How a Sculptor Made an Art of Documenting Her Life

The art critic Clement Greenberg placed Truitt at the forefront of Minimalism, writing in 1968, “If any one artist started or anticipated Minimal Art, it was she, in the fence-like and then box-like objects of wood or aluminum she began making, the former in 1961 and the latter in 1962.” If they’d been monochrome, he added, they would have counted as the “first examples of orthodox Minimal Art.” Donald Judd, who deemed her work unserious, objected to her being given such credit, replying that Greenberg’s claim was “in the category of ‘if the queen had balls, she would be king.’ ” The irony of wanting to liberate art from historical baggage only to re-create it on boys’-club terms wasn’t lost on Truitt, whose approach was, in fact, distinct from that of other prominent Minimalists such as Judd, Robert Morris, and Sol LeWitt, with their emphasis on industrially fabricated objects that conveyed nothing beyond their own materiality. By contrast, Truitt, who was interested in abstraction as it refracted perception, believed that life experiences were “the ground out of which art grows.” Her work alluded to a private language of sense memories drawn from the subconscious and rigorously condensed. “Artists have no choice but to express their lives,” she wrote in “Daybook,” a perspective reflected in her evocative titles: “Morning Child,” “A Wall for Apricots,” “Summer ’96.” However unfashionable in that moment, the idea that our characters might be entwined with our art, whether or not what we’re making is explicitly autobiographical, is largely embraced today. Echoes of Truitt’s humanistic, contemplative conceptualism might be detected in Roni Horn’s cast glass shapes, or in the approach of a younger generation of abstract painters such as Laura Owens and Amy Sillman—artists who convey private meaning without relying on narrative or easily read imagery.

Truitt’s hybrid forms are, at last, being recognized as the breakthroughs they were. Her visibility has profoundly expanded since her death, in 2004, at eighty-three, with a 2009 survey at the Hirshhorn; acquisitions made by Dia:Beacon and the National Gallery of Art; and a half-dozen shows at Matthew Marks, most recently of her white paintings with delicate graphite lines, a series begun in the nineteen-seventies titled “Arundel,” in Los Angeles. In 2024, she’ll have her first European survey exhibition at Madrid’s Museo Reina Sofía. Like many women who made their mark on conceptual art —including Agnes Martin, Lorraine O’Grady, and Agnes Denes, to name just a few—Truitt has the dubious honor of being both revered and undervalued, “rediscovered” by contemporary critics and curators while having been there all along.

The focus of Truitt’s life was family and the studio, and many of her journal entries are devoted to navigating the tenuous threshold between the two. There’s the thrill of a new sculpture’s conception: “a magical period in which we seem to fall in love with one another,” she observed in “Daybook.” But we’re also allowed into long days in the studio, the tolls on the body, the killing administrative tasks and financial anxieties. Playing in the bath, Truitt’s daughter, Mary, asked her whether artists are “just born that way,” and Truitt replied that she thought they might be. “I had been absorbing her brown body against the white tub, the yellow top of the nail brush, the dark green shampoo bottle, Sam’s blue towel, her orange towel, and could make a sculpture called Mary in the Tub if I ever chose to.” Reading Truitt, one is reminded that the concept of the “art monster,” a woman who sacrifices everything and everyone for her creative ambition, is absurdly reductive; the demands of art and the demands of love aren’t necessarily oppositional, each coming at the expense of the other, but can often be mutually complicating and enriching. In each volume of her journals, Truitt approaches her past from a slightly different vantage point: she wrote the entries that became “Turn” after her ex-husband’s suicide, and those in “Prospect” around the time of another retrospective, this one at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

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