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Artist Anne Truitt on Vulnerability, the Price of Integrity, and What Sustains the Creative Spirit

“It is not true that only artists understand art, for there are in every generation some people who not only understand it but also enhance its reach by appreciation.”

Artist Anne Truitt on Vulnerability, the Price of Integrity, and What Sustains the Creative Spirit

Art, at its most potent, springs from the artist’s longing to bridge her private truth with the truth of the universe and transmute it into a public form that beckons forth the private truth of the viewer. This forceful yet delicate dynamic was at the heart of Patti Smith’s beautiful childhood anecdote of the swan, but no artist has captured it more powerfully than the visionary mid-century sculptor Anne Truitt (March 16, 1921–December 23, 2004) — a woman of enduring insight into the creative experience and the human spirit, which her training as a clinical psychologist allowed her to articulate with uncommon elegance and lucidity.

Anne Truitt in Tokyo, 1966
Anne Truitt in Tokyo, 1966

In a 1982 diary entry from the altogether magnificent Turn: The Journal of an Artist (public library), Truitt recounts the unexpected and electrifying revelation that overcame her as she faced her own work in a major retrospective at the Baltimore Museum of Art — a deeply personal experience that, like so much of her writing, captures a profound universality about being an artist:

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 freshest 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. A strange fate. I make a home for myself in my work, yet when I enter that home I know how flimsy a shelter I have wrought for my spirit. My vulnerability to my own life is irrefutable. Nor do I wish it to be otherwise, as vulnerability is a guardian of integrity.

The greatest point of vulnerability for the artist is that all private integrity is always subject to public misunderstanding, that the impulse toward the former must necessarily concede the possibility — the likelihood — of the latter. Truitt laments the inevitability of this Catch-22 of creativity:

The world can make no meet response to art. Praise can miss the point as much as a casual remark such as I overheard last night: an impeccably turned-out gentleman bounding up the stairs to the gallery exclaimed over his shoulder, “And now to see the minimalist — or maximalist!” He had all the relish of a casually greedy person with a tasty tidbit in view; he was on his way to gulp down my life with as little consideration as he would an artichoke heart.

Anne Truitt in her Washington, DC studio in 1973
Anne Truitt in her Washington, DC studio in 1973

And yet the blessing and burden of the artist, Truitt reminds us, is that she has no choice but to incur the risk of being so misunderstood and commodified — for that is the price of integrity. “Artists have no choice but to express their lives,” she had written a decade earlier. And now, facing this major showcase of her work, she revisits the point from another angle:

Do I wish, can I afford, in my own limitations, to continue to make work that has such a high psychic cost and stands in jeopardy of being so met? Do I have a choice? I do not know. Neither whether I can further endure, nor whether I can stop. The work is preemptory. My life has led me to an impasse.

What sustains the creative spirit through this uncertainty, Truitt suggests, isn’t the awareness of standing on the shoulders of giants — of all the artists whose lives are a testament to the burden being bearable and even transcendent — but of standing alongside those giants, shoulder to shoulder:

In the course of wandering the museum until I could decently leave, I confronted a Cézanne and felt as if a muscular hand had taken mine and Cézanne stood beside me, grubby with clotted paint, silent in his own life, impelled by its force to record it.

While it is not true that only artists understand art, for there are in every generation some people who not only understand it but also enhance its reach by appreciation, there is a freemasonry among us. We stand shoulder to shoulder, generation to generation.

To read Truitt’s Turn a generation later is to take her hand and be guided in sublime solidarity toward an assuring awareness of just how intimately entwined the trials and triumphs of the creative life really are. Complement it with Truitt on the cure for our chronic self-righteousness and the vital difference between doing art and being an artist, then revisit Teresita Fernández’s extraordinary commencement address on what it really takes to be an artist.

Published January 21, 2016




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