Anne Truitt, “26 December 1962, No. 5,” (1962)
Anne Truitt, “26 December 1962, No. 5,” (1962)

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The map that hangs in the new Anne Truitt exhibit at the National Gallery of Art is a welcome sign. It’s easy to skip over in a room otherwise packed with Truitt’s powerful minimalist totems. The simple graphic map lists a few of the places around the District where the Baltimore-born artist (who died in 2004) lived and worked, from her home in Cleveland Park to her studio in a carriage house in a Dupont Circle alley called Twining Court.

In the Tower: Anne Truitt, the latest installment in the East Building’s contemporary art series, may be the most intimate exhibit seen in the tower so far. It is definitely the homiest, a show that indulges in Truitt’s use of rich colors while also acknowledging her very specific place in D.C. history. With the Truitt show, the National Gallery has laid out the welcome mat for local viewers.

The show assembles several of Truitt’s best experiments in space, color, and form—both in two and three dimensions. The main tower gallery is a satisfying presentation of her sculptures, sanded wooden rectangular prisms painted with vivid acrylics. “Insurrection” (1962), a pillar painted half in bright cherry red and half in dusty brick red, comes to the National Gallery courtesy of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, much of whose collection the museum has absorbed. It joins “Knight’s Heritage” (1963), a square painted in colors reminiscent of the German flag, as one of the best examples anywhere of the way Truitt challenged the idea of what a painting could be (and what a sculpture could be, too).

Truitt’s works on paper are relegated to the tower’s attendant gallery, a side space that has proven awkward to program. Not so here: The darker, cramped room invites viewers to get close to pieces like “Arundel XI” (1974), a graphite and acrylic drawing (or painting?) on canvas.

Several paintings on paper, such as “26 December 1962, No. 5” (1962), take the form of primitive black shapes, variations on a minimalist theme. As a category, Truitt’s drawings are usually restrained; the best of these are a series of paintings of horizontal bars, or at least, these are the ones that come closest to the freedom in space exuded by her sculptures.

Biographical or preparatory materials are usually left to the side gallery. The map, though, hangs in the main space, making it something of a bullet point, or at least a strong signal about the direction of this show. It might have gone another way: James Meyer, the National Gallery’s curator of postwar art (1945–1974), could have given viewers a presentation of Truitt’s formalist sculptures without any reference to her life or locale. After all, curating a show of Truitt’s work—deciding how to place the iridescent, lemon-in-peach “Flower” (1969) vis-a-vis the mustard, almost burned-looking “Summer Remembered” (1981)—must be one of the truest joys of the profession. Why do more than flick at biography?

One point may be to offer something of an explanation for why Truitt is not remembered among the ranks of Louise Bourgeois or Joan Mitchell, postwar masters who have elbowed their way into the art history textbooks. Truitt arrived in D.C. just a bit too late to enjoy the heyday of the Washington Color School, and she stayed too long to escape the status of regional artist after the city’s star faded. This is unfortunate: Truitt’s work anchors the third tower in a way that truly balances the two other towers occupied by Alexander Calder, Mark Rothko, and Barnett Newman. Yet wrestling with motherhood, eschewing the chase of the New York art world, and centering on a quiet studio practice are all parts of Truitt’s story, as she faithfully recorded in Daybook and several more diaries (required reading for any D.C. art lover).

Now it’s up to institutions like the National Gallery, which have ignored women artists for eons, to do the work of showcasing overlooked work by women and giving it historical grounding. The National Gallery’s record on this score, and in collecting and showing works by artists of color, is worse than that of most museums. Now that the long tenure of National Gallery director Earl “Rusty” Powell III is coming to an end, revisionism ought to be the museum’s guiding star going forward.

Is the Truitt exhibit an example for how the National Gallery should proceed in the 21st century? With this show, the museum confidently ignored the fact that a major exhibition of Truitt’s work—the first retrospective of her career, in fact—came to the National Mall rather recently. The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden did the heavy lifting already with Perception and Reflection in 2009. While the National Gallery show is smaller and therefore more tightly focused (and it definitely enjoys better light), it runs the risk of being redundant.

Is too much Truitt a bad thing? Hardly. Oversaturation is not really a worry, even for avid museum-goers. Right now there are few rooms in the District, not even the various Rothko rooms, that can rival the tower for a (sorely needed) moment of serenity. But the National Gallery faces a steep climb. It will need to dive deeper, and take some risks on much lesser known artists, to live up to its mission as America’s cultural treasury and truly reflect the American people. The National Gallery’s Truitt show is a delightful departure through abstraction, but it isn’t the show that the National Gallery needs.

At the National Gallery of Art East Building to April 1, 2018. 150 4th St. NW. Free. (202) 737-4215.