Washington, D.C., may have been her home, but often, sculptor Anne Truitt‘s mind was somewhere far away. As she worked, she lost herself in childhood memories, but her pillarlike sculptures stood tall like buoys, allowing her to navigate through adulthood’s choppy waters. Staid and strong, they made tangible her fraught past in order for her to fully comprehend it, bringing order to chaos and, as she said, “Trying to objectify my life.”

In “Anne Truitt: Perception and Reflection,” the Hirshhorn’s retrospective (open until Jan. 3—-you still have a few days to see it!) and the first major exhibition of Truitt’s work since 1974, this often-overlooked artist’s work is deservedly revisited. But if Truitt was overlooked, it was because she defied easy categorization. Her Washington home made her an outsider to the New York art scene, and her first solo exhibition there, in 1963, took it by surprise.

She was a minimalist, but also a colorist—-two classifications that did not necessarily combine with ease. The critic Clement Greenberg championed her role in minimalism, but she also was friends with Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis, and others associated with the Washington Color School on the other side of the divide. But within that group, Truitt’s sharp-cornered pillars did not fit in. Nor did her patterned, painted sculptures mingle with the steel beams and metal boxes of Donald Judd and Robert Morris. She did not like to be lumped in with either group, but the classification was hard to resist. Truitt is best-known for her structures—-often single, rectangular beams—-striped with subtle variations in color so that each of the four sides of the pillar could be viewed as a separate painting.

That’s why for one to understand Truitt’s work,one must walk around it, and this is where the Hirshhorn’s hands are tied—-to protect the work, the sculptures are displayed on a raised platform, so that viewers cannot interact fully with each piece. One work, “First Requiem,” allows for the full 360-degree view, but for most of the others, viewers must make due by craning their necks.

To understand Truitt’s work, one must also understand her past, which informs her practices in complex ways.  Born in Baltimore in 1921, Anne Dean was raised in Easton, a town on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. She was so nearsighted as a child that until she got glasses in her teens, she saw people at a distance as blocky shapes of color—-an experience that she said lent itself to her art. She attended Bryn Mawr while taking care of her ailing parents, before falling ill herself with appendicitis at a friend’s house. Truitt nearly died because her friend’s mother, a Christian Scientist, refused to call a doctor for her. The experience encouraged her into a brief career with the Red Cross, and she moved to Boston and met her husband, a journalist and the future vice president of the Washington Post, James Truitt. Washington, specifically Cleveland Park, became their home base, interrupted by stints in Dallas and San Francisco and Japan for James’ reporting career. They were deeply enmeshed in the political social scene, counting Washington political elites like Ben Bradlee and Mary Pinchot Meyer among their friends. But their marriage was an unhappy one, and the couple split in 1969.

All of these places and their happy and (mostly) unhappy associations appear in Truitt’s art—-as they do for many other artists, who channel their traumas into creativity—-but here, they make their presence subtly known. The artist titled her work after the names or details of the places where she experienced sadness or shock or even just epiphany in her childhood.  “Her works are not depictions of images or events, but metronyms pointing to a complex of associations,” writes James Meyer in Minimalism: Art and Polemics in the Sixties. “Each sculpture is the residue of a memory or a chain of memories triggered during its completion.”

Take “Hardcastle”: The sculpture is an imposing slab of dark wood, supported in the back by red triangles. Upon seeing the work, Truitt reported that Clement Greenberg backed away and said, “Scares the shit out of me.” It’s easy to see why. “Hardcastle likewise came from a dark place—-it references her terrifying memory of a drunk driver who was hit by a car near her childhood country summer home. Others refer to geographic locales of difficult times in her life—-“Catawba” for Asheville, N.C., where she recovered from her appendicitis surgery, and “Valley Forge,” where she soldiered on through college courses, despite her family hardships.

A few of her early works are more literal in their childhood references. Truitt’s “First,” so named because it was the first sculpture of this type she ever made, takes the forms of a white picket fence – a reminder of her childhood neighborhood. It’s also the classic symbol of the American Dream, meant to encircle a ranch house with 2.5 children, a lush green lawn, and a golden retriever. At first glance, “First” is a segment of the fence with three white pickets. But look closer and you’ll see that this symbol of the perfect home is rather imperfect, with pickets of different lengths and the points atop them angled unevenly. “First” is the first sculpture one sees in the Hirshhorn’s exhibit, and it’s also the first hint that something in Truitt’s narrative is off-kilter—-especially when viewed with the adjacent sculpture, “Southern Elegy.” Another remembrance of her childhood, “Southern Elegy” resembles a tombstone, asymmetrically bifurcated by dark green and black paint.

Truitt’s drawings from this early period are her most figurative, as well. The retrospective includes several simple abstracted line drawings, the forms of which were inspired by houses and fences from Easton or other cities where she had lived. They recall all types of homes, from the silhouette of a city townhouse to a gabled estate. The form of “First” is echoed in these drawings, except the imperfect white picket fence is extended. It takes on an additionally menacing feel here, as though it were a row of jagged teeth.

Nevertheless, walking through “Anne Truitt: Perception and Reflection” is not an experience characterized by sadness or anxiety. In fact, it’s the opposite—-Truitt’s unhappy memories manifest themselves in bright pinks and blues, crisp lime green and vibrant orange and purple. They stand up straight and never lose their luster—-sort of like their creator, through death and illness and divorce. Truitt was not a victim. “I learned to bear up and endure,” she said in an oral history interview with the Smithsonian. “That’s a very good thing to learn.”

Top photo: Anne Truitt in her Twining Court studio, Washington, D.C., 1962. Photo by John Gossage courtesy of the Bridgman Art Library. Above image courtesy of the estate of Anne Truitt and the Bridgeman Art Library.