthodoxy (quite formless in 1961 but evolving over the decade) that emptied space of historical architectural referents, preferring instead to see landscape as relentlessly and radically new. Truitt was increasingly occupied by the paradox of inclusive versus exclusive spaces, compactly signified by the iconic fence. This chapter traces Truitt's recoding of the contemporary experience of division by means of an earlier system of chronological and architectural divisions sited in the landscape of her memory. Truitt's perspective was calibrated by a lifelong sense of outsider status rooted in her gender; she felt this division deeply and intimately, even as she occupied a privileged social position.
WHITE PICKET FENCE
It is First's departure from representational likeness that moves us away from a straightforward iconographical reading of the sculpture toward an understanding of the codes of division critical for Truitt at this point in her practice. To begin, unlike most fences one could expect to find in a landscape, First builds in irregularity and asymmetry, as evidenced in the pickets. The central picket is the broadest and tallest, and its vertex corresponds to an imaginary line of bilateral, vertical symmetry: this picket seems the most conventional of the three. The picket left of center is less broad than the first and its vertex tends to the right; the picket right of center is even narrower, with a vertex that likewise tends to the right, if barely perceptibly. Moreover, the space between the first and second pickets is about one-half inch less than the space between the second and third. Asymmetry is built into the frame, too, for instead of joining flush with the margins of the outside pickets, the rails project beyond to different degrees: the top rail protrudes an inch from the right side of the sculpture, and the bottom rail protrudes an inch from the left. Seen from the front, the pickets appear to be set forward on the base; the rear view further reveals a post that is otherwise concealed by the central picket (plate 2). The seemingly fragmentary composition of First invites the viewer to occupy not only both sides but also both ends of the work. By avoiding schematic or predictable geometry, Truitt ensures that the viewer encounters First as a fencelike sculpture, not as a fence. Indeed, our movement around it registers sculpturally — as we occupy one side, the other, and both ends, with each successive view differing from the next — even as we strive to understand the referent.
First's pickets bear further consideration, for their arrangement reveals much about Truitt's approach to both represented and real spaces at this juncture in her practice. Separate and distinct, the pickets, together with the rails, create a grid that frames the real space beyond. Among all of her works dating from 1961 and shortly thereafter, Truitt employed this mode only for First: sculptures such as One (plate 3), Mignon, and Muir (all 1962) are also white-painted plank constructions, but in these cases the vertical pales are joined together without intervening spaces. In contrast to these later works, in which surfaces act as containers for paint, First forthrightly articulates the acute difference between a visible, painted surface and an equally visible space beyond it. That is to say, the armature frames and therefore declares a space on the other side.
TRUITT, NEWMAN, PROUST
The picket fence entered Truitt's mind's eye as a result of an encounter with modernist painting, which in turn prompted a string of memories of personal and historical landscapes that she became determined to translate into sculpture. In 1961 Truitt visited the Guggenheim Museum in New York with her close friend Mary Pinchot Meyer during the exhibition American Abstract Expressionists and Imagists, curated by H. H. Arnason. There, Truitt admired the subtle gradations of hue in Ad Reinhardt's paintings and the "home feeling" of the pressed wooden boards arranged by Nassos Daphnis into assemblage. What struck her most deeply, however, was Barnett Newman's painting Onement VI (1953; fig. 1), an eight-by-nine-foot entirely blue canvas bisected by a vertical white stripe. She writes: "And when we rounded into the lowest semi-circular gallery [of the Guggenheim] ... I saw my first Barnett Newman, a universe of blue paint by which I was immediately ravished. My whole self lifted into it. 'Enough' was my radiant feeling — for once in my life enough space, enough color. It seemed to me that I had never before been free." This was Truitt's breakthrough moment, a point emphasized by the art historian James Meyer: "Truitt was inspired by Barnett Newman's use of simple divisions and great expanses of saturated color, as well as his allusions to the sublime." Yet importantly, First, as much as it owes to Newman, is not a demonstration of the sublime but rather a disruption of it. First is a sculpture, after all, not a painting, and its referent is a decidedly untranscendent, stubbornly mundane object.
The way in which Truitt adapted Newman's painting and his use of the sublime is worth considering at greater length if we are to fully understand the effect he had on her. Scholars have long noted the feeling of existential sublimity that characterizes Newman's Onement paintings. The very titles of works in his oeuvre from the 1950s and 1960s clarify the allusion to spiritual experience. Works such as Genesis — The Break, Cathedra, Genetic Moments, the series titled "Stations of the Cross," and the series titled after Dante's Inferno invite the viewer to impart spiritual meaning into these partitioned fields of color. More specifically, the subject matter (if we can call it that) of Newman's characteristic stripe paintings has customarily been interpreted as the pure and sublime act of division: the division of spirit from the ordinariness of matter. Thomas Hess, while careful to acknowledge that Newman himself never said as much, interprets Newman's ascetic vertical-stripe paintings as chasing after the primordial act of division, summoning the entire myth of creation from Genesis. In Hess's widely supported interpretation, Newman's "Onement" is a state of genesis, a condition of total, unified, and embodied selfhood in the floodlike presence of God. Indeed, Truitt remembers feeling profoundly immersed in Newman's painting. An insightful term for Truitt's experience is co-presence, which Yve-Alain Bois first used to describe the viewer's identification with Newman's vertical stripe (frequently called a "zip"). It is, it seems, this co-presence that affected Truitt so greatly ("my whole self lifted into it") when she encountered Newman's work in 1961. She immediately changed her artistic course, abandoning the small clay sculptures resembling Mesoamerican architecture that had occupied her in the late 1950s (plate 4) and beginning to make sleek, vertically partitioned sculptures.
Yet Truitt's personal identification with Newman's august work has an important temporal twist — and this is crucial to understanding the abrupt change in her practice going forward from First. Truitt had been deeply impacted by the experience of translating the scholar Germaine Brée's book Marcel Proust and Deliverance from Time from French into English, an edition published by Rutgers University Press in 1955 (fig. 2). Brée's work is a critical study of Proust's prominent seven-volume novel about time and memory, A la recherche du temps perdu. In 1953, a friend of Truitt's from her alma mater, Bryn Mawr, invited her to work on the translation. At the time, Truitt was an aspiring writer, and so this literary project interested her greatly. She had also not yet read Proust's work, which made her an ideally objective translator of critical literature on the novel. Writing retrospectively in the notes that accompany her archived working translation, Truitt characterized her introduction to Proust as nothing short of a sea change: "I had, obviously, thought a great deal about art but Proust's formulation of how art came into being, out of an artist's life, 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 material. ... So 1953 was a turning point for me."
Truitt's translation project solidified for her the key Proustian idea that the sometimes unaccounted for aspects of one's subjective experience in memory can find an orderly frame, or structure, through objectification in art. Proust begins the novel by introducing the protagonist as a restless youngster, thus setting up the expectation that he will someday find a calling suitable to his sensitive disposition; we assume that he will become the writer whose words we now read. But this plotline eventually falls away, yielding to the narrator's intense descriptions of sensations and intricate characterizations. At long last, his authorship returns at the end when he realizes that he must not merely revel in his memories, which lend him insights into resolving the tumult he felt at the beginning of the story; instead, he discovers that writing brings together the seemingly disconnected moments of powerful sensation, giving his whole life new purpose. It is not only his vivid recollections that matter, but also the sequencing of those recollections for readers as the mechanism by which his vocation is illuminated. Thus, when Truitt cites Proust's "formulation of how art came into being," she places special emphasis on structures: the material coming-into-being of the artwork reveals a conjunction between the artist's subjective experience of remembering and the viewer's (or, in Proust's case, the reader's) direct experience of the artwork's form.
When Truitt writes that she was "ravished" by Newman, she deploys a word that has strongly sensual connotations corresponding closely to the Proustian paradigm. Take, for instance, an extract on the topic of the famous vignette in which Proust's narrator tastes a madeleine. The highly embodied sensation of this experience instantly envelops the narrator's mind with the powerful memories of familiar spaces of his childhood. Of this sensation, Brée wrote, and Truitt translated:
When the narrator tastes the madeleine, Combray returns to his consciousness in its entirety, unmarred by the transformations and oblivion of the intervening years. He recognized the very substance of Combray and recaptures through memory what made Combray what it was, his own sheer joy at being alive. Beyond thought, emotion, and disillusionment, the narrator has finally come back to his "native country," defined by a joyous contact with reality. Proust, therefore, had also consciously to create this magic contact with reality. [...] Beauty is born of this harmony; it is neither in the individual, who is variable, nor in objects themselves ... but it comes when they are mutually present.
In other words, it is through his sensuous perception of objects that Proust's narrator makes contact with the past. His joy in recovering a past reality, from which he has been disconnected through the passage of time, excites his desire to narrate. The thickness of history between the memory and the sensation is also meaningful to connect the points from the originating context of the memory to the present moment when it is felt again — it helps him answer the crucial question of why this feeling, once lost, now returned. Similarly, Truitt's memories are like flashes of sensory information, souvenirs of the ordinary past made profound by their recovery in the present.
Knowing what we do about Truitt's thinking on Proust in the 1950s, we can see how Proustian memory structured her strong connection to Newman's painting in 1961, which afforded her a striking visual by which to access memory in a revelatory way. Onement VI demonstrated the potential of a personal sensory connection between a contemporary, material object and the general context of origins to which the painting makes a sublime gesture. Instead of plain stripes, however, Truitt tethered First and other early minimal-type sculptures to her own embodied knowledge of familiar forms from her childhood. Continuing the passage on her responses to Newman, she writes: "The fields and trees and fences and boards and lattices of my childhood rushed across my inner eye as if borne by a great, strong wind. I saw them all, detail and panorama, and my feeling for them welled up to sweep me into the knowledge that I could make them. I knew that that was exactly what I was going to do, and how I was going to do it." Her memory thus constructs representation in terms of both likeness ("fields and trees and fences and boards and lattices") and affect ("my feeling for them welled up"). In this way we discover how First exceeds likeness and suggests the possibility of additional qualities assigned to it by the artist, or indeed any viewer potentially connected to these or other similar images. Simply put, to Truitt there is no experience of form that can exist outside the information supplied to it by memory.
What Truitt realized in 1961 was that memory is not merely imagistic, it is also abundantly spatial. Of particular importance in Truitt's passage is the phrase "detail and panorama," which conveys a decidedly topographical view of the objects in Truitt's mind's eye. The citation of panoramic qualities in Truitt's precedent memory reminds us that First is a sculpture formulated as a response to the practice of painting. I would like to think carefully for a moment about this dimensional fluctuation in the operation of Truitt's memory, one that surpasses the Proustian sensorium. The panorama in Truitt's metaphor takes on the character of imagination, of daydreaming, visualized as images rushing against the back of her eyelids. In its essence, a panorama is either literally moving or suggestive of the viewer's mobilized gaze, and Truitt's mental panorama is of an unusually animated sort. As a complementary formulation, sculpture seems all the more "real" to her, providing the durable surface and haptic experience that are missing from the panoramic visualization. Whether exemplified by Newman's abstract fields or the imagined panorama, the practice of painting is anterior to the solidity of Truitt's sculpture; the sculpture resolves the remembered images into a material form and a real spatial displacement. Truitt calculates responses to modernist painting throughout her early practice, as we acknowledge here and will discover in subsequent chapters, but First initiates this response by positing that the properly embodied evocation of memory requires three dimensions, not two.
Excerpted from Memory Work by Miguel de Baca. Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of ContentsAcknowledgments
1. First (1961)
2. Hardcastle (1962)
3. Valley Forge (1963)
4. Truitt in Tokyo (1964–1967)