For the first artist profile on this site, I chose the painter Cezanne. For the second, I have chosen a contemporary sculptor and printmaker (and formerly a painter), Martin Puryear. He is an American artist, born in Washington, DC in 1941, who now lives and works in upstate New York. 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, Minimalist sculpture often consisted of very simple, large, geometric shapes, such as the cubes of Donald Judd. Although Puryear's work contains this 'less is more' quality, its simple shapes also possess a human, handmade quality often missing in Minimalist works. Often, his works 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. See a sampling of Martin Puryear's work here.
He graduated from Catholic University of America in 1963, then studied printmaking and traditional woodworking at the Royal Academy of Sweden. He chose to serve in Sierra Leone in West Africa for the Peace Corps as a young man, saying that this is where his African-American heritage originated. While there, he shared his interest in art with the people, and also learned from them their traditional techniques in woodcraft, which were done without the use of electricity, and thus, without power tools. 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. His interest in culture and history has led him to travel, study and work in various parts of the world. He has since become a major contemporary sculptor, showing his work in major museums (such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York) and other public sites in America and around the world, and his work has continued to evolve in interesting ways. In 1977 a house fire destroyed much of his early work, as well as his belongings.
He says he is 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), that sometimes is a balance between organic and geometric. He 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 it. 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, interiority and exteriority, and positive and negative space.
Artists often work with such visual ideas more than with verbal ideas, that is, the "verbal" ideas and meaning behind the work are often on the subconscious level. Artists can be aware of the ideas behind their work, but not always 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 Puryear's work contains this sophistication of visual ideas, which has a cerebral quality, also; but it also contains 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."
The specific allusions in his work are fascinating to contemplate: the found forms such as a wheelbarrow, wagon wheels, Fang tribal mask; and the sculpted forms such as lead shackles, wood-woven basket, hut and nest, as well as the historic activities that these forms suggest, such as wooden shipbuilding, the crafts of weaving and carpentry, sailing ships and whaling, to slavery and even the human fight for freedom with his use of the Phrygian cap form in his work, which has historically been worn by liberty-seekers in France, America, and other long-ago places. These forms and objects conjure in the mind such ephemera as a ship in a bottle, a West African mask, Native American lodges, animals and animal nests, human heads, and vegetation. His sculptures and prints echo and remind us of many antique memories that are common to all peoples. Something in the way the sculptures are made makes these memories more powerful than we realized they were, and that something is Puryear's artistic integrity and conviction. His forms are both mysterious and familiar, like our genetic memory.
As an African-American artist, perhaps Puryear's 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. Modern art began with the strong influence of African sculpture on Picasso and others in the early 20th century. Now, contemporary artists such as Puryear are again reaching back to this rich source. The visual power of African and other ancient three-dimensional art lies in the inventiveness of their forms, their imaginative formal aesthetic. In the end, his work refers to something universal, something even larger than social issues.
Many of Puryear's works are related to African-American history, such as his 1996 Ladder for Booker T. Washington, a 36-foot handmade wooden ladder that narrows as it goes up to the ceiling, which makes it appear to go up very far away from the viewer.
Vessel (bottom of page), a wood sculpture constructed in 1997-2002, consists of a form used a number of times by Puryear - a kidney-shaped form with a flat bottom, perhaps a version of a human face face-down, as in his sculpture Face Down from 2008, which seems to refer to the loss of identity experienced by those on the receiving end of colonialism and racism. It also could resemble a bottle with a "ship" inside it, as in Vessel, that has a "neck" and an ampersand form inside. Big Bling, a 2016 40-foot tall public sculpture located in New York's Madison Square Park, consists of a large form resembling a tall, simplified animal, with a gold-leaf shackle at its top.
Big Phrygian, from 2010-2014, is a red wooden form of the historical Phrygian cap, which was used since antiquity, often by those involved in a fight for liberty, whether in revolutionary France or abolitionist America.
A sculpture, Connecting, commissioned in 2008, was installed in 2018 at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.
There is much substance and depth in Puryear's work, plus a 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. I appreciate his intention to express ideas and emotions in his work, because I try to do this myself. My experience has been that not many artists have that intention in their work, especially modern and contemporary artists. For an artist with the stature and formalistic credentials of Puryear to have this 'higher' purpose in his work is wonderful, as he has something important to say. I've always thought that the best artists have done this - Rembrandt, Cezanne (in spite of himself), Van Gogh, Rauschenberg. Puryear can combine the rigor of abstraction with the expression of ideas and emotion, as well as achieve universality.