New York

Martin Puryear

McKee Gallery

When writing on Martin Puryear critics routinely refer to the two years he spent in Sierra Leone as the source of the “primitivist” strain they discern in his work. This may be well-intentioned but it is also racist. Puryear is black, but this does not necessarily give him a privileged access to the primal or the primordial. Nor is there anything primitive about the highly evolved art of West Africa. Furthermore, immediately after his sojourn in Sierra Leone he moved to Stockholm, where he studied the techniques of the world’s most sophisticated woodworkers—techniques of lamination and joinery that are the foundation of much of his art. To him the two experiences are not opposed. In Africa, he has said, “I was first exposed to people who worked with wood with any real skill”; and his sojourn in Sweden was a continuation or expansion of his interest in craftsmanship. Among other influences that might be noted are Brancusi and Minimalism. The result is an art of superb precision, elegance, and restraint.

One of several important factors that divide Puryear’s art from Minimalism is his love of craft: “I’m a worker. I’m not somebody who’s happy to let my work be made for me.” He has a nostalgia for the anonymity of the traditional craftsman, for artists who never thought of themselves as artists in the modern sense. He does not consider it beneath his dignity to design and build furniture and amenities (a wooden bathtub, for example), and his work, though often large in scale, is remarkably free of bombast. For Puryear, time-consuming, hands-on working methods reflect the process of memory; they provide him with a direct physical link to the past, and this may account for his work’s quiet, evocative power. At the same time it is never backward-looking in any reactionary sense: ancient, impersonal techniques are put to new and original purposes.

His most recent show consisted of only four pieces, all but one constructed of red cedar and pine. Even the simplest of these forms lend themselves to multiple interpretations. Take His Eminence, 1993–95, for example. It consists of a tall columnar form, part phallus, part totem, rising from one end of a shallow oval base, but the longer you look the more it changes. Because of its relationship to the horizontal base, the vertical form begins to look as if it is floating, or rather sailing purposefully forward like a ship’s prow or figurehead. (It is worth noting that Puryear has long been interested in the techniques of boat building.) Metaphysical implications verge on the mythological in Plenty’s Boast, 1994–95, which, as its title might suggest, consists of an outsized cornucopia, its mouth some seven feet across. But the tail of this cornucopia turns in on itself so that it resembles a fantastic sea slug or anemone that could as easily ingest the passing viewer as spill out fruit and flowers. The equally engaging Alien Huddle, 1993–95, with its clustered globes and hemispheres, could be a compressed constellation.

All of the pieces have an air of contemplative self-containment enlivened by a sense of fantasy and understated wit. I can think of few contemporary sculptors whose work is so consistently satisfying.

John Ash