PRINT December 1991


AS MARTIN PURYEAR’S WORK has evolved, from the ruggedly anthropological to the subtly refined, from the exotic to the erotic and psychological, the artist has adhered to only one style a broadly derived variant of Modernist abstraction. Nevertheless the work is conceptually sophisticated, addressing Western constructions of the “primitive” at the same time that it invokes virtuoso craftsmanship and the poetry of natural materials—ash, ponderosa pine, red cedar. Deftly negotiating between craft and fine art, Puryear’s art conserves distant traditions and reaffirms timeworn values; though his sculpture has become a sign for “primitive,” the work is not.

Puryear has consistently distanced himself from the stylistic and topical concerns of mainstream esthetics. His logical artistic inheritance is Minimalism, yet his acknowledgment of that movement’s importance signals only his receptivity to a dynamic of reduction, geometry (of a modulated kind), and economy of form. Like the mathematician in William Boyd’s novel Brazzaville Beach, Puryear seems “preoccupied with the conviction that the abstract precision of geometry and measurement really had nothing to do with the imprecise and changing dimensions of living things, could not cope accurately with the intrinsic ruggedness of the natural world.”1 His work is more individualistic than that of the Minimalists proper, more expressive, if in an austere and subtle way. Though his touch is usually camouflaged by his surface treatment, his art is also more involved with hand work than is Minimalism—his procedures are often drawn from carpentry and boatbuilding. Finally, he appears to have an aversion to the kind of mass or serial production associated with Minimalist artists.

Puryear’s narrative installations and highly finished (albeit sometimes unfinished-looking) works were never really even post-Minimal either, despite techniques and a biomorphic syntax that occasionally sweep him into categories alongside Jackie Winsor, Robert Therrien, and Heide Fasnacht. Actually his equivocations between abstraction and referentiality are conceptually more akin to the classical balancing acts of Joel Shapiro and Jene Highstein, his eccentric organicism more like that of Richard Deacon. If Shapiro’s figures balance between abstraction and human gesture, Puryear’s forms hover between natural and ethnographic associations. Often a work appears like a closed container, say, or a vault, only at a second glance to seem an empty vessel, an open basket.If early forms resemble ship hulls, cages, and huts, later objects are less guarded and more available, like giant pods, decoys, or tombs. Abstraction is the open-ended vessel accommodating these idiosyncratic composites.

It has been suggested that Puryear’s method is basically intuitive, fusing this formal vocabulary with an impressive knowledge of nature and other cultures and with his technical command of woodworking. Though the rationalist rigor of Minimalism echoes in the precision and discipline of his fabrication, he insists on an emotional response from his audience. Here viewers confront material culture rather than abstract creation; artifact and esthetic object are conflated.

CENTRAL TO THIS WORK is the idea that ‘labor is meaningful and pleasurable. As Peter Boswell notes, Puryear appreciates the anonymity of the craftsperson but leverages it to build unique works of art; he understands and mines the productive contradiction between these two positions.2 A craftsman’s marks are most often invisible as signs of authorship, but in Puryear’s sculpture the imprints and traces of tools may become artistic signatures, and emphasize the maker as well as the thing made.3 Audiences primed by the loaded brushstrokes of the various expressionisms may read emotion and meaning in the staple marks and glue around the seams of a taut lamination such as Lever #1, 1988–89, and one can’t help but be aware of the physical strength, and thus of an identifiable authorial presence, that has manipulated the work into its rounded contours.

Many of Puryear’s sculptures actually suggest measuring tools, or straps and containers, valorizing if not fetishizing labor. The kinds of work and skills that he simultaneously refers to and uses are gendered, alluding both to an outdoorsy, woodsman ethos of hunting and trapping and sometimes to basketry techniques associated with women. In both cases, the techniques in question are more often than not marginalized as crafts. It is remarkable that Puryear preserves the unacknowledged integrity of these crafts, that he transfers them to the realm of art, that his technical skill is so assured that he often conceals it, producing finishes and connections that look natural. And even this conceit provides another dimension of authenticity, for in the end it is art and not craft that has brought the sculptor celebrity.

As a young man, Puryear served in the Peace Corps, and he later studied with a renowned Swedish cabinetmaker, James Krenov. His nostalgia for “good,” ennobling labor, a romance that may recall the political ideals of the Russian Constructivists, began early, then. And he has not shied away from an emotional allegiance with workers, particularly African-American workers, not executives but executors: “Their hands were always busy, their backs were always bent. It would be very hard for me to turn into the kind of person who is giving orders for the work to be realized by somebody else. I guess I don’t trust that.”4 Yet although, in a Marxist framework, the caption “handmade” may imply some of the virtues said to inhere in nonalienated labor, Puryear’s handmade work builds on a conceptual dichotomy that reflects the values of capitalist society. For terms like “made to order” and “handmade” connote value and aura. Not only is time a luxury that only the wealthy can afford, but the time-consuming procedures necessary to hand-build unique, large-scale works of art can only be understood today in the context of an economy that trades in time and symbols to convert everything into a commodity. Puryear borrows time from this capitalist economy, slowing down the production process. The singularity of his fabrications, then, is extremely complex, located at an intersection of aspirations derived from high culture and of identification with social class.

All this is literally spliced together with notches, staples, and glue. Puryear is a one-man cross-cultural program of bricolage. His work has affinities with that of Constantin Brancusi, the original primitive sophisticate, whose artisanal identification reinforced his attachments to folkloric tradition. The tendency of Brancusi scholars to claim him as a Romanian mystic, and thus to pry him away from Modernism’s streamlined internationalism, is reminiscent of various Puryear critics’ desire to read this artist’s handicraft as a primal link to pre-Modern origins of difference.The biography tells us that Puryear learned these techniques in Africa, Sweden, and New Haven, but his most recent work reveals only his skill, ambitious spatialization, and eccentric imagination.

PURYEAR’S SCULPTURAL VOCABULARY is of three basic types: organic natural forms, implements, and containers. These he recombines in hybrid assemblages, incorporating both wall and floor. Within these categories he has a fondness for joining two opposites in a balance, for example line and mass, thin and fat, open and closed, dark and light, male and female, so that a linear element may serve as a belt or base to outline and restrain curves bulging into volumes, or intricate joinery may cover a simple shape with a complex pattern. Puryear experiments to see how thin-skinned a body can be before becoming a skeleton, how an edge becomes an entity, how a boundary gains substance. He calls on unorthodox combinations and ingenious but incongruous connections: a pointed wooden beak becomes a turquoise plume on an openwork metal cage in Seer, 1984; twisted rawhide strips in rows on the wall suggest a linear narrative in Some Lines for Jim Beckwourth, 1978.

Puryear will capitalize on accidental and procedural details, the colors and patterns of contrasting grains and texture, the marks and imprints of tools left on the surface. Conflating materials and finish, he parallels Anselm Kiefer’s strategic, symbolic deployment of media such as straw and lead. Poplar, pine pear, maple, oak; Honduras mahogany, Sitka spruce, hickory, basswood, cypress.The sheer physicality and presence of raw and milled wood contribute to the empathic power of Puryear’s art along with its insinuation of something vaguely known or remembered.

Puryear’s early career as a painter only partially explains the counterfeit membranes—rawhide, tar, mesh—and painted, denaturalized converings in some of his pieces. Rosalind Krauss has demonstrated the significance of decentered sculpture, and certainly the Modern contribution of a hollow core is fundamental to Puryear’s project.6 In part through the broad hint of its title] his 1978 sculpture Self—a cedar-and-mahogany hump rising nearly six feet from the floor, and stained black—has become a Puryear signature. The piece operates on the level of metaphor, since its contour and its density do not necessarily coincide. In Puryear works of this family, and there are at least seven that rework the biomorphic shape of Self (like steps on the way to an ideal proportion), one is rarely sure how the immediate, tactile surface relates to the internal structure. To a large extent these exteriors, embroidered with unmotivated details of fabrication, intentionally misrepresent. Almost allegorically, they demonstrate the deception of appearance. This aspect of Puryear’s sculpture sharply distinguishes the work from the flat positivism of Minimalism at the same time that it bends repetition, a standard Minimalist tool, into an instrument for constant variation of types. In Sol LeWitt’s Variations on a Cube, 1974, the variations focus on the basic geometric form. In Puryear’s art they are dictated by the choice of materials, which in turn determine fabrication techniques (usually blades, rarely power tools).

What appears substantial and solid in Puryear’s oeuvre is typically hollow. Many of his sculptures play on counterfeit volumetric situations defined by linear configurations, or containers over hollow cores. Calibrated to human scale, Self and its kindred works radiate a certain disconcerting vitalism and expressive range; they surge forward like the prow of a ship. Perhaps the earliest incarnation of this image is an etching Puryear made in Sweden in 1966, but the form also relates to a stone the artist collected later in Alaska. Bower, 1980, is an openwork lattice version; in Seer, the shape is translated into a metal crinoline. Cask Cascade, 1985, is faceted vertically and painted black, while Old Mole, 1985, repeats the pointed finial of Cask Cascade but is built from red-cedar strips, irregularly wrapped, like the bundles of obsessive string-savers. In 1989, Puryear built a narrow, angular version called Noatak, after the Alaskan river, sheathed with wide slats of red-cedar veneer, as well as an idiosyncratic flask-shaped rattan version titled The Charm of Subsistence. A 1990 variation, Thicket, has rough four-inch-thick basswood and cypress beams notched together in a random pattern of diagonals; straining against its recognizable silhouette, it looks as if it had been assembled by an Arts and Crafts artisan gone cubist. It is the bones to the skin of Noatak, a bold three-dimensional diagram of process and material producing form.

LIKE BRANCUSI, Puryear has produced a series of geometrically simplified bird shapes, in various materials from lathe-turned wood to iron. Puryear’s birds are falcons, and he occasionally installs them like Egyptian canopic jars in his exhibitions of a full-sized yurtlike piece called Where the Heart Is (Sleeping Mews), 1981–90. This estheticized demonstration of a nomadic shelter (the work has the same anthropological urgency as the early Cedar Lodge, 1977) refers both to primitive culture, for example in its bronze throne, and to his own biography, for he has been fascinated with falconry since childhood. The Arctic gyrfalcon’s seasonal change of plumage, from white to black, to suit its environment becomes emblematic of the artist’s nomadic destiny. By the same metaphor, the yurt becomes a mobile studio.7 Puryear acknowledges his interest in Audubon’s illustrations and his recollection of a 17th-century Mogul painting of a falcon in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts as a point of departure for this installation. Alluding to “transcendental homelessness,” natural camouflage, and the paradox of the tamed bird of prey (with implicit analogies interrelating artist, artwork, and patron), Puryear conflates the psychic and the rustic, the art-history archive and personal memory, at the same time that he fulfills the viewer’s yearning for the primitive, the last gasp of authenticity.8

Bird forms appear again in the “Decoys and Stereotypes” group, 1987, where the decoys referred to are the hunter’s painted wooden models of ducks and other prey. Reminiscent of Brancusi’s Leda of 1920, with its thrusting funnel-shaped neck and smooth round body, Puryear’s eccentric sculptures rear up five and six feet from wide bases. But where Brancusi attempted to reimagine the mythical rape so that the woman rather than the male god Zeus becomes a bird, Puryear merges genders as he blurs genres. Brancusi carved his birds in wood and marble and cast them in bronze. Puryear’s “Decoys and Stereotypes” are unpolished, variable from all sides, and completely diverse and unpredictable. They follow a group of smaller inventions, “Boy’s Toys,” 1984, that share their long necks and full bodies but are closer in shape to oilcans and obelisks. The “Boy’s Toys” reveal a sense of humor and a willingness to mock the pretensions of abstract monumental sculpture. Their ironic tone engages issues of gender and of phallic iconography in contemporary sculpture and in the artist’s own work, where stereotypically female, open forms are often merged with massive, vertical, stereotypically male forms. But their sense of playfulness explodes in the “Decoys,” where the scale in relation to the hunter’s model is almost Oldenburgian. Paint not only camouflages but creates moods and disconcerting juxtapositions: stained dark green, Empire’s Lurch, 1987, is brooding and muscular; the white Verge, 1987, becomes bridal (like Brancusi’s pristine white Maiastra of 1910–12), and the unpainted Sharp and Flat, 1987, looks as casually fabricated and domesticated as a knotty-pine rec room. The most recent “Decoy,” Diameter, 1990, has been flattened to a round steel plate with a short neck protruding like a periscope. The lingering sense of the woodsman evaporates and is replaced by the controlled elegance and multiplying nuances that Puryear extracts from a series of elemental shapes.

When Puryear made these pieces, scale had already become a central issue in his work. Desire, 1981, for example, a giant wheel 16 feet in diameter, claims grandness through its expansiveness, while the woven cone to which it is linked realizes a relationship of perpetual dependency and estrangement. The bean-shaped element at the base of To Transcend, 1987, swells to gigantic proportions, like an outsized chestnut, in Maroon, 1987–88; despite its cartoon scale and swollen tar-covered contours, its position and ovoid shape recall Brancusi’s Newborn of 1915. Puryear can graft carefully pitched architectural scale onto vaguely recognizable objects, so that a belt becomes a fence, a strap, a wall. At the same time, he has a talent for making spatially aggressive work look delicate—Lever #2, 1988–89, for example, is over 24 feet long and takes the stage like a giant Venus’s-flytrap on its side, but is tempered by the grace of its sinewy blond curves. Finally, scale helps Puryear escape from predictable formal dualities and oppositions, the sheer size of his objects animating a network of significance. It is scale, for example, that effects the trans-formation of anatomically suggestive shapes into sculptures that are hybrid and associative but definitely objects. From one angle, Lever #1 may look like a figure with a small waist and flared torso, from another a bird form, but the body easily becomes a boat, or perhaps a sarcophagus, and the neck its lid. More to the point, the lid is 14 feet high. There is no easy way to contextualize this towering cedar shape, which rears up from its footlike base with the snap of an animal at bay.

DURING THE ’80s, Puryear’s work embodied a rebuke to or a refuge from the media-based metacritical constructions of post-Modern artists—the refuge, if you like, of anachronism. He has described his work as providing “an element of...fantasy, escape, imagination, retreat. It is an idea of otherness.”9 Urgent voices of “otherness” are being heard more frequently in the ’90s, and have already evoked a heated critical dialogue as well as a predictable backlash. Puryear is often included in exhibitions of African-American artists, and has occasionally used titles that allude to other cultures and to figures from African-American history. Yet he is uncomfortable with ethnic, national, or racial categories and formulas and has removed himself from today’s overt political expressions of racial community and social agendas.

Given the increased attention to multicultural expression, and the growing number of attempts to explore and in some cases to exploit the visual representation of the identity and subjectivity of different peoples, the timing of the Puryear retrospective currently at the Art Institute of Chicago is fortuitous. Not only does it celebrate an accomplished career but it offers us an opportunity to test the “otherness” imputed to this artist’s work, and the overlap of individual biography and cultural identity. Eschewing ideology, protecting his privacy, and emphasizing individualism at the expense of community, Puryear has become a celebrity and a role model, winner of a MacArthur grant and the first prize of the 1989 São Paulo Bienal. He is one of the few African-American artists to receive this kind of national and international fame. Descriptive terms such as “original” and “conservative,” “traditional” and “handmade,” and validating terms such as “maverick” and “exceptional,” have created an adjectival wall around his sculpture, foreclosing anything much beyond formal interpretation. Insights and intentions drawn from his interviews, rehearsed, analyzed, and repeated, have become significant in inverse proportion to their fragmentary character; they have been made to imply ethical and political concerns not necessarily legible in the sculpture. And Puryear’s African and Swedish sojourns, which took place more than 20 years ago, have been granted disproportionate emphasis as constitutive moments of esthetic consciousness (though the drawings and etchings he made at the time do supply a kind of authoritative notebook of sources, endowing his work with an ethnographic authenticity).

Obviously Puryear’s African, European, and Japanese sabbaticals are by now recollections mediated in three-dimensional forms, continually recaptured and reinterpreted by the artist, who becomes a fieldworker of his own experiences, crafting his artistic identity from a broader category of cultural unity. His sculptures have been analyzed as considered translations of the cultures he has studied and visited, almost as souvenirs of those trips he made—as if these remarkably porous constructions were instruments of cultural tourism, and ultimately projections of Western fantasies about exotic geography. But just as much at stake in this work are some myths of American identity. One senses a nostalgic impulse on the part of his audiences, in fact, to search his art for evidence of a reinvention of America, this time acknowledging its appropriations from other cultures, and premised on the desire to conserve the integrity and values connoted by skilled labor and to resist a sci-fi, high-tech future. With the accelerating depletion of the world’s natural resources, these odd constructions and esthetic traps are more than ever at home in a museum, as invented relics of what American culture once represented. Talismans to artistic originality, they linger in an ideal of redemptive wilderness.

Judith Russi Kirshner is a regular contributor to Artforum and the director of the School of Art and Design at the University of Illinois at Chicago.



1. William Boyd, Brazzaville Beach, London: Sinclair-Stevenson. Ltd., 1990, p. 86.

2. Peter W. Boswell, “Martin Puryear,” in Sculpture: Inside Outside, exhibition catalogue, Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, and New York: Rizzoli, 1988, p. 197.

3. See ibid., p. 189.

4. Martin Puryear, quoted in Dwight Y. Gast, “Martin Puryear: Sculpture as an Act of Faith,” The Journal of Art 2 no. 1., New York. September/October 1989, p. 7.

5. See, for example, Robert Storr, “Martin Puryear: The Hands’ Proportion,” in Neal Benezra, Martin Puryear, exhibition catalogue, Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago, and New York: Thames and Hudson, 1991, pp. 132–33.

6. See Rosalind E. Krauss, Passages in Modern Sculpture, Cambridge, Mass.: The M.I.T. Press. 1977, p. 106.

7. See Kathy Halbreich, “Connections: Martin Puryear,” exhibition brochure, Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1990. n.p.

8. See Marianna Torgovnick, Gone Primitive: Savage Intellects, Modern Lives, Chicago: at the University Press, 1990, p. 188.

9. Puryear, quoted in Alan Artner, “A Sculptor’s 2 Sides: Martin Puryear and his public and private art,” The Chicago Tribune, 1 February 1987, section 13, p. 14.

The retrospective “Martin Puryear” opened last month at the Art Institute of Chicago and remains there until 5 January 1992. It then travels to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C., 5 February–10 May; the Museum of Contemporary Art. Los Angeles, 26 July–4 October; and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 8 November–3 January 1993.