Martin Puryear’s sculptures are often studies in paradox. In the piece Sanctuary, an exquisitely constructed, solid, wooden cube perches on top of two wobbly, roughly hewn saplings. Down below, the bases of the saplings are attached to the sides of a single wooden wheel like the long, spindly, still-developing legs of an adolescent riding a unicycle. Since the top of the piece is heavier than the bottom, it must be attached to the wall so as not to fall over. The sculpture evokes myriad contradictions: stability and instability, natural and man-made, stasis and movement, whimsy and work.
With his abstract forms and spare aesthetic, Puryear is sometimes described as emerging from Minimalism. One of the misconceptions regarding this work is that if it looks simple then the artist’s process must have been simple as well. Here, too, there is a paradox, since Puryear’s apparent simplicity is the result of a complex process. This process was captured well in the exhibition Martin Puryear: Multiple Dimensions, which was on view at the Art Institute of Chicago this past February. The exhibition contained drawings and prints that demonstrate his iterative process of idea development. Before Puryear makes a sculpture, he draws the idea for it repeatedly, modifying the idea with each new rendition. Once the sculpture is finished, he often draws it again. These works on paper, some of which had never been displayed before, are not only beautiful in their own right but also demonstrate the significance of drawing in Puryear’s evolution, since they span a period of fifty years. In addition, the exhibition also contained twelve of Puryear’s sculptures and maquettes, including Sanctuary. The works on paper were placed in close proximity to the sculptures related to them, making it possible to draw comparisons and find connections between the pieces.
In the hallway leading into the exhibition space hung some of Puryear’s earliest drawings, dating back to his college years and his time in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone. Sierra Leone played a critical role in his artistic development, since it was there he learned traditional wood craftsmanship from local carpenters. He also drew many ink drawings in Sierra Leone, including one of a woman named Miatta. A careful look shows that Puryear was already beginning to simplify and abstract the forms of her body, head, and headdress. In that sense this drawing prefigures Puryear’s later fascination with clean, elegant, Brancusi-like head forms.
Adjacent to these early drawings was the first of the sculptures, Untitled, a delicate ring made from twisted, whippet-thin maple saplings. Slim as they are, these fledgling trees had great presence and functioned as a harbinger of the powerful work to come in the larger gallery spaces.
Among the pieces in the two main gallery spaces were the wooden maquette and preparatory drawings for Bearing Witness, a 40-foot-tall bronze sculpture that stands in Washington D.C. In an interview Puryear said this was among the more challenging pieces he had ever done. Judging by the number of preparatory drawings he made, it is clear he considered the evocative form carefully. The wooden maquette is reminiscent of the back of a human head, as are many of Puryear’s other works, but it also calls to mind other associations, such as the underside of a boat or an elongated African mask. This referential quality is common in Puryear’s work. “I value the referential quality of art, the fact that a work can allude to things or states of being without in any way representing them, ” Puryear says. Bearing Witness could be interpreted in many ways, but given the title of the piece and its location in Washington D.C., it is hard not to see this faceless giant as representative of the anonymous citizens whose willingness to bear witness is essential to democracy.
This faceless head motif is repeated in the white bronze sculpture Face Down. As its title suggests, Face Down is a head form planted face down as if it were half buried in the pedestal. There is an overall sense of lightness to the piece, and the dome of the head seems capable of breathing or releasing steam since there are small, circular holes sprinkled across its surface, not unlike the holes at the top of a steel tea kettle. Puryear repeated this exact same head shape in another sculpture, Vessel. Vessel was not a part of this exhibition, but the preparatory drawings for it were. The drawings show a basket-like wooden armature, far airier and more open than Face Down. The finished Vessel is also much larger than Face Down, and an enormous ampersand covered in tar is placed inside it, almost like a human figure inhabiting the brain of the piece.
Entering into the mind of Puryear’s work is a difficult task, since the work defies neat categorization. He works in multiple media, draws influence from many sources, and leaves only subtle (often contradictory) clues as to how he wants his work interpreted, but this defiance of simple interpretation is what makes his work worthy of sustained reflection. The recent exhibition of Puryear’s work was particularly valuable, since these never-seen-before drawings allowed the viewer to trace Puryear’s formation over the course of his career. They show that his mysterious and compelling oeuvre is the result of an ever-inquiring mind that kept returning to the same subjects and investigating them again. Or, as he described it in a quote printed on the wall of the exhibition, his process is, "linear in the sense that a spiral is linear. I come back to similar territory at different times.”