Puryear, Martin 1941–
Martin Puryear 1941–
In the work of no other artist, perhaps, does the spirit of modern art come together with influences from the roots, African American and otherwise, as elegantly as in the sculptures of Martin Puryear. Puryear’s works are mostly abstract, only rarely depicting familiar objects and shapes. Yet each one seems to tell a story, one partly hidden from the world, yet emerging profusely through the multiple crevices and openings many of his sculptures contain. Each observer or art writer seems to find a different reference or meaning in Puryear’s pieces; he seems to have an uncanny knack for turning sophisticated art critics back into wide-eyed, free-associating children when they enter one of his numerous solo exhibitions. An uncompromising individualist in an era of group trends, Puryear has become recognized as one of the foremost artists in the United States.
Martin Puryear was born in Washington, D.C., on May 23, 1941. He was the oldest of seven siblings, several of whom became hands-on makers of things: a musician, a furniture maker, and a chef. Puryear’s father was a postal employee, and his mother taught elementary school in Washington. His grandparents had very unusual stories. One grandfather was a Baptist minister who moved to the Canadian province of Nova Scotia to take over a congregation there, and a grandmother repaired clocks.
When Puryear was six, he watched a black artist paint another man’s portrait on a Washington street, “and it just blew something open in me,” he recalled in a New York Times interview. He was given a scholarship to a local children’s art school (where for two years he was the only black student), but when he started college he majored at first in biology. Observing the school’s art faculty, Puryear realized for the first time that it was possible to make a living as an artist, and he switched his major to art in his junior year. At this time, Puryear was primarily a painter, working in a realistic mode. But he was strongly drawn to woodworking and built guitars, canoes, and furniture as a young man. Puryear graduated from Catholic University in 1963.
Like many other young people in the 1960s, Puryear joined the Peace Corps after college, traveling to Sierra Leone in west Africa for two years. The experience both dampened and strengthened Puryear’s sense of his African roots. The local villagers, he found, thought of him as a foreigner despite his black skin. “The name for me was the same as for Europeans,” he told the New York Times, “They had a word, pronounced ‘pumwei,’ which meant European or foreigner or white man. It was very clear to me that I wasn’t one of them.” Yet Puryear was influenced enormously by his encounters with African carpenters, who forged complicated objects without the help of mechanical technology. And the graceful forms of African sculpture left a permanent imprint on Puryear’s work.
By the time Puryear left Sierra Leone, he was determined to be a sculptor, one who worked with wood and one who, unlike most other modern sculptors, made
At a Glance…
Born on May 23, 1941, in Washington, DC; married Jeanne Gordon, 1986; children: one daughter. Education: Catholic University of America, BA, 1963; Swedish Royal Academy of Art, Stockholm, Sweden, attended, 1966-68; Yale University, New Haven, CT, MFA, 1971.
Career: Fisk University, Nashville, TN, assistant professor of art, 1971-73; full-time artist, 1970s-; numerous solo museum exhibitions beginning with show at Corcoran Museum, Washington, 1977; work exhibited at Sâo Paulo Bienal, Brazil, 1989; several large public art commissions, 1990s-.
Selected awards: National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, 1978; Guggenheim Memorial Foundation grant, 1984; MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, 1989; São Paulo Bienal, grand prize, 1989.
Addresses: Office —c/o McKee Gallery, 745 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10151.
his work by hand instead of using machines or delegating the handiwork to assistants. Most of Puryear’s sculptures have wood for a medium, and even outwardly simple pieces conceal the craft of a master woodworker. After leaving Africa, Puryear headed first for Sweden, where a sister was living. The smooth lines of Scandinavian design also left a mark on his work. Back in Washington, Puryear walked into the prestigious Harry Lunn Gallery and asked the owner to look at pictures of his sculptures. The gallerist brushed Puryear off—until he glimpsed one of the pictures. Soon some of Puryear’s pieces were included in a show Lunn organized.
Yet another layer of influences was added when Puryear enrolled in the Master of Fine Arts program at Yale University in 1969 (graduating two years later). Yale at the time was a hotbed of the movement known as minimalism—of the sort of modern art that used pure geometric forms and radically simple shapes, purged of any reference to the external world. Once again Puryear kept his distance from but was shaped by exposure to new teachers. “I tasted minimalism. It had no taste. So I spat it out,” the artist told the Washington Post. Yet Puryear was impelled to boil his sculptures down to their essentials. Most of his mature works, though they often carry titles suggesting realistic content, avoid the representation of familiar objects.
Puryear taught at Fisk University in Nashville for two years after obtaining his M.F.A., and he later taught at the University of Maryland and the Chicago campus of the University of Illinois. Yet teaching never really agreed with the individualistic artist. “There were times I found it hard, or a struggle, let’s say, to encourage students to find themselves, because they were so busy being members of a group,” he said of his time at Fisk in a New York Times interview. Fortunately, Puryear’s reputation as an artist was on the rise and he was mostly able to devote himself full time to creative activity—at first with the help of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (1977) and the Guggenheim Foundation (1984), among a host of other donors.
By the late 1980s, Puryear could rely on a steady income from sales of his sculptures. The international art world was alerted to his talents when he represented the United States at the 1989 Sâo Paolo Bienal in Brazil, a major exhibition, held every two years, that showcased important new trends. Puryear walked away with the grand prize, and that year he also won a prestigious grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Gallery showings of Puryear’s work now resulted in complete sellouts of the sculptures on hand, often at prices of thousands of dollars apiece. Puryear’s success was all the more remarkable because he avoided the usual corridors of power and influence in the New York art world and put little effort into self-promotion. Living with his wife, Jeanne, a musician, on Chicago’s north side, Puryear forged new work in a converted warehouse.
Dramatically different, one from another, Puryear’s works often seemed to advance right to the edge of depicting a realistic image or telling a story—and then to stop. “Plenty’s Boast” (1994-95), for example, was a large flared structure that resembled the traditional cornucopia or horn of plenty but also connoted other shapes such as a flower, shell, or antique record player horn, depending on the viewer. Even his rare representational pieces, such as “Ladder for Booker T. Washington” (1996) inspired diametrically opposing interpretations. His sculptures tended to mesmerize viewers. “What moved me most about his show,” New York gallery owner David McKee told the Washington Post, “was the way it slowed the viewers down. The respect they gave the art was evident at once.” Puryear agreed. “I think my work speaks to anybody who has the capacity to slow down,” he told the New York Times.
By the end of the 20th century, it was clear that Puryear’s sculptures transcended the controversies of the day, blending his various influences and experiences into unusually satisfying wholes. In an art scene fractured into competing schools of thought, Puryear’s art was described by the St. James Guide to Black Artists as “a body of work that quietly erodes such received art-world oppositions as high art/craft, subject/object, Western/other, and black/white.” Puryear’s first major museum show came at Washington’s Corcoran Gallery in 1977, and numerous others followed. By the turn of the century, most major U.S. museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, owned examples of his work.
In the first years of the new century, Puryear branched out into new projects, including a set of woodblock 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. “From an early age,” Puryear told the Washington Post in 1988, “I’ve felt like an outsider, for a variety of reasons. But I really love what I am doing. And I get to work alone.” By the early 2000s, it seemed, the works of African-American art’s great lone wolf had become well-established fixtures of the American artistic landscape.
Newsmakers, Issue 4, Gale, 2002.
St. James Guide to Black Artists, St. James Press, 1997.
Art in America, December 2001, p. 74.
Artforum International, October 2002, p. 154.
Christian Science Monitor, December 10, 2001, p. 22.
Cleveland Plain Dealer, December 26, 1993, p. 41.
Nation, January 4, 1993, p. 30.
New York Times, November 1, 1987, section 6, p. 84; March 1, 1992, section 2, p. 35; May 24, 2002, p. E37.
San Francisco Chronicle, October 30, 2000, p. B1; September 15, 2001, p. D1.
Time, July 9, 2001, p. 78.
U.S. News & World Report, December 26, 1988, p. 101.
Washington Post, March 25, 1988, p. D1.
“Martin Puryear,” Biography (Public Broadcasting System), www.pbs.org/art21/artists/puryear (October 10, 2003).
—James M. Manheim
Martin Puryear (born 1941) was one of the first African American artists to receive international recognition. His art was a fusion of cultures and of categories, such as sculpture, architecture, and craft. The result was an art that functions between "fine art" and "craft" and transcends national styles and topical issues.
Martin Puryear was born in Washington, D.C., on May 23, 1941. As an adolescent he showed an interest in nature by making detailed drawings of birds and insects, but he also demonstrated an aptitude for building functional objects, such as a guitar, a canoe, bow and arrows, and furniture. He entered Catholic University as a biology major but changed the emphasis of his studies to painting during his junior year. A favorite instructor there was Nell Sonneman, who presented art as a pursuit of truth through self-sacrifice. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1963.
Eager to travel, Puryear joined the Peace Corps and was assigned to a remote village in Sierra Leone, West Africa, where he taught biology, French, English, and art at the secondary school level. The village carpenters who made furniture for his classroom impressed him with the level of their craftsmanship. He especially admired their belief that true creativity can be achieved only through the mastery of one's craft.
Upon the completion of his two-year commitment to the Peace Corps in 1966, Puryear moved to Stockholm, Sweden, where he entered the printmaking program of the Swedish Royal Academy of Art. His choice of Sweden was prompted by his fascination for the Scandinavian landscape and modern furniture design. While there he undertook a long backpacking trip above the Arctic Circle through the Lapland of Sweden and Norway, during which he observed the traditional basketry and quillwork of the local residents. Back in Stockholm, he briefly apprenticed himself to the renowned cabinetmaker James Krenov, whom he admired as a knowledgeable, dedicated craftsman as well as for his skills and designs. Various aspects of his training and experience began to reinforce each other. He realized that the teachings of Sonneman and Krenov confirmed what he had observed in the carpenters of Sierra Leone. By combining his artistic impulses with his interest in craft, he recognized that construction was a legitimate way to make art. He returned to the United States in 1969 to study sculpture at Yale University.
After earning a Master of Fine Arts degree from Yale in 1971, Puryear taught at Fisk University in Nashville for two years, and then at the University of Maryland for four years. It was during this period that his career as an exhibiting artist blossomed. In 1972 he received his first one-person exhibition at the Henri 2 Gallery in Washington, D.C. While teaching at the University of Maryland and simultaneously maintaining a studio in Brooklyn, New York, he was awarded several grants, including a National Endowment for the Arts Individual Artist fellowship. In 1977 he was given a solo exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., and received his first commission for an outdoor sculpture.
Unfortunately, that same year a fire in his Brooklyn studio destroyed many of his sculptures and tools. The following year he relocated his studio to Chicago, where he taught at the University of Illinois at Chicago. In 1979 he received a National Endowment for the Arts Planning Grant for Art in Public Places, which resulted in a number of major outdoor sculptures. Among his notable pieces are The Black Circle (1980, University of Illinois, Chicago); Sentinel (1982, Gettysburg College, Pennsylvania); and Knoll (1983, National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, Seattle, Washington.) While the public sculptures were successful, his studio pieces are what brought him national and international recognition. "It is Puryear's combination of enigma and skill that makes him so strong an artist, " wrote art critic Jonathan Goodman in 1995, reviewing two studio pieces, Alien Huddle and No Title. In 1984 the University Gallery of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst organized a ten-year retrospective exhibition that traveled to four other museums. In the same year Puryear had sculptures included in two important exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art, New York: "An International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture" and "Primitivism in Twentieth Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern." In 1984 he was also awarded a John S. Guggenheim Memorial Foundation grant, which enabled him to travel to Japan to study domestic architecture and gardens. He accepted an invitation in 1986 to be a visiting artist in residence at the American Academy in Rome. In 1989 he was awarded a MacArthur Foundation grant and also was the sole representative of the United States to the 1989 Sao Paolo Bienal, where he was awarded the grand prize; the following year he won the Skowhegan Award. In 1991 the Art Institute of Chicago organized a large exhibition of his work that traveled to the Hirshorn Museum in Washington, D.C. and then nationally.
A member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Puryear's reputation increased in the 1990s. In 1991, he collaborated with musician Wynton Marsalis and playwright Garth Fagan in designing a dance production, "Griot New York." By 1997, he was living in upstate New York, continuing his teaching and art from there. He was a visiting artist at Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina in the spring of 1997; meanwhile, a major retrospective of his work was prepared for a European tour, opening in Madrid, then going to Sweden, the country where he once studied.
The emergence of Puryear's sculpture in the 1970s provided a welcome alternative to the waning minimalist styles of the previous decade. Like the minimalists, Puryear recognized the power of simple abstract forms, but he imbued his shapes with vaguely figurative references. Many of his hand-crafted constructions resemble man-made implements and structures, such as tools, vessels, or huts, and others are biomorphic, suggesting plants or animals; however, they all resist singular interpretations. In fact, duality is a recurring theme. His pieces may appear at once to be organic and geometric, natural and machine-like, massive yet transparent, random yet structured, crude yet elegant. For example, Sanctuary (1982), a sculpture consisting of a square wooden box anchored to a wall and connected to a wheel on the floor, reflects the artist's ambivalence between the stability of a permanent home and the liberation of mobility. Pertinent to this age of world travel and informed by his experiences, cultural adaptability is another important theme of Puryear's sculpture. Through his virtuoso craftsmanship, his sensitivity to his materials and borrowed forms, Puryear paid homage to the international craft traditions to which he was indebted. By learning traditional skills and understanding traditional methods, he sought to recover creative possibilities lost to our industrialized society.
The most comprehensive publication on the artist and his sculpture is Martin Puryear, the 1991 exhibition catalogue by the Art Institute of Chicago, with essays by Neal Benezra and Robert Storr. It includes a concise chronology and an extensive bibliography. Another exhibition catalogue of the same title was published in 1984 by the University of Massachusetts, with essays by Hugh M. Davies and Helaine Posner. Two general surveys of contemporary art which include discussions of Puryear are Arnason, H.H., History of Modern Art (Third Edition, 1986) and Wheeler, Daniel, Art Since Mid-Century: 1945 to the Present (1991). More information is in Cummings, Paul, Dictionary of Contemporary American Artists (1994). A critique of a Puryear exhibition by Jonathan Goodman can be found in ART news (Sepember 1995). □