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Art Review: Martin Puryear at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth

by Jerome Weeks 21 Mar 2008 11:31 AM

Self, 1978, red cedar and mahogany Old Mole, 1985, red cedar ______________________________________________________ More about Martin Puryear on KERA: Biography, interviews and video clips of Martin Puryear from Art:21 Installing the Puryear exhibition at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth More images and biography from Donald Young Gallery, Chicago To listen to the on-air review […]


Self, 1978, red cedar and mahogany Old Mole, 1985, red cedar


More about Martin Puryear on KERA:


My grandfather was a carpenter. I still have a wooden bowl he made 50 years ago. He lathed it from cherry wood, and its shape is such that your hand instinctively cradles it, you want to feel the wood’s curve and polish.

I am not suggesting that when you see the exhibition of 45 sculptures by Martin Puryear currently at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, you should touch them. There are plenty of signs asking us please, don’t. And I repeat, don’t. But I suspect all those signs are there because of our powerful, tactile response to Puryear’s sculptures – these big, biomorphic shapes of wood and metal mesh.

This is not the typical reaction to Minimalist sculptures.

Donald Judd’s famous metal boxes, for instance – like the ones out in Marfa, Texas – suggest they were machined into existence without any human input. They may be made of everyday materials, but they seem almost as if they didn’t need us to build or appreciate them. They’re pure and elemental, like the black monoliths in the film 2001.

Puryear, instead, has been celebrated for humanizing Minimalism, putting a feel for craftsmanship into his curvy, abstract shapes. He studied different kinds of woodworking and masonry, even different traditions in Africa and Europe, and this exhibition, a 30-year retrospective from New York’s Museum of Modern Art, showcases his skills with basketweave and latticework, with planing, carving and woodbending.

Although Puryear generally prefers to leave his wood surfaces unvarnished, they still can be as smooth as a ship’s deck. Or as raw as a tree trunk. In fact, his work is often labeled post-Minimalist because although it has the precision and monumental presence of Minimalism, it has so much more – more textures, suggestions, details.

Confessional, 1996-2000 Ladder for Booker T. Washington, 1996

Curated by John Elderfield, the exhibition quotes Puryear on how he values art that can allude to things without representing them literally. Typically, Minimalism has evoked the intense boxiness of contemporary life: skyscrapers, cubicles, cars, coffins. Puryear’s sculptures expand this range without losing their powerful spareness. They’re wonderfully self-contained, yet they can also feel whimsical, the way they play on animal shapes suggesting birds or fish. Or conversely, his constructions trail off and upwards in long, spindly shapes that, unlike any sculpture actually could, seem intent on vanishing.

At the Modern Art Museum in Fort Worth – and this, by the way, is a perfect exhibition for their big gallery spaces – there’s one shape that continually recurs, a balloon-like bulb that’s a Puryear trademark. Stood on its neck, it resembles a giant human head. On its side, it’s a breast or a teapot. Given a crisp edge, it’s like a ship’s prow. As art blogger Tyler Green puts it: One of the delightful aspects of his work is how it lurks at the edges of recognition.

Puryear’s sculptures embody an elegance, a classical simplicity, while still being friendly, even homey. They’re like the Shaker furniture of the art world that way. They made me want to go home and pick up my grandfather’s bowl, feel the grain of the wood and gain a sense, in my hands, of the weight and warmth of craftsmanship.

Deadeye, 2002