ARThound

Geneva Anderson digs into art

Martin Puryear

SFMOMA, November 8, 2008January 25, 2009

Martin Puryear, Ladder for Booker T. Washington, 1996; Ash and maple, 36’ x 22 ¾” x 3” (10.97 m x 57.8 cm x 7.6 cm); width narrows to 1 ¼” (3.2 cm) at the top; Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth; Gift of Ruth Carter Stevenson, by exchange; © 2007 Martin Puryear; Photo by David Wharton

Martin Puryear, Ladder for Booker T. Washington, 1996; Ash and maple, 36’ x 22 ¾” x 3” (10.97 m x 57.8 cm x 7.6 cm); width narrows to 1 ¼” (3.2 cm) at the top; Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth; Gift of Ruth Carter Stevenson, by exchange; © 2007 Martin Puryear; Photo by David Wharton

Retrospective exhibitions often leave me feeling unsatisfied.  When large time intervals are involved, it can be difficult to get a feel for the context in which early artworks were created and exhibited and thus to comprehend their full significance.  The Martin Puryear retrospective at SFMOMA, the first major survey of his work in 15 years, is a thoroughly satisfying overview of Puryear’s work to date.  SFMOMA has installed the show thoughtfully and all the viewer needs to bring along is childlike imagination and the ability to free-associate.  The exhibition features 47 sculptures that chart Puryear’s artistic development over the last 30 years, from his first solo show in 1977 to the present.  The exhibition was organized by John Elderfield, Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), New York, and locally overseen by Alison Gass, assistant curator of painting and sculpture, SFMOMA.

Puryear, 67, is an acclaimed Washington D.C.-born sculptor, who began his artistic career in the late 1960’s alongside a number of post-minimalist artists such as Richard Serra.  He currently lives and works in upstate New York.  While Puryear has a prolific exhibition history, his primary exposure on the West Coast has been in Los Angeles where his work was frequently shown in galleries there in the mid-1980’s.  A piece of his was shown in 2000 in the SFMOMA exhibition “Highlights of the Anderson Collection” and he had a solo show in 2005 at the San Jose Museum of Art.  He has also created a number of notable public art works.  His 45 foot tall, “That Profile,” was commissioned for the Getty Center in Los Angeles. 

Martin Puryear, Untitled, 1981-82; Painted ponderosa pine, 58” (147.3 cm) diam., 9 3/8” (23.8 cm) deep; Private collection, Atherton, California; © 2007 Martin Puryear

Martin Puryear, Untitled, 1981-82; Painted ponderosa pine, 58” (147.3 cm) diam., 9 3/8” (23.8 cm) deep; Private collection, Atherton, California; © 2007 Martin Puryear

Puryear’s childhood interest in how things work, and why they have the form they do, led him to explore woodworking and other manual crafts, which he later honed as his sculptural techniques.  He makes most of his sculptures from wood that he coaxes into a variety of shapes and forms, as well as from unconventional materials such as tar, wire, webbed mesh, rattan and rawhide and found objects.  He has lived and traveled all over the world and has deep appreciation for the meticulous process of crafting objects by hand himself.   

The SFMOMA exhibition follows a rough chronological order but starts with two newer pieces in the museum’s high atrium with “Ladder for Booker T. Washington” (1996).  The thirty-six foot long ladder is made from a single sapling which Puryear split down the middle and joined with rungs. The ladder does not actually touch the floor, but stops inches short, suspended from high.  As we glance upwards, it winds upward, narrowing at the top to a mere 1 ¼ inch in width, taking the overall appearance of something from a fairy-tale, like the magical ladder from Jack in the Beanstalk, except that ladder is rooted in the earth.  It evokes all sorts of connotations.  When I attended the press opening in November, the day after our historical Presidential election, I could not help but think of President-elect Barak Obama’s ascension from humble origins to the pinnacle of power.

Also situated in the atrium is the newest and largest piece in the show… the 63-feet tall “Ad Astra” (2007), which suggests a primitive catapult that stands ready to launch. The contraption is supported at its base by a pair of huge wagon wheels and a giant wooden block that has been finished to suggest a weighty boulder. Much like “Ladder for Booker T. Washington,” the work has a strong primitivism to it.  Its long tapered arm is formed from a 58 foot long ash sapling that has been further elongated by an additional narrow limb that tapers to a twig suggesting a reach that is tenuous, fragile, at its uppermost limit. 

Martin Puryear, Confessional, 1996-2000; Wire mesh, tar, and various woods, 6’ 5 7/8” x 8’ 1 ¾” x 45” (197.8 x 247 x 114.3 cm); Cartin Collection, courtesy Donald Young Gallery; Chicago; © 2007 Martin Puryear; Image courtesy Donald Young Gallery, Chicago

Martin Puryear, Confessional, 1996-2000; Wire mesh, tar, and various woods, 6’ 5 7/8” x 8’ 1 ¾” x 45” (197.8 x 247 x 114.3 cm); Cartin Collection, courtesy Donald Young Gallery; Chicago; © 2007 Martin Puryear; Image courtesy Donald Young Gallery, Chicago

Upstairs, beginning with his early works, we see an attentive collaboration between Puryear and his chosen material–frequently wood– and the emergence of shapes that present themselves in his mature work.  From 1978 to 1985, Puryear created a series of circular forms that he mounted on the wall. He would slowly bend the wood into a rough circular form–working straight pieces of wood into rings without snapping them by using green branches that still had flexibility. This respect for the life force in the wood, rather than domination, is evident in all of his work.  In the catalogue, it is mentioned that Puryear intended these circular objects to occupy the same space as paintings do-paintings without centers, paintings that exist on the periphery.

Martin Puryear, Old Mole, 1985; Red cedar, 61 x 61 x 34” (154.9 x 154.9 x 86.4 cm); Philadelphia Museum of Art; Purchased with gifts (by exchange) of Samuel S. White 3rd and Vera White, and Mr. and Mrs. Charles C.G. Chaplin and with funds contributed by Marion Boulton Stroud, Mr. and Mrs. Robert Kardon, Gisela and Dennis Alter, and Mrs. H. Gates Lloyd; © 2007 Martin Puryear; Image courtesy Donald Young Gallery, Chicago

Martin Puryear, Old Mole, 1985; Red cedar, 61 x 61 x 34” (154.9 x 154.9 x 86.4 cm); Philadelphia Museum of Art; Purchased with gifts (by exchange) of Samuel S. White 3rd and Vera White, and Mr. and Mrs. Charles C.G. Chaplin and with funds contributed by Marion Boulton Stroud, Mr. and Mrs. Robert Kardon, Gisela and Dennis Alter, and Mrs. H. Gates Lloyd; © 2007 Martin Puryear; Image courtesy Donald Young Gallery, Chicago

Many of Puryear’s works from the 1980’s suggest a poetic exploration of material, of life force and increasing associations to animal forms. He explores the idea of translucency in wood as a sculptural surface and then in materials that are not wood, such as wire mesh.  He crafts forms that frequently explore contradictions such as the play of interior and exterior form or geometric precision and organic irregularity.  

 

“Old Mole” (1985) is a 5 by 5 foot woven wooden form that invites free association—it reminds us of a burrowing animal, like a mole, or maybe a bird head or even an upside down quotation mark.  Comprised of slats of red cedar, carefully wrapped and woven, it could also be a container for something, or a shell that has been discarded.  

 “Sharp and Flat” (1987) is large maple, pear and cedar block with a long neck that is both animal-like and resembles a crude handle. The overall impression is geometric with slightly rounded sloping curves.  It is constructed of several flat pine boards that have been finished and joined so expertly that they appear as a single solid mass.  Despite its implied heaviness, the piece seems to be imbued with forward movement.

Puryear’s symbolism grew more complex in the 1990’s.  He reconsidered elements from earlier pieces and his work began to embody multiple paradoxes related to shape and intention.  “Dumb Luck” (1990) looks like a conventional padlock but it is not clear what its purpose might be.  Formed of wood and wire mesh that has been painted with tar, giving it a very tactile surface, the piece is bulky at roughly 5 x 8 x 3 feet with a solid base.  Unexpectedly, you can see through the mesh, but the transparency does not resolve the mystery of what is meant to lie inside, creating unresolved tension about who or what is being protected from and how.  

Martin Puryear, C.F.A.O., 2006-7; Painted and unpainted pine and found wheelbarrow, 8' 4 3/4" x 6' 5 1/2" x 61" (255.9 x 196.9 x 154.9 cm); The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Gift of Sid Bass, Leon D. Black, Donald L. Bryant, Jr., Kathy and Richard S. Fuld, Jr., Agnes Gund, Mimi Haas, Marie-Josée and Henry R. Kravis, Jo Carole and Ronald S. Lauder, Donald B. Marron and Jerry Speyer on behalf of the Committee on Painting and Sculpture in honor of John Elderfield; © 2007 Martin Puryear; Photo Richard P. Goodbody

Martin Puryear, C.F.A.O., 2006-7; Painted and unpainted pine and found wheelbarrow, 8' 4 3/4" x 6' 5 1/2" x 61" (255.9 x 196.9 x 154.9 cm); The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Gift of Sid Bass, Leon D. Black, Donald L. Bryant, Jr., Kathy and Richard S. Fuld, Jr., Agnes Gund, Mimi Haas, Marie-Josée and Henry R. Kravis, Jo Carole and Ronald S. Lauder, Donald B. Marron and Jerry Speyer on behalf of the Committee on Painting and Sculpture in honor of John Elderfield; © 2007 Martin Puryear; Photo Richard P. Goodbody

There is also a sense of potential motion that might occur at a snail’s pace.  The title is confusing:  “dumb” signifies silence but how does it relate to “luck”?  “Dowager” (1990), is another tarred mesh-covered work, amorphous and upright, evoking connotations of a birka-clad woman.  Is this an edited version of “Dumb Luck” ?

“Confessional” (1996-2000) is a third tarred mesh-covered work, that has a contour line very similar to one Puryear explored in “M. Bastion Boulevard” (1978-79), which he created for the 1979 Whitney Biennial.  That work was a simple bent loop drawn with hickory saplings and Alaskan yellow cedar that could be read frontally as a loop or aerially as a kind of corral.  “Confessional” invites a multitude of readings as well. The title suggests the idea of sacred and secret interior space with allusions to the Catholic confessional.  The piece appears to have double wooden doors but there are no hinges and there are holes in unexpected places. A rectangular wooden block invites the viewer to step up.  From another angle, the work crudely resembles a head.  This kind of ambiguity and conceptual push-pull is Puryear’s chosen vocabulary-each work is a mix of overlapping cultural references and forms, leaving us unsure of his intent.  According to Puryear, his individual works cannot be connected to a single meaning, idea, history, culture or influence-he is constantly reworking and reconsidering.  He offers the viewer the same open-ended engagement he gets in creating them.   

Puryear’s newer work, from 2000 onwards, is represented in 9 pieces which are deeply allegorical.   C.F.A.O. (2006-7) resembles a mask.  The piece incorporates an enlarged impression of an actual Fang ritual mask from Gabon, West Africa, which has been surrounded by a thicket of pine scaffolding and rests atop an old wheelbarrow.  The mask is a heart-shaped face with a long nose and has been painted white.  If you were to grasp the handles of the wheelbarrow, you would be donning the mask and essentially peering outward through very tiny eyeholes through the thicket.  C.F.A.O. is a reference to the Compagnie Francaise de L’Afrique Occidentale, a 19th century trading company that linked Marseille and West Africa through ports in Sierra Leone.  After college, Puryear joined the Peace Crops and spent time teaching in the town of Segbwema, Sierra Leone.  Immersed in African culture, he was able to exchange ideas with local artisans and was very impressed with their ingenuity.  Much later, in 1993, Puryear spent six months in Sache, France, at the former studio of Alexander Calder and on the grounds, he found the wooden wheelbarrow.  The piece is imbued with the mysticism of secret societies and rituals and acknowledges the traditions of colonialism that link France and West Africa. 

In all, Puryear keeps stretching, distilling and tinkering with the forms he embraced in the 1970’s.   The question is offered again and again to himself and to the viewer…. what shape would you be if you could take on any shape?

The exhibition began its tour at The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in November 2007 and traveled to the Modern Art Museum of Forth Worth, The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and concludes at SFMOMA. 

The exhibition is accompanied by the publication Martin Puryear, that includes an excellent interview by Richard J. Powell of Duke University.

 Geneva J. Anderson

January 18, 2009 - Posted by | Art, SFMOMA | , , , , , , , , ,

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