New York

Martin Puryear, The Load, 2012, wood, steel, glass, 7' 7“ x 15' 5” x 6' 2".

Martin Puryear, The Load, 2012, wood, steel, glass, 7' 7“ x 15' 5” x 6' 2".

Martin Puryear

McKee Gallery

Martin Puryear, The Load, 2012, wood, steel, glass, 7' 7“ x 15' 5” x 6' 2".

Like most of Martin Puryear’s sculpture in this typically virtuosic exhibition of recent work, the piece that met the visitor entering the show, The Rest, 2009–10, has many precedents in his art. Wheels and a long harness pole make this bronze representational—it is a covered wagon, though of a smaller, stubbier kind than the settlers’ Conestoga—but were it stripped of those accessories and turned to stand on its only flat side (the doorway where the rider would sit, open in a wagon but here filled in), it would instantly recall a good number of classic Puryear abstractions: humped, rounded, floor-based objects such as Self, 1978, and Thicket, 1990, the former apparently solid, the latter explicitly hollow. Or, instead, imagine The Rest still minus its wheels and tongue but posed with its door stood vertical: That hooped, elongated horseshoe, fronting a bulbous volume that it shapes, again echoes many earlier works, such as the open but net- or snarelike Greed’s Trophy, 1984. Returns and repetitions like these are an enduring feature of Puryear’s sculpture, yet all of these works are so different—in surface, in mass, in presence—that they imply not a recurrence of the same forms but just the opposite: the transformational fluidity of thought, the mobility with which an idea can pass through variations and meanings.

Two paired works here, Hominid, 2007–11, and Vehicle for Reflection, 2012, overtly state the difference possible within shared identity. Both are shaped as exactly the same complex, irregular polyhedron, but where Hominid stands over six feet high, Vehicle for Reflection is less than two feet high and has to be raised on a dais for us to see it. The heavy pine sides of Hominid are flat, but each side of Vehicle for Reflection takes the form of a faceted, inward-pointing cavity with triangular walls, in stainless steel as polished as a mirror. As we look into these cavities, it is as if we were looking into the inside of a diamond. Yet because the steel is reflective, it also pulls in the outside world, making the work a literally dazzling metaphor for the processes of the mind and of vision, which take place internally but absorb and are affected by everything outside and around them. And whereas Hominid sits squatly on loglike rollers, as if waiting to be maneuvered into place by the builders of Stonehenge, Vehicle for Reflection, with its neat little wheels, has the jaunty stance of a race car.

The bulky, brainlike lump of Hominid implies a lumbering movement, Vehicle for Reflection a darting one. Movement seemed to be a theme of the show, with its several works posed, like these two—and like The Rest—on wheels or rollers. That movement, though, was sometimes vexed or problematic: Rolling, 2012, an elegant, tricycle-like line of black walnut and mansonia, looks mobile but isn’t, at least one of its wheels being fixed by the work’s beautifully carpentered joinery. (The other two probably don’t turn either, and have an off-center axle that would make the work ride trickily up and down if they turned.) And every timber of the show’s tour de force, The Load, 2012—a cube-shaped cart-cum-cage nearly eight feet high—announces a movement that could only be massive and slow. Filling the cage is a sphere of glass and wood, like a sculptural version of one of Philip Guston’s outsize eyeballs. A dark window, the eye’s lens, invites the visitor to try to peer in, revealing an unexpectedly intricate, once again mirrored interior, once again suggesting the relations of sight and mind. But this mind doesn’t know where it’s going: The eye points toward the cart’s rear, recalling, as David Levi Strauss observes in his catalogue essay, Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History, moving forward but looking only back. The Load is an image of consciousness, simultaneously seeing and blind.

David Frankel