The Art of Anne Truitt, The Jews (?) of Southern Italy, and pq-qp=h/2’pi’i

1. Anne Truitt. Some time ago, I picked up a copy of one of Anne Truitt’s journals and tried to read it. For some reason, I couldn’t get through it. Yesterday, I went to see the retrospective exhibit of her work at the Hirshhorn. I didn’t expect that I would be too impressed, but I was wrong.

Truitt, a Washington sculptor who died in 2004, did not like being called a minimalist, and did not like being called heavily influenced by the Washington Color School, but I think that is exactly what she was. She apparently started off which figurative sculptures, but destroyed most of them, when she went for black and/or white understated geometrics on paper and canvas, and wooden walls and tall rectangular pillars, which she smoothed and sanded and painted and repainted and repainted until she had the colors exactly right. Now, if you saw just one of those colored pillars, you might say “so what’s the big deal?” But seeing them lined up, room after room, they were beautiful, each complimenting the other.

Last night, I went back to her volume called “Prospect”. I have no idea why I had a hard time reading it before. It is elegaic writing – a woman in her seventies thinking back on her career and her life, and thinking forward to…..not very much.

2. The Jews (?). I think that everyone at Temple Shalom last night was surprised at the crowd that showed up to hear Rabbi Barbara Aiello speak on “The Turbulent History of Jewish Life in Italy”. It looked to me that more than 300 were in the audience.

They heard a very weird, animated, prop-laden talk by an American rabbi of Italian/Jewish descent who has started a synagogue in the village of Serrastretta, in the Calabrian boot heel of Italy. She talked a bit about recent archeological findings in Italy, and Jews who came to Italy for various reasons during the time of the Maccabees and the Roman Empire, and Jews who were driven from France during the middle ages and from Spain and Portugal in the late 15th century, and who went to Sicily and, when that became uncomfortable as a result of the Inquisition, who crossed the Strait of Messina and wound up in Calabria. She did not talk (except in response to questions) about the Orthodox Jewish establishment in Italy today, about the Nazi period, about Ostia, or about anything north of Naples.

She did speak, however, about Jews in Southern Italy who don’t know they are Jewish, who may have some family customs that show carryover from centuries before (funeral customs, Friday night customs), and crypto-Jews, who know they are Jewish and keep in hidden. Listening to her, lower Italy is like the lower east side in New York, ethnically speaking. And if you only would give them the opportunity and the welcome, Jews would surface out of nowhere. It was, I believe, a bit fanciful.

Only during the Q and A, did she talk about how the Jewish establishment ostracizes her, how the Moslems in Southern Italy refuse to have anything to do with her, and how skinheads, bolstered by international contact through the internet, demonstrate a rise of anti-Semitic activity.

It was a bizarre presentation, filled with show and tell (family pictures, cloth maps of the south of Italy, candlesticks that belonged to her aunt, books written in Italian which she would hold up as she mentioned them). But it was interesting.

3. The formula. Pq-qp=h/2’pi’i is, if you aren’t familiar with it, the “fundamental commutation law of quantum mechanics”, written on Max Born’s gravestone. I enjoyed reading Barbara Greenspan’s biography of Born, “The End of the Certain World”, although have to admit that often I felt like I was reading a book written in two languages, one of which (English) I understood, and the other of which (Physics) was Greek to me. Putting aside the unintelligible, this story of a young man born and married into financial privilege, brilliant and educated and setting out on an important academic track, who found himself caught in the Nazi web, having to leave Germany (although he had converted to Lutheranism, at least in form, to satisfy his wife) after the Nazi government expelled him from his professorship in Gottingen (where he had worked with Heisenberg and others, and mentored Oppenheimer and Teller), and who found himself living during and after the war as a professor in Edinburgh (only to return to live his last years in Germany because of the generosity of the German pension system). A physicist friendly with Planck and Einstein, instrumental in the development of quantum physics, a student of the electron, of relativity and the lattice of crystals, Born was often overlooked for major recognition until 1954, when he was (at long last) awarded a Nobel Prize.

An interesting and long life, filled with brilliant discovery and rewarding teaching, but also the agony of physical illness, emotional turmoil, political insanity and a strong and stated desire not to have science used to further war and destruction. A very readable biography (that is, the English part) of a man, his wife of many, many years, and his three children, the oldest of whom, Irene, married a Newton-John, and had a daughter named Olivia.


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