New York

Martin Puryear

The New Museum

Universal beauty and a morally superior nature evidently exist for Martin Puryear, and he finds them good. Despite the labor-intensive craft of his works, they dream of seamlessness, of being grown or hatched. In Dream of Pairing, 1981, pied surfaces shift color from one end of a wooden circle to another so subtly that the change seems a function of protective camouflage or of light rather than of paint; in an untitled piece from 1978, the “found” torsion of a vine is left undisturbed in the same way that certain tribal architecture preserves the buttress roots of trees intact, to support roof beams or to ornament the houses of chieftains. Elsewhere Puryear favors an architectural form, but his enclosures are nearly always warped and rubbed shiny, blunt, or sharp. One guesses that the handmade is chthonic for Puryear, that he believes in the aura of objects not because of market and cultural reifications but because he feels that the power of the earth travels through the maker’s hand to the fashioned artifact. Besides, raw or finished, all things would radiate energy in an animistic universe.

These convictions can create difficulties, since Puryear banks on a shared belief system with his audience. Certainly, in terms of viewer rapport, all art faces the problem of its own philosophical bias, a problem that the current interest in incorporating multiple and often conflicting values into work attempts to resolve. But Puryear’s sculptures detach themselves from ongoing discussion. For better or worse, they stand off and baldly state their position. It’s pointless to criticize them for what they believe when what they believe accounts not only for a putative weakness but also for their strength.

What dialectic there is in Puryear’s sculpture exists within a natural rhythm of cyclic return. It pits compression and containment against a hesitant emergence understandable as a seasonal transition, a coming into consciousness or into sexuality. The tips of things are important: objects are knobbed, knobs are painted or otherwise distinguished, humps just break the surface of the floor. One of the most convincing aspects of the constructions is the way their compression forces their eventual emergence—the way, for example, a hulking shape is squeezed into a prow, pushed by repression itself into a cutting edge, a breakthrough. Historically, Puryear’s sculptures do the same; they demonstrate how the anal retentiveness of Minimalism had to produce a yearning to burst out. The tweezer prongs of Stripling, 1976, the buried-alive quality of For Beckwourth, 1980, the suffocated, worm-ridden house of Reliquary, 1980, carry on Minimalism’s motifs of imprisonment—its bindings, boxes, labyrinths—but the beginnings of escape nose out. The works are often monolithic, but refuse to be holistic. Temporally, they are poised on some brink. That’s why—when we’ve now reached the other side of excess, with the expectation of a minimalist revival any day—the timing of this show was so perfect.

Jeanne Silverthorne