Martin Puryear is an American sculptor working primarily in wood. While many other artists of his generation explored the aesthetics of industrial processes and materials, Puryear looked back to old techniques and placed and emphasis on craft and the handmade. Although his pieces used the same formal vocabulary of minimalism and post-minimalism, communicating ideas through material and basic elements of form such as interior and exterior, he also placed an emphasis on the metaphorical potential of technique. As curator Elizabeth Reede, “His basic vocabulary is made up of forms derived from everyday objects, both natural and manmade, from Africa, Scandinavia, Lapland, Japan, and elsewhere, including tools, vessels, and furniture as well as from domestic and public architecture and landscape” (Reede). In this way, in addition to the materials and forms he employs, the many construction techniques he borrows from various crafts allow him to convey meaning and reference cultures and their histories.
Unlike other artists of his generation who used industrial processes, materials and workers to realize their visions, Puryear often relies on his own hands or those of skilled craftsmen. Puryear’s interest in building things originated when as a child, "he studied crafts and learned how to build guitars, furniture, and canoes through practical training and instruction" (Art:21). He has developed this interest further as his, "passion for diverse cultures and histories has led him to travel, study, and work in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the United States. These explorations have permitted him to observe the material cultures of many societies around the globe, as well as the skills and trades employed there, and to make connections among disparate cultural traditions. (SFMOMA) Such techniques often come from furniture making, wood carving, “basket weaving, canoe building, the construction of tents, yurts and kites" hughes. He often cites the time he spent working with, “African carpenters in a remote village in Sierra Leone as part of a Peace Corps program, and an important part of his aesthetic education came in 1966, studying with one of the great American furniture makers, James Krenov" (Hughes 78).
In one of his best known pieces, Ladder for Booker T. Washington, Puryear created a ladder with forced perspective which is 36 feet long. Although the piece has become about Booker T. Washington, “The joining of that idea of Booker T. Washington and his notion of progress and the form of that piece—that came after the fact” (Art:21). Instead, when Puryear created the piece he was simply interested in combining the metaphors of forced perspective and saplings in order to make an open statement about time. As Puryear says, “The work was really about using the sapling, using the tree. And making a work that had a kind of artificial perspective, a forced perspective, an exaggerated perspective that made it appear to recede into space faster than in fact it does” (Art:21). Because of the process he employs to create the work, Puryear further locates that understanding within a specific culture; in his own words, “It's made like country ladders you see in places. People would cut a tree trunk in half and put rungs between the two halves. And that’s a ladder” (Art:21).
Much of Puryear’s earlier work is less representational. For example, The Charm of Subsistence (1989) consists of an abstract form that employs techniques of rattan basket weaving.
Brunhilde also evokes techniques from basketweaving while its more open form evokes the frame of a yurt.
Bower (1980) consists of an open form which is constructed using techniques from canoe-making.
Finally, Vessel (1997-2002) consists of a complex pine frame that employs sturdier techniques from boatbuilding.
"Art21: Martin Puryear." PBS: Public Broadcasting Service. Web. 02 Oct. 2011. <http://www.pbs.org/art21/artists/puryear/index.html>.
Hughes, Robert. "Martin Puryear." Time, 158.1 (2001): 78.
Reede, Elizabeth, John Elderfield, and Martin Puryear. Martin Puryear. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2007.
“SFMOMA Presents A Retrospective On Sculptor Martin Puryear First Major Survey In 15 Years." San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Web. 02 Oct. 2011. <http://www.sfmoma.org/about/press/press_exhibitions/releases/366>.