Sculpture, Identity, America, and Martin Puryear

Martin Puryear

Martin Puryear

Martin Puryear

I value the referential quality of art, the fact that a work can allude to things or states of being without in any way representing them. The ideas that give me rise to a work can be quite diffuse, so I would describe my working process as a kind of distillation–trying to make coherence out of things that can seem contradictory. But coherence is not the same as resolution. The most interesting art for me retains a flickering quality, where opposed ideas can be held in tense coexistence.
– Martin Puryear, 2007 for MOMA

I first encountered American artist Martin Puryear‘s work at his 2007 MOMA exhibition, a show that I regard as one of the best and most powerful shows I have ever seen. Puryear, whose work I find similar to Richard Serra and Andrew Goldsworthy, works with wood in a large scale and often intermixes them with metal, twine, paint, and found objects.

Post-minimalist and quite abstract, his work–as hinted at in the above quote–speak to something greater, be it an everyday object or frequently used shape. His work juggles a lot of things, confronting notions of art (particularly sculpture), American history, and ethnicity. An African American artist, his work is not without a point of view: many deal with oppression and failed attempts at unity, frequently referencing historical African American figures like James “Jim” Beckwourth and Booker T. Washington.

Three works I find particularly striking: Self, Big And Little Same, and Ladder For Booker T. Washington, shown above respectively. Self rings extremely charged to me: a large, black, painted piece of cedar and mahogany created as a self-portrait of sorts. Large and immoveable, beautiful and iconic, I remember seeing this at MOMA and being so infatuated with it. It demands attention, yet is easily walked past as “a big lump of dark wood.”

I felt exactly the same about the wall mounted Big And Little Same. His wall mounted works, which are typically smaller, more frail, and more straightforward, are–for lack of better means of expression–not as captivating as a humungous pieces like Maroon and Ad Astra. That may or may not be why I was so attracted to this one, but I was obsessed with the obvious incongruity of the piece: a continuous, circular piece of wood that is both the same thing, yet two entirely different things. The big and little end seem to be having a conversation with each other, perhaps staring into each others eyes wondering if–one day–they will in fact be the same. Puryear’s craftsmanship is also amazing, considering how subtly the piece of wood goes from thick to thin.

Martin Puryear

Ladder For Booker T. Washington is one of Puryear’s career pieces. Like Ad Astra, especially in relationship to the 2007 MOMA exhibit, the piece is one of his career defying pieces. You may have seen his work or even read about him or even went to the 2007 MOMA exhibit, but Ladder For Booker T. Washington is one that you definitely walked away with in mind because it’s just so dang cool. First, it’s a ladder–but not a normal ladder. It winds, it twists, it works as a ladder, and it narrows until only a mouse could climb up it. Secondly, it is suspended up into the heavens, eventually disappearing into the sky’s horizon line. Perhaps representing Booker’s being overworked or his being criticized by the NAACP, the ladder is inescapable, endless, and seeming built by Washington himself as a means of escape.

Martin Puryear is an artist whose work is just absolutely splendid and full on contemplation. Representing self, representing American history, and representing the African American experience, I find that he excels at all forms of sculpture. Be it wall mounted or a floor centerpiece, they are absolutely breathtaking. I hope to be able to see his work again soon, as I hadn’t had a better two hours in the MOMA since the 2007 exhibit.


May 20, 2011