Something else

The extraordinary sculptures of Martin Puryear, now at New York's Museum of Modern Art.

Puryear 88 224 (photo credit: )
Puryear 88 224
(photo credit: )
A wonderful mid-life retrospective of the unusual sculptures of Martin Puryear (American, b. 1941) now at New York's Museum of Modern Art, reminded me of the pleasant shock of encountering for the first time the near-abstract works of Henry Moore - over half a century ago. Moore was then showing us a new way of looking at sculpture, via the huge and impeccably finished bronzes that were a complete break with the more traditional works of Rodin and Maillol. Moore had also overtaken the abstractions of Brancusi and Hepworth. Puryear's unusual forms are also a complete break with the sculpture of the past, their forms dictated by the fact that most of them are carefully constructed of various types (and thicknesses) of wood. Planks and rattan and even minimalist geometric forms made partly of rawhide are all grist for his mill, but none of them appear affectations. Sharp and Flat (1987), an unusual form, was evidently inspired by a decoy, but it may also be related to a pot with a handle. Then again, Lever (1989) also appears to be some sort of bird, but its elegance is not related to any living form. No matter, Puryear does not do illustrations. Lever, like Sharp and Flat, simply forces you to think about both its composition and its essential otherness. Both are also a reminder that the artist is a master carpenter, trained in the best of American traditions. Time and again, this collection confronts the viewer with an object the like of which he has not only never seen, but never previously imagined. The ephemeral associations they give rise to only serve to magnify their sense of mystery. The often all-too-solid planks and surfaces seem to conceal a living force that pushes them to expand from the inside. In his later works Puryear began to reveal the inner volumes of his shapes. In Brunhilde (1998-2000) he contained a swollen balloon-like shape with a latticework of thin strips of laminated cedar and rattan. These were cut to precise lengths and then glued, stapled and clamped, before the staples were removed. The latest of the 42 sculptures in a large gallery on the sixth floor are symbolic, which I think is a pity. Confessional (1996-2000) evokes an African mask, while the weird CFAO, a myriad of slats interlocked atop a wheelbarrow that Puryear found in Alexander Calder's studio when he was artist-in-residence there, has the smoothed shape of a Fang mask hung on its exterior. The title is formed of the initials of a 19th-century French trading company whose ships came to Sierra Leone, where Puryear, himself of African origin (MOMA rightly doesn't mention this), served in the mid-Sixties Peace Corps. Looking down from the entrance to this gallery into the ground floor atrium, one can see a group of five outsize Puryear sculptures, dominated by Ad Astra (To the stars) 2007, the shaft of its two-wheeled tumbril being an ash sapling that reaches some 20 meters skyward into the huge space. Hung even higher is Ladder for Booker T. Washington, 1996, a 12-meter split sapling that narrows as it ascends, thus enhancing its perspective and feeling of distance. Puryear was born in Washington DC and now lives in upstate New York. He studied printmaking at the Royal Academy of Sweden and earned his Master of Fine Arts in sculpture at Yale. Beyond the scope of this show are his environmental sculptures and gardens in Manhattan, Boston, Seattle and Japan.