Puryear, Martin

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Puryear, Martin

May 23, 1941

The oldest of seven children, sculptor Martin Puryear attended both elementary and secondary school in Washington, D.C. His father, Reginald, worked as a postal service employee, and his mother, Martina, taught elementary school. He developed strong interests in biology and art and aspired to be a wildlife illustrator. Always interested in working with his hands, Puryear as a young man made numerous objects, including guitars, chairs, and canoes.

Puryear entered Catholic University in Washington in 1959. Although initially a biology major, he shifted in his junior year to the study of painting and sculpture. Following graduation in 1963, Puryear entered the Peace Corps and served for two years in Sierra Leone, where he taught English, French, art, and biology. In addition to his teaching, he studied the craftsmen of West Africa, particularly the carpenters, from whom he learned a wide variety of traditional techniques. In 1966 he moved to Stockholm, where he enrolled at the Swedish Royal Academy. In addition to his formal studies in printmaking, Puryear pursued an interest in Scandinavian woodworking and began to work independently, making wood sculptures in the studios of the academy. He traveled widely during his two years in Stockholm, visiting the Soviet Union and Western Europe, as well as the region of Lapland in northern Scandinavia.

In 1968 Puryear returned to the United States, and the following year he entered Yale University to study sculpture at the graduate level. In addition to his exposure to the part- and full-time faculty (including James Rosati, Robert Morris, Richard Serra, and Salvatore Scarpitta) at Yale, Puryear visited New York often, familiarizing himself with recent developments in contemporary art. Following receipt of his master of fine arts degree in 1971, he taught at Fisk University in Nashville for two years. His first important sculptures were made in the early 1970s, and these were shown in a solo exhibition held in 1973 at the Henri Gallery in Washington and at Fisk.

In 1973 Puryear left Fisk and established a studio in Brooklyn. The following year he accepted a teaching position at the University of Maryland, and he commuted between New York and College Park, Maryland, from 1974 to 1978. It was during this period that his work became known to a larger audience. In 1977 the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., organized the first museum exhibition of his work; this show included Cedar Lodge (1977), a large, quasi-architectural sculpture, as well as Some Tales (1977), a wall-mounted sculpture consisting of six linear wooden elements. In the same year, Puryear created Box and Pole for Art Park in Lewiston, New York. For this first outdoor commission, the sculptor constructed a wooden box made of milled wood with dovetailed corners, and a hundred-foot-tall pole, thereby contrasting the concentrated strength of the former with the upward, seemingly infinite reach of the latter.

If 1977 found Puryear being accorded increasing attention in the art world, it was also a time of great loss. On February 1, 1977, his apartment and studioincluding virtually all of the sculptor's work to datewere lost in a fire. The following year he left the East Coast to accept a teaching position at the University of Illinois, Chicago; he lived in Chicago until 1991. During this period, Puryear achieved ever-increasing recognition and was included in numerous important group exhibitions (including the Whitney Biennial in 1979, 1981, and 1989; the Museum of Modern Art's International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture in 1984; and the Walker Art Center's Sculpture Inside Outside in 1988). In 1989 he was selected as the sole American representative to exhibit in the twentieth São Paulo Bienal in Brazil, and he received the grand prize for his installation of eight works. The same year, he received a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. In the fall of 1991 a large retrospective of Puryear's work opened at the Art Institute of Chicago. This exhibition of some forty sculptures toured to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

During the 1980s Puryear's work grew to full maturity. He pursued a number of different sculptural directions

simultaneously, including approximately forty wall-mounted sculptures, many in the form of nearly circular "rings"; increasingly large-scale, three-dimensional sculptures, most made principally of wood but often incorporating new materials such as wire mesh and tar; and, finally, several outdoor commissions, some of which were sited permanently.

Puryear concentrated on the "ring" sculptures between 1978 and 1985. Constructed primarily of thin wood strips laminated in place and often painted, the "rings" were the sculptor's most refined work to date. Around 1984 they evolved into larger, more imposing wall-mounted works that grew increasingly independent of the supporting wall. A sculpture such as Greed's Trophy (1984), in the collection of New York's Museum of Modern Art, suggests an enormous hunting trap, its wire-mesh shape projecting nearly five feet from the wall. At this time Puryear also began to apply tar to his wire-mesh surfacesin a work such as Sanctum (1985), in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art. This new element grants the undulating surface of the sculpture a sense of spatial enclosure as well as a tremendous physical presence. Since the mid-1980s, Puryear's sculpture has grown in new directions, as the artist has pressed the boundaries of abstraction to include allusions to living forms as well as objects. Puryear worked with distinction and great range in public, completing Bodark Arc (1982), commissioned for the Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park, south of Chicago, and Ampersand (19871988), commissioned for the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. Throughout his work, Puryear has demonstrated a remarkable ability to create sculpture with multiple references, in which viewers discover images, memories, and allusions through their experience of the works.

In the first years of the twenty-first century, Puryear branched out into new projects, including a set of wood-block illustrations for a new edition of the classic Jean Toomer novel Cane (2000) and a growing series of commissions for large pieces of public art.

See also Art in the United States, Contemporary; Painting and Sculpture


Benezra, Neal. Martin Puryear. Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 1991.

Crutchfield, Margo A. Martin Puryear. Richmond: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 2001.

Davies, Hugh M., and Helaine Posner. Martin Puryear. Amherst: University Gallery, University of Massachusetts at Amherst, 1984.

Hughes, Robert. "Martin Puryear: A Master of Both Modernism and Traditional Crafts, He Creates Sculptures that are a Synthesis of Beauty but Free of Cliche." Time 158, no. 1 (July 9, 2001): 78.

neal benezra (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005