With Heather away on a girls’ trip during the long holiday weekend, Truitt and I made the drive up to North Carolina to let my parents soak up time with their grandson. I managed, also, to sneak away to visit another Truitt: the sculpture Night Wing by Anne Truitt, on display at the Mint Museum in Charlotte.
My son being named for her, it’s likely I think of Anne Truitt more than most other artists. I thought a lot about her before he came along, too, of course, and spent much of the pregnancy re-reading her journals. I return to them continually. I do not, unfortunately, get to spend so much time with her artworks in person. I shouldn’t have been surprised at the feeling of actual giddiness as I paid my admission and asked where the piece was located. I laughed at my own excitement as I hurried to the elevator.
Night Wing is, basically, a column of wood gone over with acrylic paint. It measures 72”h x 12”w x 12”d. It registers to the eye as a violet monochrome. It is easy enough to describe it in this banal way. Such a description, of course, belies the work’s presence, to say nothing of the patience and laborious determination required to create it. But how can I describe the shock I felt at first seeing it from afar? In that instant all my giddiness evaporated. Truitt’s works are not objects of the “what you see is what you see” variety. They are rooted in memory and intuition, in a kind of ever-fleeting episteme which must nevertheless assert itself. Her shapes appeared before her fully formed, arriving as unexpected visions. Her colors were often worked out in "rough facsimiles,” color being a more slippery thing to translate from the mind into the world. But there was no need to force ideas, only to be aware. As easy-going as this may sound, it is a precarious balancing act for an artist, bound to bring frustration and disappointment all the while demanding constant openness and vulnerability. Now I was standing in the presence of one of these hard won visions made physical. A new feeling then took me by surprise: assurance.
Anne Truitt’s works negotiate a space between epiphany and contemplation. Even if we are barred from sharing in the precise memory that was for her linked to such a work as Night Wing, we share in the general experience of memory itself, of unexpected memories, of our interactions with them in all their myriad manifestations. But one must be receptive to this. Like anything, epiphany and contemplation are aided by being regularly practiced. I considered this as, over the course of nearly two hours, I watched museum patrons come and go, most seeming to barely register Night Wing and favoring instead the dancing stripes of Gene Davis’s Jack-in-Box or the electric vibrato of Richard Anuszkiewicz’s Soft Orange. Many people passed by in pairs, and, pausing for a moment before one of these pieces, would quietly comment on its effect—an invariably immediate effect.
I’ve read somewhere, I believe in Arden Reed’s Slow Art, that the average time a viewer spends with an artwork is between six and ten seconds. I have no way to verify this, but I accept it as verified for me at least anecdotally. We want to see everything a museum has to offer, what catches the eye most rapidly takes precedent, and at heart we are true believers that information grants knowledge as quickly as we can receive it. It isn’t for me to say that one way of navigating a museum or gallery is better or worse than any other. I was struck, however, by the apparent uniformity of movements around me. Why was I compelled to lean, walk to and from, squat, crawl, and sit with this single work? I did not want to be that man Truitt describes in Turn: “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.” Still, yes, I wanted to see the bit of dust there, and the light play across the layers of subtly shifting colors. I wanted to take in the light those colors seemed in turn to emit. I wanted to catch glimpses of the horizontal and vertical strokes she alternated, sanding each one down until a final, perfectly smooth surface emerged. I wanted to glide over that surface. I wanted look underneath, to see the recessed base, to witness how such a simple little thing can make this column of wood float, hovering just as it might have in that instant when the piece occurred to her. Yet above all I wanted to share with this sculpture memories for which there are no words.
And all of these things I did. I thought of my son, I thought of my wife, I thought of my parents, I thought of many friendships, I thought of my own art, of others’ art, of art in general, of utterly random moments, and, of course, I thought of Anne Truitt herself. I thought, also, of nothing. For timeless stretches I was simply there. It occurs to me only now that this is essentially the same state I enter into when painting.
So there I sat, staring at Night Wing. Occasionally I noted the whispered conversations or heard excited calls from the adjacent hall to see “the Obama painter” Kehinde Wiley’s Philip the Fair. It occurred to me the extent to which so much in the experience of art is social. There is an undeniable healthfulness in this—so much so that it seems nearly antisocial to excuse oneself from it. But I remained assured by Night Wing. I thought, “It is communal, not social.” I then quickly clarified for myself, “Communion, that’s the word for this.” This act is private enough to render one nearly invisible, and not just to passersby. After all, had there been in another room of the museum someone else communing with an artwork of their own, we could never know of each other's presence.
In point of fact, my fellow museum patrons really existed only at the periphery of my experience with Night Wing, but it is admittedly easier to speak of my juxtaposition with them than to put into words a span of time that, in its most sublime moments, exceeded language. And if I have spoken of Anne Truitt’s works here as “between epiphany and contemplation” and as “communion,” I have done so fully aware that such descriptors evoke the sacred. This is for me something distinct from the religious. The Latin sacer suggests something more akin to “accursed” or “cast out.” In ancient Roman law one so designated could be murdered with impunity but could not be sacrificed in rites of religious ceremony. Somewhat ironically, this status effectively granted the condemned a sovereign existence, freeing him of proscribed obligations to state and society. It is a dramatic metaphor, to be sure, but then I am reminded of a line Truitt wrote in Daybook, “There are murders as subtle as a turned eye.” When the time came, I slowly made my way out of the room, trying to hold Night Wing in view for as long as possible.
The following morning Truitt and I said goodbye to my parents. The drive isn’t a particularly long one for an adult, but is a bit much for a toddler who mostly wants to run and climb about. I tried to time our departure with his nap to save some fussing. Soon enough we were caught in a heavy downpour that brought the highway traffic to a crawl. Glancing in the mirror I saw Truitt was fast asleep. Well, he certainly has assurance in me, doesn’t he? I couldn’t help but smile, a little giddiness creeping back in at how impossibly much I love this child.
No view can be held forever. We simply must be receptive, ever willing to risk the “turned eye,” and recognize our moments of communion when they arise. “People talk as if art were something that you did with your eyes and your brain, but it’s not,” Anne Truitt said in an oral history for the Smithsonian, “It’s something that grows out of a ground.” This ground is inherently difficult to speak to: indeed, it is sacred. At our best, this is what we put at stake when we put art into the world.