Puryear claims that Minimalism showed him “the power of the simple, single thing as opposed to a full-blown complex array of things.” As Michael Auping’s essay “Artisan” states, Puryear gravitated to Minimalism because its “fundamental, no-nonsense vocabulary of forms fit his practical builder’s personality,” but the Minimalist use of “industrial materials and machine-made processes,” as in the word of Donald Judd and Carl Andre, sent Puryear off in a different direction. Puryear refused, as he put it, to accept “the false premise… that if you work with your hands in a very deliberate way, you somehow cannot be an intellectual.” After learning woodworking from his father as a child and even learning to craft fine guitars in college, Puryear developed the “intelligent hands” needed to employ unique methods of craftsmanship in creating works such as Bask (above). Using the centuries-old method of strip planking once used to build curved ships’ hulls, Puryear created the hull-like shape of Bask. By adding this human touch, which Auping calls “an oblique form of drawing” and a “sculptural version of contour drawing,” Puryear brings a humanity to his Minimalist works that the industrialized versions of Minimalism lack.
Martin Puryear, American (born 1941). Lever No. 1, 1988-1989. Red cedar, cypress, poplar, and ash. The Art Institute of Chicago. A. James Speyer Memorial Fund, UNR Industrial Fund in honor of James W. Alsdorf, Barbara Neff Smith and Solomon Byron Smith Funds. © 2008 Martin Puryear.
Puryear’s rehumanized Minimalism engages the viewer with a multiplicity of meaning by an economy of means. In a work such as Lever No. 1 (above) we imagine the sculpture actually working as a lever, as if we could raise the weighted element by the long handle. Simultaneously, Lever No. 1 is not a lever but an aesthetically pleasing shape. As Elderfield puts it, Lever No. 1 “is an extraordinarily serene yet strangely discomforting sculpture” that “refuses to settle into its beauty.” Elderfield sees the handle “inviting empathetic leverage to dislodge something familiar but long forgotten.” In all his sculptures, Puryear uses the leverage of an image that is both something and NOT something to pry open a space in which the imagination itself can widen and both reclaim forgotten cultural memories and embrace, perhaps for the first time, treasures of other cultures waiting to be claimed. “By the early 1980s a seasoned viewer of Puryear’s sculptures had come to expect being asked to hold in the mind, at the same time, congruities and inconsistencies—between one view and the next, between settled immobility and implied mobility, between factual presence and metaphorical suggestion,” Elderfield writes. The magic of the NGA’s Puryear exhibition lies in the immersion it provides in this unique language within Puryear’s method—an alien tongue that brings us closer to ourselves through its powerful otherness.
Martin Puryear, American (born 1941). Ladder for Booker T. Washington, 1996. Ash and maple. Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Gift of Ruth Carter Stevenson, by exchange. © 2008 Martin Puryear. Photo David Wharton.
In addition to the multiple physical and metaphorical dimensions in his work, Puryear introduces a historical dimension in works such as Ladder for Booker T. Washington (above). Puryear’s Ladder illustrates the “jogs and switchbacks in the historical continuum that people always want to believe in,” Puryear says. Alluding the civil rights pioneer by its title, Ladder appears taller than it is by a trick of perspective in which the ladder gets narrower as it rises. Some may optimistically see this as the physical manifestation of the heights to which race relations have risen in America. In a recent conversation with Puryear included in the catalogue, Puryear describes Ladder as embodying “the kind of gradual, often illusory notion of upward progress that Washington encouraged blacks to adopt in the nineteenth century against an overwhelming set of obstacles to our advancement.” Aside from that dichotomy of interpretation, Ladder shows Puryear’s ability to assimilate other cultures into an American subject without diminishing them. In her essay titled “Jogs and Switchbacks,” Elizabeth Reede links Puryear’s Ladder with similar ladders in South American, Asian, and African cultures. “Puryear’s strength lies in his ability to absorb unique and unrelated elements... and merge them into something cohesive and original without privileging any one function or form,” Reede argues. By adding historical and cultural references to his sculptures without prioritizing them, Puryear maintains the magical balance that keeps his works Minimalist yet imbues them with an arresting social relevance.
Martin Puryear, American (born 1941). C.F.A.O., 2006-2007. Painted and unpainted pine and found wheelbarrow. Courtesy the artist and Donald Young Gallery, Chicago. © 2008 Martin Puryear. Photo Richard P. Goodbody.
In 1963, Puryear travelled to Sierra Leone as part of the Peace Corps. “One thing that struck me when I was in Sierra Leone,” Puryear says, “was how rich life was for the people there and how much they could do with so few material and technological resources.” As an African-American in an African culture, Puryear connected with the native crafts and found his vocation as a sculptor. “Before I went to West Africa,” Puryear confesses, “I thought of myself as a painter.” In C.F.A.O. (above; which stands for “Compagnie Francaise de l’Afrique Occidentale,” the name of a nineteenth-century French company that traded in West Africa), Puryear presents African culture in the form of an African Fang mask, but simultaneously distances from that culture by enlarging the mask through reproduction. Puryear refuses to fall into the stereotypes of primitivism and nativism, choosing instead to present the thing itself for interpretation. The mask, a means of hidden identity, paradoxically becomes an amplifier of personal identity—specifically Puryear’s own identity as an artist challenging people to see anew rather than hold onto old beliefs. “It is not an argument about something,” Elderfield writes of C.F.A.O. “It is a dare to have courage to look hard at that thing, which means seeing how almost arrantly improper it would be to replace it in a translation.” Puryear plays not “truth or dare” but “truth and dare,” daring us to see these cultural elements unfiltered by our own. In a world getting seemingly smaller by the day as well as more fragile, Martin Puryear’s art may provide the key to accepting the world as it is rather than trying to bend it to our own purposes.
[Many thanks to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC for providing me with a review copy of the catalogue to Martin Puryear and for the images from the exhibition.]