Friday, September 10, 2010
The first time I saw “Ladder for Booker T. Washington,” the iconic split-sapling country ladder crafted by Martin Puryear, it was at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. The 36-foot sculpture floats in a double-height concrete gallery designed specifically for it.
The ladder’s gleaming side rails meander upward, narrowing to just over one-inch wide at the top. The stark beauty, impeccable craftsmanship, and arresting perspective are startling. Puryear deftly combines modern abstraction with traditional crafts and woodworking. Each piece always bears the deeply individualized markings of the handmade.
Compared to many woodworkers who rely on machines for their precision, Puryear’s way of working is backwards. He uses machines for doing the gross stock removal and then, when it comes to the final refinements and fitting of joints and making things work together, he uses sharp-edged tools that he pushes by hand.
Puryear earned a BA from Catholic University in Washinton DC, an MFA from Yale University in 1971, and studied at the Royal Swedish Academy of Arts in Stockholm. He was greatly influenced by the indigenous crafts of Siera Leone where he served in the Peace Corps in the 1960’s.
“I’m interested in vernacular cultures, where people lived a little closer to the source of materials and the making of objects for use. Not to rely strictly on the history of art has always been an interesting process, to be looking into areas that we call craft and trades.” -Martin Puryear
In spite of his appreciation of the crafts and trades, Puryear considers what he does fine art. Ken Edwards, an artist colleague of mine whose own work evokes comparison to Puryear, attended the 2006 American Craft Council Conference in Houston where Puryear gave the keynote address. Puryear began his talk by saying, “I am somewhat puzzled why I was asked to be here. I am not of this group.”
Puryear’s art can not be easily categorized. Conservative critics have praised his work for being impeccably handmade. Progressive critics complained that it was excessive. Either way, the works of Martin Puryear speak eloquently for themselves. We viewers can not help but be curious about how they are made.