Buzz Aldrin, 79, the second man to walk on the moon, recently published Magnificent Desolation , his memoir about his life since the 1969 lunar landing. He spoke with the magazine's Joseph Caputo.

Looking back, how would you have changed the lunar module? It did what it was supposed to do. Maybe we could have put the antennas in better places, but they all eventually worked. It was just amazing how much deployable cargo we were able to stow in the descent stage. The ascent stage looked ugly, but it didn't need to be smooth and shiny-looking. It needed to function in a vacuum, and it got the job done.

What were your most memorable moments in the lunar module? The 11 minutes of powered descent to the lunar surface. That was the pioneering effort we'd been preparing for: putting together the analysis of what we needed in terms of navigation, thrust, control, autopilot and communications. We had to be able to smoothly execute that maneuver and simultaneously retain the option to abort at any time and return to orbit.

Do you think the United States should be planning a return to the moon? I don't think we should send humans unless they engage in some sort of commercial activity that could help defray the very large cost of living in an environment as hostile as the moon. In the meantime, we should be charting a clear pathway that will increase our capabilities: developing better spacecraft and communication technologies, finding ways to protect ourselves against long-duration radiation effects and bone and muscle deterioration.

What are the take-away lessons? We need to focus on how best to make the transition from the space shuttle to the space station to space exploration. Otherwise, we end up with a gap that's difficult to fill. We didn't have a gap between the Mercury and Apollo programs because we put in an interim program—Gemini—that really made Apollo possible. But we didn't follow up very well. We could have used both Skylabs as a platform for further exploration, instead of putting the backup in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

Willem de Kooning Still Dazzles

In 1926, Willem de Kooning, a penniless, 22-year-old commercial artist from the Netherlands, stowed away on a freighter bound for America. He had no papers and spoke no English. After his ship docked in Newport News, Virginia, he made his way north with some Dutch friends toward New York City. At first he found his new world disappointing. “What I saw was a sort of Holland,” he recalled in the 1960s. “Lowlands. What the hell did I want to go to America for?” A few days later, however, as de Kooning passed through a ferry and train terminal in Hoboken, New Jersey, he noticed a man at a counter pouring coffee for commuters by sloshing it into a line of cups. “He just poured fast to fill it up, no matter what spilled out, and I said, ‘Boy, that’s America.’”

That was de Kooning, too. Of the painters who emerged in New York during the late 1940s and early ’50s—Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, among them—de Kooning, who died in 1997, remains the most difficult to capture: He is too vital, restless, jazzy, rude and unpredictable to fit into any one particular cup. He crossed many of art’s boundaries, spilling between abstraction and figuration over a period of 50 years—expressing a wide variety of moods—with no concern for the conventions of either conservative or radical taste. According to Irving Sandler, an art historian who has chronicled the development of postwar American art, it was de Kooning who “was able to continue the grand tradition of Western painting and to deflect it in a new direction, creating an avant-garde style that spoke to our time.”

The de Kooning retrospective that opened last month at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)—the first devoted to the full scope of the artist’s seven-decade career—presents a rich, nuanced view of a great American painter. For curator emeritus John Elderfield, who organized the show, the endeavor was unusually personal: the allure of de Kooning’s art helped lead the English-born Elderfield to settle in America. He argues that de Kooning is a painter of originality who invented a new kind of modern pictorial space, one of ambiguity. De Kooning sought to retain both the sculptural contours and “bulging, twisting” planes of traditional figure painting, Elderfield suggests, and the shallow picture plane of modernist art found in the Cubist works of, for example, Picasso and Braque. De Kooning developed several different solutions to this visual issue, becoming an artist who never seemed to stop moving and exploring. He was, in his own enigmatic turn of phrase, a “slipping glimpser.”

During the ’50s de Kooning became the most influential painter of his day. “He was an artist’s artist,” says Richard Koshalek, director of the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum, which has one of the largest collections of de Kooning’s work. “He had a great impact on a very wide range of artists.” Brice Marden, a painter who was the subject of a 2006 MoMA retrospective, agrees: “You were brought up on de Kooning. He was the master. He was the teacher.” To many he was also a romantic figure with movie-star looks and an existential swagger, as he drank at the Cedar Tavern in Greenwich Village with Pollock and moved from love affair to love affair.

Despite his success, de Kooning eventually paid a price for his unwillingness to follow the prevailing trends. His ever-changing art—especially his raucous depiction of women—was increasingly slighted by critics and art historians during his lifetime. It did not, Elderfield suggests, “fit easily with those works thought to maintain the familiar modernist history of an increasingly refined abstraction.” The curators at MoMA itself tended to regard de Kooning after 1950 as a painter in decline, as evidenced by the museum’s own collection, which is considerably stronger in Pollock, Rothko and Newman than in de Kooning.

The quarrel has ended: The current retrospective makes amends. De Kooning’s range now looks like a strength, and his seductive style—“seductive” is the appropriate word, for his brush stroke is full of touch—offers a painterly delight rarely found in the art of our day.

De Kooning grew up near the harbor in tough, working-class Rotterdam. He seldom saw his father, Leendert—his parents divorced when he was a small boy—and his domineering mother, Cornelia, who tended a succession of bars, constantly moved her family in search of less expensive housing. She regularly beat him. Money was short. At the age of 12, he became an apprentice at Gidding and Sons, an elegant firm of artists and craftsmen in the heart of fashionable Rotterdam that specialized in design and decoration. He soon caught the eye of the firm’s owners, who urged him to take classes after work six nights a week at the city’s Academy of Fine Arts.

As a result, de Kooning received a strong grounding in both commercial design and the classical principles of high art. He was precocious; the retrospective at MoMA includes the remarkable Still Life (1917) he made at the Academy at the age of 13. He had to support himself, however. At the age of 16, de Kooning struck out on his own, circulating on the bohemian edges of Rotterdam and picking up jobs here and there. He also began to fantasize about America, then regarded by many in Europe as a mythical land of skyscrapers, movie stars and easy money—but not, perhaps, of art. When he stowed away on the freighter, de Kooning later recalled, he did not think there were any serious artists in America.

In his first years in America, initially in Hoboken, New Jersey, and then in New York, he lived much as he had in Rotterdam, finding work as a commercial artist and occasionally painting in his spare time. He found that there were, in fact, serious artists in America, many of whom also took commercial jobs to survive. He began to spend his time in the coffee shops they favored in Chelsea and Greenwich Village, talking away the night over nickel cups of coffee. Almost everyone he knew was poor; the sale of a painting was rare. In this environment, the abiding commitment of certain artists—above all, the devotion of Arshile Gorky to the tradition of modernist painting—had a pronounced impact on de Kooning.

Gorky, an Armenian-born immigrant, had no patience for those who did not commit themselves unreservedly to art. Nor did he have time for those he deemed provincial or minor in their ambitions, such as those who romanticized rural America or attacked social injustice. (“Proletariat art,” Gorky said, “is poor art for poor people.”) In Gorky’s view if you were serious, you studied the work of modernist masters such as Picasso, Matisse and Miró, and you aspired to equal or better their achieve-ment. Contemporaries described Gorky’s studio on Union Square as a kind of temple to art. “The great excitement of 36 Union Square,” said Ethel Schwabacher, a student and friend of Gorky’s, “lay in the feeling it evoked of work done there, work in progress, day and night, through long years of passionate, disciplined and dedicated effort.”

Gorky’s example, together with the creation of the Federal Art Project, which paid artists a living wage during the Depression, finally led de Kooning to commit himself to being a full-time artist. In the ’30s, Gorky and de Kooning became inseparable; their ongoing discussions about art helped each develop into a major painter. De Kooning, struggling to create a fresh kind of figurative art, often painted wan, melancholy portraits of men and, less frequently, women. He worked and reworked the pictures, trying to reconcile his classical training with his modernist convictions. He might allow a picture to leave his studio if a friend bought it, since he was chronically short of cash, but he discarded most of his canvases in disgust.

In the late ’30s, de Kooning met a young art student named Elaine Fried. They would marry in 1943. Fried was not only beautiful, her vivacity matched de Kooning’s reserve. Never scrimp on the luxuries, she liked to say, the necessities will take care of themselves. One of her friends, the artist Hedda Sterne, described her as a “daredevil.” “She believed in gestures without regret, and she delighted in her own spontaneity and exuberance,” Sterne said. “I was a lot of fun,” Elaine would later recall. “I mean, a lot of fun.” She also considered de Kooning a major artist—well before he became one—which may have bolstered his confidence.

A fresh sensation of the female figure, no doubt inspired by Elaine, began to course through de Kooning’s art. The color brightened. Boundaries fell away. He no longer seemed constrained by his classical training: the women in the paintings now threatened to break out and break apart; distinguishing figure from ground became, in places, difficult. The artist was beginning to master his ambiguous space. It seemed natural that de Kooning, who instinctively preferred movement to stillness and did not think the truth of the figure lay only in its surface appearance, would begin shifting along a continuum from the representational to the abstract. Yet even his most abstract pictures, as de Kooning scholar Richard Shiff has observed, “either began with a reference to the human figure or incorporated figural elements along the way.”

De Kooning’s move in the late ’40s toward a less realistic depiction of the figure may have been prompted, in part, by the arrival in the city earlier in the decade of a number of celebrated artists from Paris, notably André Breton and his circle of Surrealists, all refugees from the war. De Kooning was not generally a fan of Surrealism, but the movement’s emphasis on the unconscious mind, dreams and the inner life would have reinforced his own impatience with a purely realistic depiction of the world. The Surrealists and their patron, the socialite Peggy Guggenheim, made a big splash in New York. Their very presence inspired ambition in American artists.

Still, de Kooning remained on the margins. The Federal Art Project no longer existed and there was little to no market for modern American art. It was in this dark period that de Kooning began his great series of black-and-white abstractions. He and his close friend, the painter Franz Kline, unable to afford costly pigments, famously went out one day and bought inexpensive black and white enamel household paint and (according to legend) with devil-may-care abandon began turning out major works. It was not, of course, that simple. De Kooning had labored for many years to reach this moment; and, in a way, the moment now found him. The horror of World War II—and accounts of the Holocaust coming out of Europe—created a new perception among de Kooning and some American artists of a great, if bleak, metaphysical scale. (They also had before their eyes, in MoMA, Picasso’s powerful, monochromatic Guernica of 1937, his response to the fascist bombing of the Spanish city.) In contrast to their European contemporaries, the Americans did not live among the war’s ruins, and they came from a culture that celebrated a Whitmanesque boundlessness. De Kooning, whose city of birth had been pounded into rubble during the war, was both a European and an American, well positioned to make paintings of dark grandeur. In 1948, when he was almost 44, he exhibited his so-called “black and whites” at the small and little-visited Egan Gallery. It was his first solo show. Few pictures sold, but they were widely noticed and admired by artists and critics.

It was also in the late 1940s that Jackson Pollock began to make his legendary “drip” abstractions, which he painted on the floor of his studio, weaving rhythmic skeins of paint across the canvas. Pollock’s paintings, also mainly black and white, had a very different character from de Kooning’s. While generally abstract, de Kooning’s knotty pictures remained full of glimpsed human parts and gestures; Pollock’s conveyed a transcendent sense of release from the world. The titles of the two greatest pictures in de Kooning’s black-and-white series, Attic and Excavation , suggest that the artist does not intend to forget what the world buries or puts aside. (De Kooning no doubt enjoyed the shifting implications of the titles. Attic , for example, can refer to an actual attic, suggest the heights of heaven or recall ancient Greece.) Each painting is full of figurative incident—a turn of shoulder here, a swelling of hip there, but a particular body can be discerned in neither. “Even abstract shapes,” de Kooning said, “must have a likeness.”

De Kooning completed Excavation , his last and largest picture in the series, in 1950. The director of MoMA, Alfred Barr, then selected the painting, along with works by Pollock, Gorky and John Marin, to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale—a signal honor for all four American modernists. Journalists began to take notice. Pollock was the subject of a photo spread in Life magazine in 1949. The light of celebrity was beginning to focus on what had been an obscure corner of American culture. The Sidney Janis Gallery, which specialized in European masters, now began to pitch de Kooning and other American artists as worthy successors to Picasso or Mondrian. Critics, curators and art dealers increasingly began to argue that where art was concerned, New York was the new Paris.

By the early ’50s, De Kooning was a painter of growing renown with a blue-chip abstract style. Most of his contemporaries believed he would continue to produce paintings in that style. But in one of the most contrary and independent actions in the history of American art, he gave up his black-and-white abstractions to focus mainly, once again, on the female figure. He struggled over a single canvas for almost two years, his friends increasingly concerned for his well-being as he continually revised and scraped away the image. He finally set the painting aside in despair. Only the intervention of the influential art historian Meyer Schapiro, who asked to see it during a studio visit, persuaded de Kooning to attack the canvas once again—and conclude that he had finished Woman I (1950-52). Then, in rapid succession, he completed several more Woman paintings.

De Kooning described Woman I as a grinning goddess—“rather like the Mesopotamian idols,” he said, which “always stand up straight, looking to the sky with this smile, like they were just astonished about the forces of natureot about problems they had with one another.” His goddesses were complicated: at once frightening and hilarious, ancient and contemporary. Some critics likened them to Hollywood bimbos; others thought them the work of a misogynist. The sculptor Isamu Noguchi, a friend of de Kooning’s, recognized their am­bivalence: “I wonder whether he really hates women,” he said. “Perhaps he loves them too much.” Much of the complication comes from the volatile mixture of vulgarity and a refinement in de Kooning’s brushwork. “Beauty,” de Kooning once said, “becomes petulant to me. I like the grotesque. It’s more joyous.”

Not surprisingly, de Kooning doubted that his show of recent work in 1953 would be successful, and the leading art critic of the time, Clement Greenberg, thought de Kooning had taken a wrong turn with the Woman series. Much to de Kooning’s surprise, however, the show was a success, not just among many artists but among a public increasingly eager to embrace American painting.

De Kooning suddenly found himself a star—the first celebrity, arguably, in the modern American art world. The only painter in the early ’50s of comparable or greater stature was Jackson Pollock. But Pollock, then falling into advanced alcoholism, lived mainly in Springs (a hamlet near East Hampton on Long Island) and was rarely seen in Manhattan. The spotlight therefore focused on de Kooning, who became the center of a lively scene. Many found him irresistible, with his Dutch sailor looks, idiosyncratic broken English and charming accent. He loved American slang. He’d call a picture “terrific” or a friend “a hot potato.”

In this hothouse world, de Kooning had many tangled love affairs, as did Elaine. (They separated in the 1950s, but never divorced.) De Kooning’s affair with Joan Ward, a commercial artist, led to the birth, in 1956, of his only child, Lisa, to whom he was always devoted—though he never became much of a day-to-day father. He also had a long affair with Ruth Kligman, who had been Pollock’s girlfriend and who survived the car crash in 1956 that killed Pollock. Kligman was both an aspiring artist who longed to be the muse to an important painter and a sultry young woman who evoked stars such as Elizabeth Taylor and Sophia Loren. “She really put lead in my pencil,” de Kooning famously said.

Following the Woman series, de Kooning developed a series of abstractions (the best known is Easter Monday ) that capture the gritty, churning feel of life in New York City at mid-century. In the later ’50s, he simplified his brush stroke. Now, long broad swaths of paint began to sweep across the canvas. He was spending increasing amounts of time in Springs, where many of his friends had summer places. The pictures of the late ’50s often allude to the light and color of the countryside while containing, of course, figurative elements. Ruth’s Zowie (1957) has a kind of declarative élan and confidence. (Kligman provided the title when she entered de Kooning’s studio and, seeing the picture, exclaimed “Zowie!”) De Kooning himself never learned to drive a car, but he loved traveling the broad new American highways. In 1959 the art world mobbed the gallery opening of what is sometimes called his highway series: large, boldly stroked landscapes.

De Kooning was never entirely comfortable as a celebrity. He always remained, in part, a poor boy from Rotterdam. (When he was introduced to Mrs. John D. Rockefeller III, who had just bought Woman II , he hemmed and hawed and then blurted out, “You look like a million bucks!”) Like many of his contemporaries, he began drinking heavily. At the peak of his success toward the end of the 1950s, de Kooning was a binge drinker, sometimes disappearing for more than a week at a time.

In the ’50s, many young artists had imitated de Kooning; critics called them “second generation” painters—that is, followers of pioneers like de Kooning. In the ’60s, however, the art world was rapidly changing as Pop and Minimal artists such as Andy Warhol and Donald Judd brought a cool and knowing irony to art that was foreign to de Kooning’s lush sensibility. These young artists did not want to be “second generation,” and they began to dismiss the older painter’s work as too messy, personal, European or, as de Kooning might put it, old hat.

In 1963, as de Kooning approached the age of 60, he left New York City for Springs with Joan Ward and their daughter. His life on Long Island was difficult. He was given to melancholy, and he resented being treated like a painter left behind by history. He still went on periodic benders, which sometimes ended with his admission to Southampton Hospital. But his art continued to develop in extraordinary new ways.

De Kooning immersed himself in the Long Island countryside. He built a large, eccentric studio that he likened to a ship, and he became a familiar figure around Springs, bicycling down the sandy roads. His figurative work of the ’60s was often disturbing; his taste for caricature and the grotesque, apparent in Woman I , was also found in such sexually charged works as The Visit (1966-67), a wet and juicy picture of a grinning frog-woman lying on her back. In his more abstract pictures, the female body and the landscape increasingly seemed to fuse in the loose, watery paint.

De Kooning also began making extraordinarily tactile figurative sculptures: Clamdigger (1972) seemed pulled from the primordial ooze. The paintings that followed, such as ... Whose Name was Writ in Water (1975), were no less tactile but did not have the same muddiness. Ecstatic eruptions of water, light, reflection, paint and bodily sensation—perhaps a reflection, in part, of de Kooning’s passion for the last great love of his life, Emilie Kilgore—the paintings look like nothing else in American art. And yet, in the late ’70s, de Kooning abruptly, and typically, ended the series. The pictures, he said, were coming too easily.

It was also in the late ’70s that de Kooning first began exhibiting signs of dementia. His wife, Elaine, who came back into his life at this time, began to monitor him carefully. Increasingly, as the ’80s wore on, he would depend on assistants to move his canvases and lay out his paints. Some critics have disparaged the increasingly spare paintings of this period. Elderfield, however, treats the late style with respect. In the best of the late works, de Kooning seems to be following his hand, the inimitable brush stroke freed of any burden and yet lively as ever. “Then there is a time in life,” he said in 1960, as he wearied of New York City, “when you just take a walk: And you walk in your own landscape.”

De Kooning died on March 19, 1997, at his Long Island studio, at the age of 92. He traveled an enormous distance during his long life, moving between Europe and America, old master and modernist, city and country. De Kooning’s art, said the painter Robert Dash, “always seems to be saying goodbye.” De Kooning himself liked to say, “You have to change to stay the same.”

Mark Stevens is the co-author, with his wife Annalyn Swan, of the Pulitzer Prize-winning de Kooning: An American Master .

Anne Truitt’s Artistic Journey

“The light is wonderful in Washington, [D.C.]” said artist Anne Truitt in an interview near the end of her life. “I have a lifetime of friends here. It’s the latitude and longitude I was born on.”

Truitt, largely known for her richly hued columnar sculptures and often associated with Minimalism and the Washington Color Field, claimed the city as her home for more than 50 years. “It’s as if the outside world has to match some personal horizontal and vertical axis,” she wrote in Daybook , the first of three autobiographical journals she published during the 1980s and 1990s. “I have to line up with it in order to be comfortable. … I place myself in Washington, almost precisely on the cross of latitude and longitude of Baltimore, where I was born, and of the Eastern Shore of Maryland where I grew up.”

The first retrospective of Truitt’s entire 50-year career, on display from October 8 until January 3 at the Hirshhorn Museum, features more than 80 abstract sculptures, paintings and drawings that never fully meshed with the critics’ definitions, nor brought Truitt the notoriety enjoyed by peers like Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis and Donald Judd.

Although some critics contend that she might have become a bigger star had she moved to New York City, Truitt knew Washington was where she did her best work. It was a place to which she returned again and again with her husband, journalist James Truitt, between his stints working in Texas, New York, California and Japan for Life , Time , Newsweek and the Washington Post . Her years with James in the Kennedy era were a blur of endless socializing with journalists, artists, politicians and other Camelot-era officials.

After their marriage ended in 1969, she lived a quieter life. She bought a house in Washington’s Cleveland Park neighborhood, where she raised her three children, built a studio and made sculptures until her death in 2004 at age 83.

Truitt prized continuity, and like Washington, her artworks provided another sort of axis for her life. For Truitt, they were objects that existed outside the linear progression of her life, objects that embodied her physical and emotional encounters with people, places and other works such as literature. “She came to feel that sculpture for her was a way that time essentially stood still,” says Kristen Hileman, associate curator at the Hirshhorn. Truitt initially started out writing fiction, but became frustrated with the conventions of the narrative, she says.

“One day I was standing in the living room of our house on East Place in Georgetown, a lovely, sunny little living room, and I thought to myself, ‘If I make a sculpture, it will just stand up straight and the seasons will go around it and the light will go around it and it will record time,’” Truitt said in a 2002 oral history interview conducted by the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art. “So I stopped writing and I called up the Institute of Contemporary Art and I enrolled myself, and I began in January and studied for one year. That’s all the art training I ever had.”

The Formative Years

Before moving to Washington, Truitt lived and worked in Boston for several years. A graduate of Bryn Mawr College, she had declined an invitation to pursue a Ph.D. in Yale’s psychology department after realizing she preferred working directly with people. Truitt worked by day in the psychiatric lab at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital and, at night, as a nurse’s aide. Without her experiences in nursing, she said, she would never have become an artist. The work cultivated in her a kind of physical empathy for others.

“The more I observed the range of human existence—and I was steeped in pain during those war years when we had combat fatigue patients in the psychiatric laboratory by day, and I had anguished patients under my hands by night—the less convinced I became that I wished to restrict my own range to the perpetuation of what psychologists would call ‘normal,’” Truitt wrote in Daybook . “And in the light of what I was reading—D.H. Lawrence, Henry James, T. S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf—I had begun to see that my natural sympathies lay with people who are unusual rather than usual.”

Yet her work as a nurse’s aide was not her first encounter with pain and sickness. Born into an affluent family, she spent her first decade happily exploring the shore near Easton, Md. She and her younger twin sisters were taught by a private teacher and her Radcliffe-educated mother regularly read to them. But when Truitt was 12 years old, the Depression ravaged the family income and her parents’ health began to decline. Mr. Truitt struggled with alcoholism and depression and her mother was diagnosed with neurasthenia, characterized by chronic fatigue and weakness. The young Anne was often responsible for running the household.

She and her sisters spent one year with an aunt and uncle in Charlottesville, Va., and then joined their parents in Asheville, N.C., where their father was undergoing treatment and where Truitt felt “exiled.” She entered Bryn Mawr at age 17, but at the end of her first semester, she almost died when her appendix burst during a visit to a friend’s house on the Eastern Shore.When her family’s finances plummeted further, a scholarship saved her from having to drop out of college. The next year, Truitt’s mother was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and Truitt spent many hours on the train between Pennsylvania and Asheville until her mother died later that year.

Truitt would later distill these places, events and memories into her work. She believed experiences—particularly difficult or painful ones—were “the ground out of which art grows,” as she said in her oral history interview. “People talk as if art were something that you did with your eyes and your brain, but it’s not. It’s something that grows out of a ground.”

Life in Washington, D.C.

Truitt arrived in Washington with her new husband in 1947, and the experience of moving to into the city’s upper social circles felt like moving into a shoebox, she said. “I could not believe the consistency,” she said in 2002. “I guess it was…the fact that everybody was so well taken care of and there was a certain level of everybody being the same. They’d all been educated. The women had never worked. So I simply rode on top of all my experience. I didn’t mention it. I never talked about myself, for one thing. Of course, it’s not polite to talk about yourself.”

Her husband James initially worked for the U.S. Department of State, and many of the Truitts’ friends were in the CIA, including top official Cord Meyer and his wife Mary Pinchot Meyer, an abstract painter with whom Anne once shared a studio. “I was floating around in that world…I didn’t pay attention to what was going on. And remember, much was secret. People were covert,” she told art scholar James Meyer in a 2002 interview published in Artforum .

James became Washington Bureau Chief of Life and then vice president of the Washington Post . Through his position and Anne’s involvement with the Institute of Contemporary Art, the Truitts regularly entertained the towering figures of their time, including Truman Capote, Marcel Duchamp, Clement Greenberg, Isamu Noguchi, Hans Richter, Ruffino Tamayo and Dylan Thomas.

A Turning Point

It was in 1961 that Truitt experienced an artistic turning point while viewing the work of Ad Reinhardt, Barnett Newman and Nassos Daphinis in the exhibit “American Abstract Expressionists and Imagists” at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. The works “Reverse[d] my whole way of thinking about how to make art,” she wrote in Prospect , the third of her published journals. Instead of waiting for art to emerge out of material, she realized she could, like these artists, take control of the material to render visible her own ideas.

“I was so excited that night in New York that I scarcely slept,” she wrote. “I saw too that I had the freedom to make whatever I chose. And, suddenly, the whole landscape of my childhood flooded into my inner eye: plain white clapboard fences and houses, barns, solitary trees in flat fields, all set in the wide winding tidewaters around Easton. At one stroke, the yearning to express myself transformed into a yearning to express what this landscape meant to me…”

Soon after, Truitt made First , a wooden sculpture that resembled a white picket fence. She also made more room for her work amidst her husband’s social engagements and her children’s needs, and she invested the money she had inherited from her family in her career. There weren’t many women artists of her stature and seriousness that were also wives and mothers, says James Meyer, a professor of art history at Emory University. Truitt didn’t have to get rid of everything else in her life to make her art, nor was she a dabbling amateur, he notes.

Over time, Truitt began constructing more abstract, vertical wooden forms covered in dozens of layers of paint. She had her first show at the André Emmerich Gallery in New York in 1963. Critic Clement Greenberg deemed her a forerunner of the Minimalist movement. But while minimalist artists sought to purge their work of meaning and strip their work down to its most fundamental features, Truitt tried to fill her work with meaning and trigger emotional associations in viewers, says the Hirshhorn’s Kristin Hileman. As Truitt explained in a 1987 Washington Post interview: “I have never allowed myself, in my own hearing, to be called a minimalist. Because minimal art is characterized by nonreferentiality. And that’s not what I am characterized by. [My work] is totally referential. I’ve struggled all my life to get maximum meaning in the simplest possible form.”

She was very protective of her art, says James Meyer. “She would defend her art very intensely if it were exhibited wrongly or she felt it was misunderstood.” Truitt was particularly frustrated when critics—nearly all men in the 1960s—connected the form and content of her work to her gender. She was once described in an article as the “gentle wife” of James Truitt.

An Artist’s Life

The end of Truitt’s marriage in 1969 “set me free to examine and reexamine my own standards, to reaffirm some, discard some and to form new ones for myself, and for my family,” she wrote in Turn , her second book. On the day her new house became hers, she says, “I opened my own front door with my own key, and went straight out to the ground behind the house and lay down on it, among the tall May grasses, knowing it was mine.”

To make ends meet, she taught at the University of Maryland, first as lecturer and then professor, and incorporated art history and literary and philosophical context into her classes. She gave college-wide lectures on contemporary art and was honored as a “distinguished scholar-teacher. Truitt fell in love with teaching and remained with the university for 21 years, enriched by “seeing students go out into the world.”

Truitt became a regular at Yaddo, an artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., where she served as acting director in 1984. And she began to follow a non-sectarian spiritual practice that originated in India. Her vegetarian diet, abstinence from alcohol and meditation bore little resemblance to her social life 20 years earlier.

Neither did she participate in the city’s art scene. Photographer John Gossage, who became friends with Truitt when she used a studio in the same building as his, says she didn’t fit in with the “macho male” bohemian art bar world. With her old-school, Bryn Mawr manners, she came across as more of an art historian, he says.

She was proud of how she successfully balanced work and family life and insisted it was possible for women to have both. “You just have to make up your mind to do it,” she said. “It has to be valuable enough to you for you to work harder, get up earlier, go to bed later, keep your temper.” With a Guggenheim Fellowship, she built a small fisherman’s shack studio in her backyard, just steps from where she raised her children.

Yet she acknowledged that the energy her work required left little room in her life for anything but her family. “It’s the human experience that is distilled into art that makes it great,” she said in the oral history interview. “It’s very difficult to do. It’s difficult to hold the line and it’s difficult to stay true, true in very many ways. True to yourself, true to your experience so you don’t lie about it, don’t fudge it. … It’s extremely difficult and you have to make sacrifices. …You can’t have it all. You can’t. In a way, you can’t have much of a personality or anything because everything has to go into your work. So often you just look dull.”

“Do you feel that about yourself?” asked the interviewer. “Oh, yes, I think I’m very boring,” she replied.

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