Artist Profile: Martin Puryear
Nancy Doyle
   Fine Art
For the first artist profile on this site, I chose Cezanne. For the second, I have chosen a contemporary sculptor, Martin Puryear. He is an American artist, born in Washington, DC in 1941. On the surface, and in many ways, their work is highly dissimilar; however, their work shares a certain classical, timeless, monumental quality. Puryear works with many materials - from wood to stainless steel and copper, to granite, and glass, and sometimes combines these varied materials within a piece of sculpture. His work has both an ancient and contemporary quality, combining an organic feeling with Minimalist ideas. Arriving in the 1960's and '70's, Minimalism dealt with very simple, large, and often geometric shapes, such as cubes. Although Puryear's work contains this 'less is more' quality, its simple organic shapes also possess a human, handmade quality, often missing in Minimalist works. Often, his forms refer in an elemental way to particularly evocative natural forms, such as nests, cocoons, etc., although he says that he is more interested in cultural than organic forms, and in the sculpture-making process itself. He says that the history of the making process generates a lot of ideas for him, such as the sculptural tools used throughout history. Click to see a sampling of Martin Puryear's work, and an informative article about him.
He served in the Peace Corps as a young man, in Sierra Leone, in west Africa. While there, he shared his interest in art with the people, and also learned from them their techniques in woodcraft, which were done without the use of electricity, and thus, without power tools. In his 20's, he attended an art academy in Scandinavia, because of his interest in their woodcraft tradition. He then became interested in wood sculpture more as fine art, rather than craft, and returned to the United States to study at Yale University, where he received a Master of Fine Arts degree in sculpture. He has since become a major contemporary sculptor, and his work has continued to evolve in interesting ways. He claims to be interested more in making sculpture with wood construction, rather than wood carving; and has said that at a certain point in his artistic development, he realized that art (sculpture) needed to be made not only with the hands, but with the heart and mind, as well.
He often uses unexplored materials in his work, which has a general biomorphic feeling (simplified organic shapes). He has said that he is interested in the power of a simple, single thing, as opposed to a complex array of things. Perfectly crafted, his sculptures possess an elegant and enigmatic quality, and also a silent eloquence. His work is very sophisticated, and is involved with visual, sculptural ideas, such as oppositions of natural and geometric, stability and mobility, and positive and negative space. As an African-American artist, perhaps his psychical connection with African sculpture is a very old and deep one, and that may help to explain some of the mystery his work contains.
Artists often work with visual ideas more than with verbal ideas. That is, the "verbal" ideas and meaning behind the work are often on the subconscious level. They can be aware of the ideas behind their work, but it is usually not at the front of the mind, particularly when working. What artists think about, and work with, are visual ideas concerning space, composition, perhaps color, interaction of forms, etc. They may have been interested in a certain visual idea, which when they work with it, leads them to explore that idea further, or leads to another idea, in a way similar to the way a scientist will follow steps to develop a theorem, perhaps not knowing quite where it will lead. Over time, as an artist matures, these ideas will form a certain visual logical progression. These visual ideas may only be recognized by other artists, who are familiar with them, and with art history in general. A "layman" may very well not be familiar with visual concepts, not having been trained in art, and may not realize that to artists, these visual ideas form the most important part of the artwork, as opposed to verbal or literary ideas that critics, historians, or the public may put forth as what seems to be the most significant, for instance, what the work "means." In modern and contemporary art in particular, these visual ideas form much of the meaning of the work, rather than possible metaphor and symbol.
I mention this because I feel that possibly Martin Puryear's work contains this sophistication of visual ideas, which has a certain cerebral quality, also; but it also seems to contain an ancient, archetypal identity, which will reach many of us without our needing to study art, or these sophisticated visual ideas. He has said that the meaning is found in the work itself, rather than in talking about the work, or social ideas/issues in the work; that the work itself "speaks." I feel there is much substance and depth in Puryear's work, plus a universality and thoughtfulness, that every single part of each piece has been considered and worked very carefully and lovingly, both before and while working. And that the emotional quality, the meaning, has also been allowed to be expressed, both that of the artist, and that of the material, since an aspect of sculpture is to allow the material to follow its natural inclination. The forms he uses are suggestive of and allusive to natural forms. He also says that he enjoys the process of collaborating with various tradesmen, such as stonemasons who actually construct some of his larger pieces, that giving up some of the control of the work brings unexpected possibilities for the work. Modern art began with the strong influence of African sculpture on Picasso in the early 20th century. Now, contemporary sculpture, with artists such as Puryear, are again reaching back to this rich source. Please click on the above link to see varied examples of Martin Puryear's evocative work.
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