Martin Puryear, Alien Huddle (1993-1995), red cedar and pine, 53″ x 64″ x 53″; courtesy David McKee Gallery
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Seven years ago, Martin Puryear’s sculpture was shown in the lobby of the Brooklyn Museum; few exhibitions of contemporary art have left so profound an impression on me. The majority of installations that have occupied this space have been but frantic attempts at diverting museum visitors while they checked their duffel bags. Puryear’s work, however, animated the lobby with sculptural poise, engaging viewers with its considerable grace and artisanship. Indeed, the exhibition heralded a sculptor of formidable talent.
Since the Brooklyn exhibition of 1988, Puryear’s sculpture has been little seen in New York City. (His mid-career retrospective of 1991–92 did not travel to New York, a curatorial blooper that says more about the peculiarities of our cultural institutions than about the merits of Puryear’s work.) So when notice arrived of the Puryear exhibition at the McKee Gallery, it signaled an event to be looked forward to. I am pleased to report that the four sculptures and one drawing in this recent show offered proof that the state of contemporary art is not so dreary as it seems to be.
Puryear’s work is, above all, sculpture that requires no alibi. In its measured proportion and understated elegance, it can bring to mind the sculpture of Constantin Brancusi, an artist often cited as an influence on Puryear’s work. Puryear has a distinct gift for sculpting with wood—his background includes working as a furniture maker—and in his hands it becomes remarkably pliable stuff. Great skill goes into shaping it, and when one notices, for example, the internal rhymes of the conjoining planks of red cedar and pine in Alien Huddle (1993–95), one knows one is in the presence of an artist who is also a consummate craftsman. Many contemporary artists overwork the surfaces of their sculptures and paintings, equating fetishism with authenticity. Puryear, however, is not a show-off. His sculpture possesses a forbearance that cannot be faked.
What Puryear also shares with Brancusi is a sly sense of humor. The priapic His Eminence (1993–95) is an homage to the relationship between sculpture and base—as well as an amiable mocking of courtliness—put over by an almost mathematical concision; its attenuated whimsy is something the Romanian master might well have appreciated. But even the best comedian has his duds, and Puryear is no exception. Plenty’s Boast (1994–95), for instance, may have read better in preparatory sketches than in actuality; as it is, its take-off on the horn of plenty is an exercise in metaphor flatly played out.
The most interesting sculpture in the exhibition was also the most frustrating. No Title (1993–95) is a bulbous vessel made of wire mesh covered with tar; applied to its surface are mesh patches of differing sizes. No Title both fills space and is filled by it, so much so that one is impelled to look inside it. The work doesn’t just hold space, however—it also encloses objects, in this case an anvil perched atop a tree trunk. These items, once taken in, make for a curious dead spot in the work—a punchline, if you will, without much punch. Their literalness almost brings the work to a halt. Almost, but not quite, for the mesh enclosure is nothing less than a sculptural marvel. As one walks around its bulk, No Title alternately sags, flexes, tenses, and breathes—it has an uncanny sense of life. Here Puryear achieves a rough-hewn vulnerability that is at once funny and poignant. If I, somewhat presumptuously, proclaimed Puryear an important artist on the basis of two sculptures in 1988, this exhibition, despite my cavils, does nothing to alter that opinion.
© 1995 Mario Naves
Originally published in the May 1995 edition of The New Criterion.