PRINT October 1979

Martin Puryear’s Sculpture

WHILE ASPECTS OF MARTIN PURYEAR’S sculpture seem traditional, even conservative, his work is part of important developments in contemporary art. He maintains the stance of both an artisan and a carver who pares down his material to a formal core, but the work he produces demands to be confronted outside of conventional sculptural terms. A no-nonsense craftsman’s esthetic is applied to the creation of ambiguous, multivalent objects that resist analytic categorization. His art is an experience of an extraordinary refinement bordering on a kind of mannerism, yet it generates a confluence of meanings and effects coinciding with, and going beyond, its own lyricism and stylishness.

There is no consistent look to Puryear’s work, no obvious route of development; no formal ideas repeatedly appear. In the last two years he has produced, for example, a large geometrical piece, Equivalents, 1979, the quasi-organic forms of She and Her, 1979, sparse wall pieces, such as the one at the 1979 Whitney Biennial, and explicitly architectural structures, like his Cedar Lodge, 1979. His approach to problems is distinctly nomadic, not bound by a need to exhaust the possibilities or implications of a given idea, or to establish an immediately recognizable signature. This is hardly to say that Puryear’s work lacks rigor or is unfocused. Instead of common forms, what unifies his recent art is a specific attitude toward the nature and degree of his interventions on materials: it is a consistent economy of reduction that proceeds close to, but never beyond, a limit that would jeopardize the plurality of the work.

All his art bespeaks a keen sensitivity to the tactile qualities of his materials (almost always wood, but also substances like deerskin and rawhide). The range of woods used is large, often types with exotic, resonant names. Each piece manifests a craftsman’s science of knowing the surfaces, textures, adaptabilities, the potentials, of a given wood. And no encounter with his work can bypass this pleasure of the maker, the handworker, the purely intensive activity of joining, fitting, smoothing: that excess in a work that “exceeds any structural functioning” (Barthes).

Despite Puryear’s preoccupation with the physical properties of his materials, they do not determine how a piece is built. The connection between process and materials is not grounded in any constructive logic. Sometimes there is even a subtle dissonance between how something is made and the stuff used to make it. Except for his geometrical pieces Puryear’s work process is not made explicit. It is not clear whether the meanderings of his branchlike forms result from his own manipulations or from the natural state of the wood, whether they have been assembled or found in one piece. What emerges from such objects is a kind of natural artificiality, in which the artist’s own improvisations are not really distinguishable from the original shape of his materials. There are no obvious distinctions between what is worked and what is unworked.

Often Puryear’s pieces have the logic of an assisted readymade, that is, a limited modification of a found object, such as the loop of Untitled, 1978, a long thin branch onto which carved “handles” have been attached, or the curving branches of Some Tales, 1978, into which bladelike and spiked forms have been fitted. So his objects are not just the result of physically working on materials, but also of a process of selection and combination. In any case, Puryear’s production is never a rational or immediately accessible procedure; his working method seems at once intuitive, gestural, esoteric.

It is possible to discuss Puryear’s work in the context of a nature/culture opposition, although this kind of reading should not dominate an experience of it. Many of his pieces seem to be about discovering how raw material or natural forms can be converted into cultural objects with a minimum of operations, how even slight reductions or additions can cause qualitative transformations in the meaning and function of objects. But proximity to a raw state ought not to be mistaken for what some have seen as “primitivism” in this artist’s work. On the contrary, there is something exceedingly refined about the elegant austerity of means with which he warps or loops a given piece of wood. At the same time, his partial modifications of material tie into certain developments in other current art. Speaking in terms of outdoor sculptural projects, Kirk Varnedoe has discussed a shift in the attitude of artists toward environmental work: instead of the ambitious, monumental gestures of people like Smithson and Heizer, work now tends to be quieter and on a humbler scale. There is interest now in initiating a kind of collaborative relation between artist and nature, rather than the large-scale inscription of marks or cuts on the face of the earth. Works by Alan Saret and Michael Singer come immediately to mind, where forces of wind, water or light become active, equal partners in the generation and perpetuation of the work. Puryear is close to this sensibility, seeking not to dominate materials but working for a dialogue with original forms and processes of growth.

Most of Puryear’s work is so simple that it can be read at once, taken in as a whole or as a single fluid movement. Yet while his shapes may be given immediately, there is often a gap between the simplicity of the form and the way it is built. A good example is Equivalents, 1979, where to read a cone and cube as gestalts is at odds with the crafted intricacy of their construction. At first this kind of log-cabin “minimalism” seems an ironic comment on 1960s sculpture, but it is really part of a specifically ’70s sculptural practice, seen in work by Jackie Ferrara, Jackie Winsor and others. Often-noted features include a repetitive character of construction tied to a distinctly handmade look. It involves working with intrinsically simple shapes, then overlaying them with supplementary signs of the artist’s physical activity and obsessiveness. A detached reading of elementary forms in “real” space is compounded with traces of a subjectivity, of an intensive production, with the residue of a kind of performance.

While much of Jackie Winsor’s activity is essentially additive, Puryear usually concentrates on reducing his forms to surfaces and lines. His thinking never addresses itself to problems of volumes. Even in his works that in fact describe volumes, Puryear focuses on the surface, on its flows and seductiveness, on a mobile, indeterminate contour. His piece She presents two radically different contours, but the point is not visual trickery as we assimilate the contradictory viewpoints almost at once. What he does is to undermine our ability to imagine that the object has a stable or knowable interior. Wood is used as a pliable, even viscous material, like a skin or wrapping. With a kind of baroque sensuality, She becomes one total billowing zone of exteriority. It is like the upturned keel of ship, which we think of only in terms of its faces, not any interior, of its sheer contact with water.

Puryear’s wall pieces work more exclusively in terms of line. One of the richest of these projects is M. Bastion Boulversé, 1979. Line here has a number of functions. The large rounded frame can be read as (1) a line drawn on a flat surface; (2) as a boundary, like a low fence or corral, delimiting the field of tiny objects on the wall; (3) as an object standing next to a wall. Crucial to the work are two small dowellike pieces of wood that lie on the floor and out of which the rest of the work seems to spring. Though not conspicuous, they plant the work on the ground, thus letting it occupy the same floor space we do. The piece has the effect of being a closed private mural space, but the way it is based on the floor sets up a threshold area which confuses the distinctions between a figurative space on the wall and the “real” space of the room. It is possible to read the wooden boundary line as a light tensile archway over a narrow zone next to the wall, allowing us an ambiguous, limited access to the field of the work.

While part of the work is lodged on the ground, we tend to focus on the dispersal of small, irregular pieces of wood and other materials high on the wall. The field seems to have been constituted according to a set of mysterious procedures rather than simply by a random scattering. It is a distribution of differentiated units that all seem to be part of one loose syntax; we see recognizable forms like cones and polyhedrons, and also unfamiliar shapes. It has the look of a field of signs, but its effects are nonsignifying. If the piece as a whole is related to human scale, we experience this territory as literally out of reach: its inaccessibility calls to mind the arcane delimitation of zones in Paul Klee’s Limits of the Intellect, 1927.

The entire work becomes a play of literal support and apparent weightlessness, of rhythmic intervals and problematic enclosures. It sets up a multitiered space built out of a number of disconnected formal vocabularies. The way Puryear has organized it can be contrasted with the structure of a grid. Both are about effects of diagraming, but Puryear designs multiple and unrelated structurings of the same field, unlike the totality of a grid. The space of M. Bastion is confined yet open, mural yet environmental; in it no entities are positioned unequivocally.

An earlier wall piece, Some Tales, 1978, established another kind of open field, one defined solely by an accumulation of objects rather than by actual boundaries. It is tempting to consider this work as a kind of drawing, for, as in other pieces, Puryear’s line has a hand-drawn quality. But it is perhaps misleading to talk about drawing, since that can imply a sculpture rooted in pictorialism, whereas Puryear is not subject to this limitation since his line does not function illusionistically or in terms of internal relations. The material presence of the assembled objects remains primary. On one hand, the various items in Some Tales ask to be read as cultural objects or artifacts: we cannot help but feel that we are looking at tools hanging on a wall. On the other hand, they seem basically decorative-abstract: we could even read the whole ensemble as some obscure kind of musical notation. The title tends to confirm a narrative dimension in our experience of the work: each object is latent with numberless uses, and together they all make up a web of intertwining histories. Some seem like the armature from which elements like blades or netting are missing, others as if they have ceremonial uses. They are all redolent of the earth, somehow linked with primal activities like hunting, agriculture or fishing.

It is important that these elements only partially signify tools or implements, which they do through an indefinite kind of connotation. By avoiding any explicit references, they do not raise the same sort of issues as, say, the sleds of Salvatore Scarpitta. Puryear’s work simulates the experience of functional objects, their texture and potentiality, without ever actually designating them, for his forms exist equally as pure figures, linear flourishes. The shifting space thus established relates to some central experiments in modern painting. Michel Foucault’s reading of Paul Klee suggests one way of approaching Puryear’s wall pieces: the creation of “an uncertain reversible floating space . . . the juxtaposition of figures and the syntax of signs. In the interlacing of one and the same fabric he presents two systems of representation . . . a space without name or geometry by intertwining the chain of signs and the network of figures” (October, Spring 1976). As an aside: it is interesting that Klee’s modernism seems more relevant to painting in the late ’70s than it ever might have in the ’60s.

Some of Puryear’s work remains close to formalist notions of sculpture, particularly pieces that are essentially autonomous objects. Much of his work, however, especially his wall pieces and architectural projects, is more elusive and raises a number of positional questions about what territory a given work inhabits, issues recently discussed by Rosalind Krauss. This is artwork that straddles or transgresses several different realms and is uneasily categorized as “sculpture” mainly for convenience.

Specifically, Puryear is close to number of contemporary artists whose work combines a rough-hewn elegance with the setting in motion of a field of conscious and half-conscious associations, through the practice of a kind of open referentiality. It is work that creates physical conditions under which an amalgam of objects and spaces can be experienced without ever representing any specific objects or spaces. Just as Puryear does not have models from which his “tools” are conceived, Alice Aycock is interested in the effects of various architectural situations, rather than referring to any recognizable precedents. Her increasingly ornate structures are immediate and concrete environments that generate convergences of memory, anxiety, desire. A number of other artists could be mentioned: Alice Adams’ overlapping historical and architectural associations, which we experience in a fragmented series of half-recognitions; Barbara Zucker’s conjunction of mechanical systems with decorative and delicate allusions to flowers, clothing. An important sector of ’70s art has followed a path not unlike that of architecture. “Post-modern” architecture’s reaction against the International Style can be seen as analogous to the development of ’70s artists away from formalist art of the 1960s. In both cases there is a move toward semantic complexity and enrichment, to hybrid forms and intermingling of codes. Metaphoric thinking becomes central, but only in terms of a plurality of significations.

Jonathan Crary