An Examination of Martin Puryear, April 2003

Prior to this examination of Martin Puryear, I had no idea of neither his race nor his politic. In fact, the only hint to his personal life was through his name, which I assumed (correctly) to be male. Like most celebrity, I had no concept of (and little interest in) his personal life. The name Puryear didn’t carry with it any sort of ethnic background for me; Martin is a pretty standard name; in fact, I didn’t concern myself with any of his personal business, but I’ve been a fan ever since another BFA student introduced me to his work. My collegue didn’t provide any personal background on Puryear, I assume purposely, as to not distract from the object at hand: supremely crafted objects that loomed even from the screen on which they were projected. So extremely well done, in fact, that the concept of craft vs. high art never even became a question in my mind; the work is so stunning that it speaks for itself.

Puryear works with natural materials: wood, wire, metal or paper. The finished work reflects a deep connection to these materials and from where he gathers them. Often times, his work’s media is specifically identified: rather than simply identified as wood, it might be Ash, or a specific wood native to a particular part of the world. He spent a good deal of time in Africa where studied the materials of the area and the crafts of indigenous peoples. He also studied a great deal in Sweden, and through his work we can see the connections of African and Swedish cultures.

Puryear is a perfect example of exquisite skill, craftsmanship and artistry where art is made by process and forethought. His work ties into his experiences of his travels and studies of the people who inhabit these regions. Brunhilde, is reminiscent of his time spent in indigenous regions of Africa. It reminds the viewer of the craft of basket weaving, except he pushes the idea further by creating a work of monumental stature. This, too, is interesting in that the piece is both rugged and delicate; it is airy and stable. It casts a gentle shadow and promotes quietness in its overbearing twists and weaves.

“Brunhilde” is a Norse term for a mythological queen. The symbolism between using a form reminiscent of what we consider to be of a primal craft (weaving) mixed with the title of an intellectual endeavor (mythology) with the bonus of reference to a functional object (a basket) turned completely nonfunctional makes the work that much more interesting. Brunhilde, then, can be interpreted to be both a queen of monument (the size of the piece) important because of her stature and interpreted functionality and as a craft-oriented subject (basket). It can also recall ideas of the Queen system of Africa. Is craft, in effect, his queen?

Brunhilde reminds us of the importance of simplicity in nature combined with the elaborate geometry of the human intellect. It also reminds us that there is little difference between those that create objects out of craft’s sake, and those that create out of art’s sake. Both reasons cause creation, and the contemporary artist is praised for making the connection of life’s experiences to the finished product.

A mentor of mine and I had a conversation once regarding whether or not a piece of artwork could actually have no meaning. We concluded that by even having the intent of no meaning creates a meaning that it does not have meaning. The argument paradoxically ate itself until we determined that artwork could be absent of narrative, but not absent of meaning – until there is no longer a viewer, in which case it no longer matters. These messages can be portrayed or displayed through the work itself or through the media or title.

The tying of life’s experiences and cultures to visual art is represented in the metaphors of Puryear’s titles. In the titles, he does reference cultural issues, but they are often times very subtle and require some contemplation to make the connections. The titles, because they are ambiguous and metaphoric, leave the viewer to read the work’s central cause, if there is one at all. If there isn’t one, it allows the viewer to make their own decision as to what the work “means.”

Continually, Puryear provides the viewer with references to natural life. In the sculpture, Plenty’s Boast, he uses the icon of the cornucopia as an American reference titled with “boast” we may possibly conclude he’s speaking of the American ideal and over consumption.

But Plenty’s Boast offers us several metaphors in effect: its large, gaping opening begs to be filled, yet it isn’t. What is it boasting? Emptiness? Its curled tail under its horn suggests a possible shyness, or cowardice, while fulfilling both a sculptural and compositional need of stability.

For me, it also represents the yearning for the female role in American culture. The opening and tail could be read as symbols of reproductive paradox, that is, that this canal can’t be satisfied by its own tail; it requires to be filled by those of the community. On that line, it might represent a hungry child, cowered upon its own body in hopes to eventually be granted its needs. It might be screaming. The directional lines of the canal offer a feeling of energy surging outwards, only the rim stops them from escaping into the gallery.

The coloring of the wood is the same as of wheat. Wheat is the main crop of the United States, but because wheat is a living being itself, it is susceptible to parasitic invasion, much like this cornucopia could be imitating. Because of the title, then, we can imagine Puryear is making a quiet, yet impressive connection about his own society. Even without the metaphoric title, the work stands strong; it envelops the viewer by its size and grandeur; it commands attention.

Puryear’s work interests me in the case that his work reflects an absence of biography or genuine narrative. His work doesn’t often carry the burden of making a direct political statement; rather it implies it: it is what it is, and it is what you make it. This is why I am so attracted to minimalist art in general but specifically, minimalism doesn’t allude to the artist person, it only points to the object, and the importance of that object is conveyed by use of careful and specific forethought. Perfection only occurs within a repeated process, which Puryear has obviously rendered.

He says that the process of making art with his hands is what is important to him. Robert Hughes, a renowned art critic in the popular press, writes, “Through the action of the shaping hand on wood, [Puryear] brings forth a poetry of material substance that’s unique in today’s America.”

Puryear notes that he is bothered by the art vs. craft debate, and that in other countries, there is no distinction between the two. In fact, in certain cultures there isn’t even a word for “artist,” it coexists with the lifestyle of the people, which Puryear references, but applies to American Art World terms by taking the reference and placing it in the context of a gallery or museum space. This contextual shift reminds the viewer of how important the unimportant is. Fred Wilson made mention of something similar once regarding the “presence of absence” as a conceptual idea in Contemporary Art. What makes art special sometimes is when you recognize what isn’t there, rather than what is.

Puryear’s work is geometric and organic, intellectual and minimal. It stands wholly before a person in its own radiant beauty. The minimalist effect of his work is appreciated in a postmodern era where he references the high Modern Art period of minimalism. Puryear is one of America’s great treasures, and should be respected for his time, effort and simplicity of form. It is rare in our digital world that we can find work of this genuine quality in our museums and galleries.