New York

Martin Puryear, Dumb Luck, 1990, wire mesh, tar, and wood, 64 x 94 x 36".

Martin Puryear, Dumb Luck, 1990, wire mesh, tar, and wood, 64 x 94 x 36".

Martin Puryear

Museum of Modern Art, New York and Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth

SCULPTURE HAS LONG PLAYED second fiddle to painting at MoMA (case in point: the Department of Painting and Sculpture), perhaps a consequence of the same giddy moment that gave us high modernism and the urban temple built to exhibit its wall-bound artifacts. This is surely changing, with MoMA’s institutional priorities effecting architectural exigencies: After the museum’s recent renovation, bigger rooms engineered expressly (or at least firstly) for Richard Serra mean bigger rooms left behind for other sculptors. Yet these subsequent installations—in which Martin Puryear’s retrospective, organized by John Elderfield, is sadly included—now suffer the unseemly fate of comparison to the “man of steel,” with the vast new galleries often overwhelming and estranging their objects.

In fact, upon encountering Puryear’s show at its second venue, the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, I realized that back at MoMA, I had hardly noticed anything at all. (The atrium was markedly immune, with the spindly, heartbreaking Ladder for Booker T. Washington, 1996, a thirty-six-foot split sapling that narrows as it crawls up the vertical face; and the newest sculpture, Ad Astra, 2006–2007, with a limb that reaches from a wagon-wheel base to the titular stars, ambitiously yet modestly filling the site’s cavity.) This despite the fact that both locations presented an enormous selection of nearly fifty sculptures from Puryear’s first solo museum show in 1977 (which followed a massive studio fire) to the present, making this the first full-scale effort in a decade and a half to survey the artist’s production and, more specifically, his commitment to traditional building methods and the dexterity required to execute them. (Puryear’s last tour, in 1991, did not even stop in New York—Philadelphia was as close as it got.)

The loosely chronological, all-indoors “Martin Puryear” emphasizes the constancy of wood as the artist’s primary means—or better, medium—with few metal pieces shown. Exceptions to this timber orientation include the iconic Greed’s Trophy, 1984, a winsome net of steel rod and wire bearing down on a wall, and sculptures like Maroon, 1987–88, and Dumb Luck, 1990, enigmatic armatures covered with skins of wire mesh and tar that abandon their velvety opacity when observed up close, twinkling as if pricked by a million points of light. Puryear’s clear foregrounding of recherché woodworking simultaneously accomplishes many things, not least of which is the suggestion of a link between Puryear’s life and his practice: Born in Washington, DC, the artist grew up making furniture and guitars; he studied at Catholic University of America and went to Sierra Leone with the Peace Corps, toiling alongside local carpenters; and he spent two years in Stockholm at the Swedish Royal Academy of Art assimilating Scandinavian design.

Still, to Elderfield’s immense credit, the show does not circumscribe this genealogy or render its influence a kind of secret decoder ring for Puryear’s anthropomorphic and avian forms. Indeed, even as the exhibition allows for biographical contextualization, it also frames a David-and-Goliath-like post-Minimal contest in which Puryear’s wood goes up against Serra’s steel. Michael Auping’s catalogue essay, appropriately titled “Artisan,” quotes Puryear differentiating his work from that of his peers in terms of white- versus blue-collar artists, with the former outsourcing fabrication and the latter retaining the handmade. Most important, Elderfield’s selection calls attention to Puryear’s ethics of making—its relation to manual labor, class, and craft as well as to folk technology (basket weaving, tent and yurt construction, and so on). Even the woods are specific in Puryear’s selection and application: He describes pine, spruce, hemlock, ash, and fir as “functional,” as opposed to the comparatively baroque rosewood or walnut.

In this material specificity, Puryear’s politics emerge. It is easy enough to argue that such a position has been there all along, especially in certain works that evidence references to imperialism and air questions of race. Take Some Lines for Jim Beckwourth, 1978, in which threads of twisted rawhide and tufts of cow hair arranged in tidy rows invoke the man’s story: The son of a black mother and white father, Beckwourth was born into slavery in Virginia in 1798; he traveled the American frontier trading horses and was eventually made a chief of the Crow Nation. The recent C.F.A.O., 2006–2007, the initials of which stand for Compagnie Française de l’Afrique Occidentale, a nineteenth-century French trading company that sailed between Marseille and West Africa, is more overt than anything else in the show. A wooden wheelbarrow that Puryear found while in residence at Alexander Calder’s studio in Saché, France—and likely made when France still maintained African colonies—supports a pine lattice that yields an impression of an iconic white Fang tribal mask.

But another kind of politics has been there besides, relating to Puryear’s method and not his iconography. Despite his roots as a painter, it is in his quaint adherence to object making (and objects of the best-made kind at that) and in his attention to surface that these other principles manifest. Puryear’s is a DIY formalism, as “functional” as his choices of wood. Which is to say that seeing—really seeing—the work is paramount. To make out the brittle arc’s almost ineffable shadow in Big and Little Same, 1981, or to spy the barely submerged wood grain in Untitled, 1997, counts. Without fetishizing métier, Puryear’s work is almost perfect. Yet he also advises that the almost is what matters.

Travels to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, June 22–Sept. 28; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Nov. 8, 2008–Jan. 25, 2009.

Suzanne Hudson is a New York–based critic and an assistant professor of art history at the University of Illinois.