Washington, DC

Martin Puryear

It is about the laying on of hands, putting mind to material and divining the form it should take; the slow, sensuous bending of wood and wire, the transformation of history, images, and cultures into objects so infused with this heady multiplicity they nearly speak.

An artist with the rare gift of subtle and sophisticated reserve, Martin Puryear charges his works with the containment of energy, impulse, and gesture. Self, 1978, rises from the floor, a dark brooding fin or lump. Initially, the sheer volume and mass of the work create a feeling of immobility and impenetrability, and yet this giant mass is a rather delicate and hollow construction of painted strips of cedar and mahogany, with variations in the wood and finish adding coloration, depth, and a romantic edge. These variations work further to individuate sections of the piece: illustrative perhaps of the unification of the self, the creation of a singular and therefore more powerful being. Simultaneously heavy and delicate, Self radiates an ethereal translucence, as if one could pass through it like a ghost walking through walls.

Circumbent, 1976 (a half-moon or half-circle of ashwood with a single pole from floor to center point), evokes, like much of Puryear’s work, the contemplative, the spiritual, the talismanic. As with Self, one has the feeling of wanting to keep this work close by, where it can be touched, caressed, as though it might have the power to comfort, to warm, or to heal. This preoccupation with the tactile becomes, in Some Tales, 1975–1977, a meditation on the artist as laborer. Of ash and yellow pine, this piece consists of a series of six elongated wooden shapes not unlike the well-worn tools of a worker’s life (saws, scythes, hoes), a homage to labor itself and to art as labor. Less comforting are pieces such as Keeper, 1984, and Greed’s Trophy, 1984, both constructed of wood and steel wire. Somewhat cagelike in their use of netting and masks, these works bring to mind graceful yet disquieting images of entrapment, the possibility of being held against one’s will.

Throughout, the success of Puryear’s work lies in its combination or recombination of multiple and sometimes seemingly disparate or contradictory approaches, cultures, methodologies, and theories. The result is a celebratory and highly spiritual body of work that ultimately seems so organic that one can most easily imagine discovering it as a naturally occurring phenomenon in one of the world’s more mystical spots.

While indebted to Constantin Brancusi and the Minimalists, Puryear’s work exists as if outside of time. Elements of his approach suggest that—although he is only 51—he could be the missing link between the sculptors of the ’50s, whose use of postwar welding technology combined industrial development and craft, and the Minimalists of the ’70s. Or one could present Puryear’s work as an antidote to Minimalism and its emphasis on the absence of the artist’s hand. In the end one suspects that Puryear’s work is not as well-known as that of other artists of his generation simply because he defies categorization, challenging the notion of category itself, whether engaging with racial, cultural, and historical issues, or taking on the question of craft as art. Succeeding where others fail, Puryear makes the most complicated of experiences approachable, elegant, and often lyrical. In his abstraction—a kind of condensation of the essential elements at play—the ideas, the background impulses, accrue even greater power and meaning. Puryear not only defies categorization and the rules of the art world, he transcends them.

A.M. Homes