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Martin Puryear
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Wikipedia About Martin Puryear

Martin Puryear (born May 23, 1941) is an African American sculptor. He works in media including wood, stone, tar, and wire, and his work is a union of minimalism and traditional crafts. Full Wikipedia Article

essay Martin Puryear, Walker Art Center Collections, 2005

Martin Puryear’s art achieves a balance of homespun craftsmanship and refined abstraction. His remarkable body of work undeniably reflects the rich experiences of his early years. Upon graduating from college in 1963 as an art major with a concentration in painting, Puryear joined the Peace Corps and went to Sierra Leone, where he taught secondary school and also became acquainted with local carpenters and cabinetmakers. He then spent two years studying at the Royal Academy of Art in Stockholm, a decision that was in part impelled by his interest in Scandinavian design. Returning to the United States, he enrolled in the graduate program in sculpture at Yale University. There, Puryear found himself in the midst of a hotly contested art-historical turning point in which ideas reigned supreme, the traditional notion of “making” gave itself over to industrial manufacture and fabrication, and art-making per se was being retooled.

Instead of siding with one school of thought or the other, Puryear found an alternative—making art that refused to distinguish between “art” and “making.” He pursued a sculptural methodology that incorporated everything from traditional carving and modeling to carpentry, furniture-making, joinery, cooperage, basketry, and even masonry and stonecarving. Each piece distinct from the next, Puryear’s abstract sculpture brings up generously allusive associations with a range of natural or constructed forms: ship’s prow, wheels, birds, conch shells, tendrils, and pea pods, among others. Though he rarely foregrounds his African American identity, he has at times expressed his admiration for and sense of connection to certain historical figures—most prominently, James Beckwourth, a little-known, late eighteenth-century mixed-race explorer who had an incredibly colorful life.1

In 1987, the Walker Art Center commissioned Puryear to create a piece for the new Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. Ampersand (1987–1988) is a pair of massive, almost identical columns made out of locally quarried granite. Each stands at more than thirteen feet, and together they guard the entrance to the park like totemic poles. At one end, each retains the texture of rough-hewn rock, while the other end is smoothed to form a rounded cone. They are oriented in opposite directions to create a kind of synthesis of antithetical energy, like yin and yang. Another of his pieces in the Walker collection, To Transcend (1987), represents an amalgamation of the various formal elements Puryear had explored in his earlier works. Simultaneously floor-based and wall-bound, it consists of a kidney bean–shaped base and a disk at the top that are connected via a gentle arc. The severity of the disk’s whetted rim and the blunt roundedness of the base produce a subtle contrast of geometric and organic form. The title is fitting, as the overall shape hints at a germination from the earth emerging into a rational Archimedean form reminiscent of the disk supporting the sacred flame in a Greek temple. On another level, this dynamic piece may very well be a formalist allegory of “transcending” ideological dualisms—of artisanship and art, tradition and modernism, and “underdeveloped and developed”—to which Puryear’s art continues to aspire.2

  1. See Neal Benezra, “‘The Thing Shines, Not the Maker’: The Sculpture of Martin Puryear,” in Neal Benezra, ed., Martin Puryear, exh. cat. (Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 1991), 29.

  2. Robert Storr discusses this reconciliation of binaries in Puryear’s work in “Martin Puryear: The Hand’s Proportion,” in Kellie Jones, Martin Puryear, exh. cat., 20th International Saõ Paulo Bienal (New York: Jamaica Arts Center, 1989), 25–34.

Chong, Doryun. “Martin Puryear.” In Bits & Pieces Put Together to Present a Semblance of a Whole: Walker Art Center Collections, edited by Joan Rothfuss and Elizabeth Carpenter. Minneapolis, MN: Walker Art Center, 2005.

© 2005 Walker Art Center