Home Sculptor Business Martin Puryear’s Open Questions

Martin Puryear’s Open Questions

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According to the checklist for Martin Puryear at Matthew Marks (November 12, 2020 – January 30, 2021) there are six sculptures in the exhibition. However, “A Column for Sally Hemings” (2019) — which was in Puryear’s solo exhibition at the United States pavilion in the 2019 Venice Biennial and was illustrated in a recent New York Times review (January 6, 2021) — was removed and replaced by a sculpture that is not listed, and whose title I have been unable to learn. 

The removal of  “A Column for Sally Hemings” should be noted in an updated announcement for those who are looking forward to seeing it. This issue was compounded by the fact that there are no signs at the entrance of the two smaller back galleries, limiting the number of people allowed to be in the space at one time. Twice, it was necessary to leave the space because of the large group that walked in.

Despite these unsettling conditions, I came away from the exhibition with a deeper respect for Puryear.

A lot has been made of the fact that Puryear studied in the Yale MFA program in the late 1960s, at the height of Minimalism, and that his studio classes were taught by Robert Morris and Richard Serra, who is only three years older than him. In 1984, this is what he said about that experience: 

I never did minimalist art. I got real close. I looked at it, I tasted it, and I spat it out. I said, this is not for me. I’m a worker. I’m not somebody who’s happy to let my work be made for me and I’ll pass on it, yes or no, after it’s done. I could never do that.

Reflecting on this statement, many writers have focused on Puryear’s devotion to craft and the handmade, his evident love of working with wood, and have connected him with Constantin Brancusi. All of this is valid, but it now seems to me too narrow a view of the artist, particularly in its emphasis on process and materials.

What I think Puryear spat out is Minimalism’s insistent removal of all forms of self-expression, the championing of pure abstract forms, which seems to require the denial of race and history. What he also spat out was the ideal of essentialism in both art and life. In this he parted from the Minimalists and artists who emphasized an essentialist identity. 

Martin Puryear, “Tabernacle” (2019), steel, red cedar, American cypress, pine, makore veneer, canvas, printed cotton fabric, glass, stainless steel, 74 x 90 x 96 inches (© Martin Puryear, Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery)

There is a complexity to Puryear’s work that brings together a wide range of possibilities: a respect for craft as an expressive form; a love of, as well as a deep interest in, history, particularly as represented by individuals and groups who embodied the ideals of freedom and persistence; a curiosity about how certain forms are embedded with a history that can be passed from one individual or generation to the next; the realization that no matter how much can be seen, something more remains hidden to us. In the last case, this means that, both literally and metaphorically, we cannot see everything there is to see. This realization denies the artist of an omnipotent viewpoint. Finally, he understands that no narrative is completely inclusive. 

By bringing these possibilities together, Puryear has attained something unlikely and, more importantly, unique. He became an innovative sculptor whose subject is history — not the official one told by institutions, but one that is hidden, overlooked, or ignored. And in his engagement with history, Puryear recognized an irresolvable tension: 

I would describe my usual working process as a kind of distillation — trying to make coherence out of things that can seem contradictory. But coherence is not the same as resolution. The most interesting art for me retains a flickering quality, where opposed ideas can be held in a tense coexistence.

I think Puryear’s work is animated by his recognition of the paradoxes of history. As a result, he bypasses the idea of winners and losers, and focuses on the communities and individuals struggling to gain a verifiable measure of freedom. 

In his sculpture, Puryear honors their resistance to oppression by focusing on objects, not as mementoes, but as evidence of the conflict. His preoccupation with history dates back to “Some Lines for Jim Beckwourth” (1978) and “For Beckwourth” (1980), both made before the artist turned 30. In honoring Beckwourth (1798-1866), who was bi-racial and born into slavery, was freed by his father (also his master), and later became a renowned explorer and fur trader living in the Crow Nation, Puryear rejected essentialism in favor of a more nuanced, complicated, and contradictory view of Beckwourth and, later, of other histories and individuals. 

In memorializing transience, migration, and flight — and in examining the palpable signs of struggle and persistence rather than celebrating victory — Puryear defines an artistic path that is different from the ones forged by his peers and predecessors. 

Martin Puryear, “New Voortrekker” (2018), ash, American cypress, maple, mirror, 72 x 93 x 22 inches (© Martin Puryear, Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery)

This helps explain why he has never developed a signature style or form, and why he has never become a manufacturer of stylish objects. Rather, what the viewer experiences is Puryear’s shaping of a sanctified space or object, which can contain other objects that are partially visible but physically inaccessible. 

For “New Voortrekker” (ash, American cypress, maple, mirror, 72 x 93 x 22 inches, 2018), his sculpture of a covered two-wheel cart pulled by a toy-like wooden car, I learned about the Boer migration from the British Cape Colony after 1834 and the establishment of the Orange Free State and the South African Republic, countries whose capitalist economy was founded on slavery and forced labor.

The title “Aso Oke” (bronze, 84 x 102 x 74 1/2 inches, 2019) led me to learn something about a traditional Yoruban fabric. 

“Tabernacle” (steel, red cedar, American cypress, pine, makore veneer, canvas, printed cotton fabric, glass, stainless steel, 74 x 90 x 96 inches, 2019) brought to mind the slouch hats worn by soldiers during the Civil War. I double-checked to see if Puryear intended a connection. According to the gallery press release, he did.

Puryear’s precise references compelled me to look up all of these.

What these engagements did was pull me back to the exhibition, to reflect upon what Puryear was pursuing in his works, each of which is highly specific in its process, materials, and outcome. 

“New Voortrekker” is not a retrospective look at a disgraceful chapter in the history of Europeans in Africa, but a consideration of who the new colonizers and would-be slave owners might be. 

The toy-like car evokes multiple readings, including the use of toys to shape children’s worldviews.  The automobile was not invented when the original Voortrekkers set out in the horse-drawn carts and wagons, but in this work, past and present, history and object, have been yoked together on a board that rises up from a three-legged, sawhorse-like pedestal, with the far end balanced on a wooden ball. This combination suggests determination and precariousness. 

What are we to make of the stairs rising and turning inside the cart or the mirror facing the second flight of the stairs? 

When we look at Puryear’s work we are often invited to look into them. What is inside is at times only partially visible, and we are left to surmise upon what remains unseen. 

Martin Puryear, “Aso Oke” (2019), bronze, 84 x 102 x 74 1/2 inches (© Martin Puryear, Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery)

If the link between title and object seems fairly direct in “New Voortrekker,” that is not the case with “Tabernacle.” A tabernacle is a fixed or movable habitation that can be used for worshipful gatherings. What is the connection to a sculpture based on a cap worn by white and Black soldiers during the Civil War? 

What are we to make of the siege mortar that we glimpse when we look into the opening that Puryear has made in this work? What about the floral fabric and black canvas? What does it mean that the cannonball-like sphere it holds is mirrored? Each view provides a partial view, but never reveals the entirety of what the space contains. Isn’t that part of the work’s meaning? 

“Tabernacle” is immediate and oblique, open and secretive, a combination of dissimilar materials: steel, printed fabric, wood, and mirror.  

In the three works that I have cited Puryear looks at colonialist expansion (change), traditional textiles (continuity), and war (disruption). There are neither heroes nor villains. His references to weaving and his use of textiles erode the barrier between women’s labor and the traditionally male labor of sculpture. The longer we look at — which is to say, reflect upon — his work, the more is revealed and suggested. After spitting out Minimalism, its emphasis on essential forms, Puryear embraced complexity. That embrace has generated a singular and diverse oeuvre that, piece by piece, offers the viewer much to meditate on. 

Instead of continuing well-known tropes about the Civil War or European colonialism, as if they were discrete chapters that exist in a closed book, Puryear invites viewers to reexamine whatever conclusions they might have reached, to reopen the past so as to better understand the present.  He makes work for individuals who are not interested in being entertained, distracted, or given simple answers. 

Martin Puryear continues at Matthew Marks Gallery (522 West 22nd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through January 30. The exhibition is viewable on-site by appointment and online.

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