Simply put, Martin Puryear is a high-quality art historical review of the artist’s 30-year career. This extensive catalog has a significant image collection and informative scholarly texts, is well designed, and is expertly printed by the Museum of Modern Art on the occasion of Puryear’s retrospective exhibition at MoMA in 2007. The artist’s expert treatment of wood, a trait noteworthy throughout his career, is here evident. The diversity of construction, tone, texture, structure, personality, surface, and overall effect he gives to the wood medium are astounding. Although some of Puryear’s works are likened to Minimalism or Post-Minimalism, the artist’s wide range of styles and forms are evidenced. Each sculpture in the book (as well as some early woodcuts by the artist) is distinct, new, and refreshing, and helps to make this book utterly entrancing.
John Elderfield, a curator of painting and sculpture at MoMA, reveals the thematic structure of the publication early on. The book seeks to address six topics that would provide an extensive review of any sculptor. Firstly, Elderfield’s essay “Martin Puryear: Ideas of Otherness” addresses the art historical question of how sculptures “belong in and refer to the external world as well as to the artist as a subjective imaginer in the external world.” This essay discusses Puryear’s evolution through three career periods. The first period is introduced as an exploration of the origins of sculpture, and also refers to Puryear’s interests in the most basic realization of sculptural materials (with works such as Sharpened Beam or Fir Beams [Spliced Stack]). The second section of Elderfield’s essay addresses a transformative time in Puryear’s career in the early 1980s. This phase compares Puryear’s works to influences such as Surrealism, Dadaism, and Pop Art. The essay closes on an artistic period beginning in the early 1990s, when Puryear’s public commissions were expanding and he and wife Jeanne Gordon relocated to a rural setting.
Puryear’s posing of the question of “How are sculptures made and how does that making contribute to their meaning?” is discussed in a text “Artisan” by Michael Auping. The essay “Jogs and Switchbacks” by Elizabeth Reede ponders how sculptures “draw upon other works of art and artifacts, and how and to what extend to these sources speak through the work.” A conversation with the artist, by Richard J. Powell, seeks to reveal what Puryear might and might not himself want to say about his practice. The selection of color plates in the book addresses an issue so relevant to any sculpture publication, “how can sculptures, intended to be seen in three dimensions, most accurately be illustrated on the flat pages of a book?” The chronological and striking sampling of the artist’s works do reflect three dimensions through these plates. Lastly, a chronology by Jennifer Field reflects what we know about the development of the sculptor’s career.
Born in Washington, DC, Puryear joined the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone and attended the Swedish Royal Academy of Art and Yale University. With his extensive background, Puryear incorporates themes of society, tradition, history, and identity into his works. His sculptures combine contemporary sculptural awareness with traditional techniques and unwavering skill.
By John Elderfield
216 pages, 165 illustrations
Museum of Modern Art, New York 2007