Martin Puryear

Martin Puryear’s serene but disquieting installation was the inaugural exhibition of the museum’s ongoing “Connections” series, in which artists are invited to design an installation based on a historical image or object that has inspired their work. Puryear chose a 17th-century painting from the museum’s collection of a tethered falcon, by an unidentified Indian artist, and several hand-colored prints by John James Audubon, who traveled throughout North America in the 19th century to document the continent’s bird life. In the slender space leading into the gallery of Puryear’s work, the small, delicately rendered Indian painting of the captive bird of prey, its back to the viewer, held center stage. Audubon’s driven process of documentation, which often involved the construction of armatures to prop up recently killed specimens, anticipated the dialectic between freedom and restraint that animates Puryear’s installation.

The dialogue between influential object and esthetic project was direct, passionate, and philosophical. The artist saw this particular painting over a decade ago, and the contained pose of the captive bird has shaded his work formally and psychologically. The elegant, graceful contours convey an internal eruption of frustrated energy. The abstracted shape of the falcon, transposed into a number of materials and formal variations, was the major component of Puryear’s eclectic installation.

In the purposefully muted light of the large gallery, five birdlike forms, in maple, iron, bronze, and other materials, perched on wedges attached to the gallery walls. One piece was tethered to its base by a length of rawhide. A sixth, solitary piece stood on the floor. Also on the floor was a large, open-walled, yurtlike wooden structure lashed together by straps and twine. A solid wooden doorway blocked entry to the hut, but through the generously spaced supports could be seen a casually unrolled bolt of gray felt, strewn with more falconlike shapes of wood and glass. A scattering of sawdust around one form placed on a pedestal suggested a work in progress, a state of temporarily suspended activity. Most of the forms were crude and unfinished, as if waiting for the artist’s final refinements.

The yurt was both a pavilion and a cage—a structure that framed the objects and intensified their presence, as well as an isolating and frustrating architectural restraint that brought out the difficulty of the relation between object and observer. The spare arrangement of props registered an anxious ambivalence: Puryear’s smooth, precise sculptural forms both conveyed the tensile energy of the bird in the split second between repose and flight and exaggerated the interior chaos of the cage.

The temporal condition of the art installation suggests the complex dialogue between singular elements and serial thoughts, between specific objects and their long, painful progress toward meaning. In Puryear’s environment there was, in fact, an intensified sense of temporality—of activity disturbed, of events and circumstances yet to occur. The artist’s ability to convey urgency with simple forms served as a reminder that flights of creativity often require long periods of captivity—that meaning is often shaped and revealed in moments of restraint.

Patricia C. Phillips