The Heart Of The Matter

Anne Truitt is an artist of the old school. That she was born into genteel circumstance in Baltimore in 1921 and graduated from Bryn Mawr during World War II are only indirectly connected. Yes, Truitt is a grandmother who lives and works not in Soho but in Washington, D.C., reads the classics, and is given to saying things like "I have a friend in Horace." ("I like to smoke when I talk," is about as downtown as she gets.) Of course she writes well, having published two critically praised memoirs, "Daybook" (1982) and "Turn" (1986). But what really marks her as an orphan of the current cacophonous scene is her beautiful sculpture. Fifteen examples of it, dating from 1961 to 1988, are the subject of a jewel-like exhibition, "Anne Truitt: A Life in Art," at The Baltimore Museum of Art through April 19.

Truitt's work is deceptively simple. Take "Autumn Dryad" (1975), for instance. It's a boxy wooden column, a little taller than most people, painted entirely orange except for a grayish mauve brand around the bottom. At first glance, it seems like a design fillip for a Scandinavian airport lobby. But as you continue to look at it (and you cannot help but look at it), you notice that the acrylic paint has been lovingly applied in untold coats. Simultaneously, the sculpture looks like it's solid color, like butter is yellow all the way through. The piece makes your mouth water (which is, by the way, the test of all good abstract art). "Autumn Dryad" is visceral-as opposed to conceptual-minimalism. As Truitt puts it, "Everything is written on the body. Your experience stains your body like color dyes a canvas. [That's why] the paint sinks into the wood. It marries the wood." In almost all the works on view, the bride and groom indeed live happily ever after.

Truitt's remarkably consistent sculpture first surfaced in New York in a gallery solo show in February 1963. The exhibition was badly (in both senses of the word) reviewed by Donald Judd (who showed his first minimalist work 10 months later). Truitt has been underrated ever since. Perhaps it has to do with her use of romantic, nonprimary colors on the kind of basic geometric forms other sculptors prefer to render in black or white or naked steel. Maybe it's her work's inescapable allusions (to a place, a season, a time of day) that cause theorybound critics to see it as too much heart and not enough head.

The rebuttal that this exhibition gracefully offers is that Truitt's art is anything but reductive. She doesn't whittle down material excess and then call a halt just before the sculpture disappears. She builds up from an emotion until she's made her poetic point, and then lets her objects stand there and sing. For those who choose to listen, it's more than enough.