On May 23, 1941, America's best sculptor was born in Washington, D.C.- Martin Puryear. His father, Reginald, is a retired postal employee, and his mother, Martina, is a retired elementary teacher. The oldest of seven children, Martin was fond of not only painting and drawing, but also for building. Puryear later recalls, "If I became interested in archery, I made the bows and arrows; if I became interested in music, I made the guitar" (Benezra 140). He also read and researched subjects of his fascination ranging anywhere from Native Americans to archery and falconry. His prevailing interests, however, were nature and wildlife. "Falconry held a particular fascination and would become a lasting interest" (Benezra 14).
Hence, Puryear's childhood ambition to be a scientist. But after a false start in biology, he earned a bachelor of fine arts degree at the Catholic University of America. Kenneth Noland, a professor in the university's art program, was an indirect influence on Puryear as an example of a professional artist. However, his most important instructor was Nell Sonneman, an illustrator, fiber artist, and painter that taught courses in painting and philosophy of art. Sonneman struggled to get Puryear to present structure and space with as much vigor as he did exterior appearance. Ultimately, though, Puryear gave up painting altogether and dedicated himself to sculpture.
Upon graduation in 1963, he joined the Peace Corps as an alternative to serving in Viet Nam, sending him to Sierra Leone. He taught art occasionally at the mission secondary school, but mainly concentrated on biology, French, and English. Puryear continued to draw and study the wildlife, as well as his architectural surroundings, because "drawing was his only means to describe his surroundings to his family" (Benezra 16).
Puryear developed a profound respect for the craftsmen he met in Sierra Leone, for he had some background in the matter. He learned techniques applied by carpenters who worked with the hand and mind alone because of a lack of electricity, and was also introduced to a non-Western attitude toward craft.
After completing his two years with the Peace Corps, and with no motivation to return to the United States, Puryear moved to Stockholm, Sweden where he was admitted to the Swedish Royal Academy of Art. His admiration for Scandinavian design and woodworking was another reason he moved. He contacted James Krenov after being enchanted by his immaculately crafted work. PuIyear worked as his assistant, learning as much as he could. He spent his days making etchings in the print shop, and his evenings making sculptures through methods of wood construction, rather than carving in wood. He quickly concluded that working in the traditional methods of carving and casting were not always necessary. "He also concluded that the perfection of one's hand was not enough; once a level of manual accomplishment was reached, the heart and mind must press the hand to another level of making which might involve ideas," (Benezra 17). The European art world shifted Puryear away from craft and toward sculpture. However, it also began to suggest limits for him and not the excitement he once felt when arriving in Stockholm. At twenty-seven, an aspiring sculptor returned to the United States. He was admitted to the graduate program at Yale University in the fall of 1969. Three years gave way to a Masters of Fine Arts degree in 1971. Puryear's return coinciding with radical developments in the history of modern sculpture, such as Minimalism, played a role in the development of his thinking. For example, he took his sculptures outside galleries, museums, and even the city, to locations in the natural and distant landscape.
Reflecting his education and environment, it can be said that Puryear's sculptures have evolved. An early interest in Minimalism moved on to "a more direct, process-oriented approach to sculpture, in which the physical involvement of the sculptor was central," (Benezra 21). His sculptures took on a funky look, favoring informality. It was while he taught at the University of Maryland that his first mature works were made, reflecting consistent and accomplished handling of wood while addressing several sculptural problems at the same time. Puryear's successes are in part due to his managing to "avoid a bland, plain vanilla feel to his sculpture be coupling soothing, even hermetic shapes with crackling vitality," (Gibson 10). He plays with elements such as gravity and our assumptions about weight being proportional to size. However, he keeps us interested primarily through his sense of touch--evident in his works, especially the following:
In 1982 Puryear made the sculpture Sanctuary. This sculpture is mounted on the wall and was made from pine, maple, and cherry. It is an open box with two thick branches connected to it. The branches extend in a downward motion connecting to the axle of a wheel. Sanctuary relies on both the wall and the floor for support. It is because of this characteristic that the sculpture symbolizes stability and mobility. The box is solid and firmly on the wall, while the wheel is free to rotate on the floor. Puryear says that Sanctuary is like many of his other works, they deal with "mobility and a kind of escapism, of survival through flight."
In the 70's and 80's Puryear did many outdoor sculptures. One of the more fascinating would be Box and Pole. The sculpture consisted of a 4-and-a-half-foot square cube made of dovetailed beams and a 100 foot pole that was made from two trees. The wood that the sculpture is made from is supposed to contrast the abstractness of the sculpture. The box was made four feet so that the average person can look over it making them feel superior. However, the 100 foot pole towering over the box gives off an unreachable feeling. This balances out the feeling of superiority.
In the late 80's Puryear also made sculptures that were on a more cultural level, symbolizing objects and artifacts. Puryear says that they are "objects that are the product of a conscious mind." One example of this would be Untitled 1987. The sculpture consists of two parts. One part is a large, dark, solid oval that rests on the ground. The oval has a "tar-over-mesh-over-wood' construction. The other part is large and long forming what resembles a wooden loop or net. In contrast to the oval that is solid, the loop has many holes. This creates a "negative and positive" effect. Untitled 1987 was later turned into Maroon.
Puryear often makes his objects with a biomorphic form. Two good examples of this are his sculptures Cask Cascade and Old Mole. While the two sculptures are made very differently, they share the exact same shape. They have a very large, round, "animallike torso" that forms an inclined point. The point seems as if it would be the mouth.
With his innovative sculptures, Martin Puryear has become one of the most influential sculptors of our time. Over the years he has been exhibited in museums throughout the world, fascinating viewers. His elegant sculpture has been unlike any other, using many unexplored materials. Martin Puryear has earned the admiration of many, and will continue to lead us into a new wave of sculpting.WORKS CITED
Benezra, Neal. "The Thing Shines, Not the Maker. The Sculpture of Martin Puryear." Martin Puryear. New York: Thames and Hudson & The Art Institute of Chicago, 1991.
Gibson, Eric. "Visionary Sculpture." Washington (D.C.) Times. February 9, 1992
We would like to express our heartfelt thanks to Martin Puryear for his permission to excerpt work and to quote from the catalogue of his 1992 retrospective at the Art Institute of Chicago ©1991. All rights reserved. Our thanks also go to Mr. Puryear's dealer, McKee Gallery, for their cooperation and prompt response to our questions.