EssaysWeekend

Some Thoughts About Richard Serra and Martin Puryear (Part 2: Puryear)

Martin Puryear, “The Load” (2012) (©Martin Puryear, Courtesy McKee Gallery)

Which brings me to the work of Martin Puryear. Like Serra, Puryear went to Yale’s famed M.F.A. program (1969–71), but he attended five years after Serra had graduated. In fact, Serra and Robert Morris were visiting artists while he was a student there. During his time at Yale, he studied with the sculptor James Rosati and took a course on African art with Robert Farris Thompson and a course on pre-Columbian at with Michael Kampen. Before attending Yale, Puryear had studied at Catholic University of America, Washington D.C. (1959–63), where he got a B.A in Arts; worked in the Peace Corps (1964–66) in Sierra Leone in West Africa; attended the Swedish Royal Academy of Art (1966–68); and took a backpacking trip with his brother in Lapland, above the Arctic Circle. By the time he attended Yale, Puryear was what the poet Charles Baudelaire would have characterized as “a man of the world.”

From the outset of his career, Puryear refused to give up what he knew and studied in order to align his work with the prevailing aesthetic. Some people believe they should do whatever it takes to fit in, while others accept that they will never fit in and do not try. There is the assimilationist who wants to be loved by everyone, and there is the person who knows that this kind of acceptance comes with a price. In Michael Brenson’s article, “Maverick Sculptor Makes Good” (New York Times Magazine, November 1, 1987), this is how Puryear described his response to Minimalism:

I never did Minimalist art. I never did, but I got real close….
I looked at it, I tasted it and I spat it out. I said, this is not
for me. I’m a worker. I’m not somebody who’s happy to
let my work be made for me and I’ll pass on it, yes or no,
after it’s done. I could never do that.

For me, what is interesting is the nimbleness, stubbornness, determination and intelligence with which Puryear negotiated the aesthetic choices available to him in the late 1960s, a veritable minefield that stretched between the entrepreneurial and the confessional, formalist purity and identity politics.

Historically speaking, Puryear studied art in America and Sweden, lived in and traveled through Scandinavia, Europe and Africa, and worked in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone during the convulsive 1960s. Culturally speaking, during this tumultuous decade of war, assassinations, desegregation and race riots, America witnessed the rise of Pop Art, Minimalism, Color Field Painting, Painterly Realism, Land Art and the Black Arts Movement, which was started by LeRoi Jones in Harlem in 1965, after Malcolm X was assassinated. The Black Arts Movement advanced the view that a Black poet’s primary task was to produce an emotional lyric testimony of a personal experience that can be regarded as representative of Black culture — the “I” speaking for the “we.” I doubt any of this escaped Puryear’s attention. Faced with these choices, his decisions were bold, adamant and, to my mind, inspiring.

According to Robert Storr, in his 1991 essay, “Martin Puryear: The Hand’s Proportion”:

Of major sculptors active today, Puryear is, in fact, exceptional in the extremes to which he goes to remove the personal narrative from the aura of his pieces. Nevertheless, he succeeds in charging them with an intense and palpable necessity born of his absolute authority over and assiduous involvement in their execution. The desire for anonymity is akin to that of the traditional craftsman whose private identity is subsumed in the realized identity of his creations rather than being consumed in the pyrotechnic drama of the artistic ego. As embodied in Puryear’s sculpture, however, this workmanlike reticence allied to an utter stylistic clarity is as puzzling and as evocative as a Zen koan.

Given the choices open to him between 1960 and ‘70, I don’t find Puryear’s “workmanlike reticence” puzzling, but exceptional. Recognizing that neither skill nor ideas were enough, he rejected becoming a formalist using outside sources to make shiny objects, refused to rely purely on his skill, recognized that craft was a storehouse of cultural memory, and chose not to become an “I” speaking for a “we.” Choosing the latter would have likely required that he evoke his ancestry while making art that alleviated liberal guilt. Influenced by Minimalism’s emphasis on primary structures, which were supposedly objective and non-referential, Puryear inflected his pared-down forms with the possibility of a shared or communal state as well as with a marginalized history that is both haunted and haunting.

In Puryear’s work, it is not an “I” using the form to speak, but a diverse and complex “we” speaking through the form. I think that in his devotion to craft (or his “workmanlike reticence”), which he always puts at the service of his forms, Puryear is attempting to draw upon this storehouse of cultural memory, in order to channel all the anonymous workers and history that preceded him. It is their eloquence, tenderness and pain that he wants to tap into because he understands that he cannot speak for them. The work functions as testimony and homage whose meanings (or narratives) don’t necessarily fit neatly together.

Martin Puryear, “Ladder for Booker T. Washington” (1996) (©Martin Puryear, Courtesy Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth)

I cannot stress this enough. Puryear goes beyond simply remembering those who are invisible or marginalized, a “we” that is pushed to the sidelines; he also enlarges the definition of “we” through his work. As underscored by such titles as “Some Lines for Jim Beckwourth” (1978), “Ladder for Booker T. Washington” (1996) and “Phrygian Plot” (2012), this “we” isn’t defined by a single race, culture or history. (Jim Beckwourth, 1798-1866, who was bi-racial, was freed by his father and master and became a renowned explorer and fur trader; later in his life, he was the author of an as-told-to autobiography (written down by Thomas D. Bonner) about his life among different cultures and races: The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth: Mountaineer, Scout and Pioneer, and Chief of the Crow Nation of Indians [New York: Harper and Brothers; London: Sampson, Low, Son & Co., 1856].) In this regard, Puryear has never been an essentialist in his materials, approach to art, or subject matter. By not following in anyone’s footsteps, aligning himself with a pre-established aesthetic, or branding his work, Puryear has gained for himself what all artists and poets are said to desire most: artistic freedom.

With “Cedar Lodge” (1977), which Puryear built shortly after his studio in the Williamsburg area of Brooklyn burned down on February 1, 1977, he completed the first of what might be defined as a sanctified space. At the same time, “Cedar Lodge” feels temporary. In fact, the artist dismantled and destroyed the piece after it was exhibited at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., perhaps because there was no place for him to store it.

In “Self” (1978), which Neal Benezra describes in his 1993 essay, “’The Thing Shines, Not the Maker’: The Sculpture of Martin Puryear” as “a dark monolithic form,” Puryear is able to convey the illusion of a solid, heavy form “planted firmly in the earth,” and therefore partially hidden. And yet, as one learns from looking at the sculpture, the self is not inherited, a byproduct of nature, but something that is made, created out of what is at hand. According to the artist:

It looks as though it might have been created by erosion, like a rock worn by sand and weather until the angles are all gone. Self is all curves except where it meets the floor at an abrupt angle. It’s meant to be a visual notion of the self, rather than any particular self–the self as a secret entity, as a secret hidden place.

In these early sculptures, Puryear began further defining a path that distinguished him from every movement as well as from his elders and peers; he was on his own path. Central to his decision is a belief in interiority; sacred spaces; a self-created private self; survival and temporariness. At the same time, knowledge of craft, which has cultural roots, and a study of history play a significant role in Puryear’s work. What is deemphasized in these works is the “I” or artistic ego.

Puryear’s philosophical position occupies the opposite end of the spectrum from the influential one taken by Andy Warhol: “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.”

Or, for that matter, Frank Stella: “What you see is what you see.”

In works such as “Bower” (1980) and “Where the Heart Is (Sleeping Mews)” (1981), which was inspired by a Mongolian yurt, the artist alludes to the movable house, a temporary sanctuary that can be quickly transported from one place to another. At the same time, as Elizabeth Reede notes in a footnote to her essay, “Jogs and Switchbacks” (2007):

Puns are not uncommon in Puryear’s titles. A mews is a hawk house, and the title Sleeping Mews is a pun on Constantin Brancusi’s Sleeping Muse (1910).

In using puns, Puryear recognizes that neither language nor meaning is fixed or stable, that everything is contingent. Seemingly mobile, Puryear’s sculptures both critique and share something with Serra’s take on the relationship between viewer and object, which I cited earlier:

The historical purpose of placing sculpture on a pedestal was to establish a separation between the sculpture and the viewer. I am interested in creating a behavioral space in which the viewer interacts with the sculpture in its context.

Rejecting the pedestal, Puryear places his works directly on the floor. Often composed of both an exterior form, such as a sensual, layered skin or a skeletal, enclosing structure, and an inaccessible but visible interior space, the sculptures invite the viewer’s interaction; they evoke a behavioral space in which a possible intimacy can occur. Whereas Serra’s space tends to privilege an authoritarian shepherding of the viewer through a carefully designed, architectonic structure, Puryear’s work seems to invite the viewer’s speculation as it creates a space of reflection. Made at the beginning of a decade dominated by the “death of the author,” the denigration of craft and skill, the promotion of entrepreneurship, and the elevation of appropriation, Puryear’s “Bower” and “Where the Heart Is (Sleeping Mews)” represented a direct challenge to mainstream art and thinking.

Here, the difference between Serra’s site-specific installations and Puryear’s sculptures cannot be clearer or more telling. In sculptures such as “C.F.A.O. “(2006-2007), “Ad Astra” (2007), “Hominid” (2007-2011), “The Rest” (2009-2010) and “The Load” (2012), Puryear uses wheels he has had in his possession for many years as well as rounded posts and a wheelbarrow to convey the sculpture’s mobility; it is something that can be moved from one place to another, from an open public space to a hidden one, if necessary.

Martin Puryear, “Ad Astra” (2007) (©Martin Puryear, Courtesy Museum of Modern Art)

“Ad Astra” is a sculpture incorporating two wheels that the artist found fourteen years earlier on a farm in France. A crystal-like form defines the body of the wagon, which has been described as chariot-like. A tripod has been built into the axle; and from the tripod a stripped-down tree trunk rises more than sixty feet into the air.

In his 2007 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Puryear placed “Ad Astra” and “Ladder for Booker T. Washington” in the museum’s five-story-high Marron Atrium. It seems to me that Puryear placed these works there for a number of reasons, which have less to do with their size and more to do with the dialogue they uphold between history and aspiration, adaptability and inflexibility, particularly with regard to human rights and equality.

Booker T. Washington, who was bi-racial, is a complex figure in America, at once revered and reviled. Considered a racial accommodationist, he rejected the pursuit of racial equality in favor of vocational training. As the first principal of Tuskegee Institute, a school founded after the Civil War for African-Americans, he helped establish the reputation of the school as well as secured its financial stability. Meanwhile, the thirty-six-foot crooked ladder, which alludes to ambition, objectives, to what Washington called “racial uplift,” and to Jacob’s Ladder (or the staircase to heaven that Jacob dreams about in the Bible), is nearly a foot wide at the bottom and a little more than an inch wide at the top. At the Museum of Modern Art, “Ladder for Booker T. Washington” was suspended in the air by wires so that it hung three feet off the ground, becoming a doubly impossible ladder to climb.

By playing with the relationship between perspective and the actual physical length of the piece as it recedes into the distance, Puryear assembled a visual conundrum in which the viewer could not tell if the artist manipulated its rate of diminishment or if it was in fact naturally thinning into space. Instead of stripping all possible illusionism from the work, which, according to Krauss, is one of Serra’s highest achievements, Puryear employs illusionism to carefully orchestrate the misalignment of the visual and the physical, resulting in a perceptual paradox. In doing so, he synthesizes formal issues with his knowledge of history to create a form from which a variety of different and contradictory meanings can be teased out. In “Ladder for Booker T. Washington,” Puryear has used a simple, recognizable form to develop a prolonged mediation on American history and racial relationships. It is a piece that raises a multitude of questions rather than offers solutions.

By playing with the relationship between perspective and the actual physical length of the piece as it recedes into the distance, Puryear assembled a visual conundrum in which the viewer could not tell if the artist manipulated its rate of diminishment or if it was in fact naturally thinning into space. Instead of stripping all possible illusionism from the work, which, according to Krauss, is one of Serra’s highest achievements, Puryear employs illusionism to carefully orchestrate the misalignment of the visual and the physical, resulting in a perceptual paradox. In doing so, he synthesizes formal issues with his knowledge of history to create a form from which a variety of different and contradictory meanings can be teased out. In “Ladder for Booker T. Washington,” Puryear has used a simple, recognizable form to develop a prolonged mediation on American history and racial relationships. It is a piece that raises a multitude of questions rather than offers solutions.

In an interview in the Brooklyn Rail with David Levi Strauss, Puryear, speaking about “Ad Astra,” stated:

There are two Latin phrases the title derives from: Ad astra per ardua, meaning “to the stars through difficulty,” and Ad astra per aspera, which translates as “to the stars through rough things or dangers.”

The ungainly wagon, which is at rest, underscores that one must be prepared to undertake any journey toward fulfillment despite the obstacles. At the same time, there is something impractical about the wagon with this tree trunk rising into the air and seemingly vanishing into infinity. Meanwhile, the body of the wagon evokes a crystal, a form that is both organic and geometric. We think of it as transparent and, as the Greek root (krustallos) suggests, cold or made of rock. By making it out of wood, Puryear has undermined our associations with the crystal-like form, complicating any single or simple reading of the sculpture.

Martin Puryear, “C.F.A.O.” (2006-2007) (©Martin Puryear, Courtesy Museum of Modern Art)

Along with such works as “C.F.A.O.,” “Hominid,“ “The Rest,” and “The Load,” all of which have wheels or rounded, post-like forms suggesting mobility, “Ad Astra” challenges the long held idea of a sculpture as a stationary form, pedestal or no pedestal. A stationary form (whether sculpture or monument) suggests a belief in stability and eternalness, ownership and entitlement. As Percy Bysshe Shelley ends his sonnet, “Ozymandias”:

And on the pedestal these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Ozymandias, who possesses the giant artistic ego, commands others to do his work.

Like “Ad Astra,” Puryear’s bronze wagon, “The Rest,” with its nearly black patina, rests on its backside, its pull-bar jutting into the air. Has the journey come to a halt, been interrupted, or will this form of transportation, which evokes the wagons used to transport runaway slaves along the underground railroad, be needed again to carry something through enemy territory?

“The Load” is a two-wheeled wagon that holds a cage-like wooden cube made of an open-lattice grid. Inside the painstakingly constructed grid is a giant eyeball made of white glass with a black circle (or pupil) in one section. Is it an open box for prisoners? Viewers can peer into the black circle and discover their reflection in a mirror, which allows them to investigate the ribbed dome from inside, temporarily becoming a “prisoner.” In this case, it is as if the giant eyeball (or hapless witness) has entrapped us.

Martin Puryear, “The Rest” (2009-2010) (©Martin Puryear, Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery)

In his reversal of the viewer’s position (from witness to victim), his challenges to permanence, stability and ownership, his recurring evocations of mobility, migration and survival, his meditations upon history, particularly colonialism, his reminder that craft is a form of memory, Puryear effectively challenges the status quo that believes in sculpture as a stationary object (a sign of stability); the death of the author and craft; the primacy of entrepreneurship; and a euro-centric view of art history culminating in a celebration of the purely formal. More than continuing a tradition of sculpture, Puryear effectively re-imagines it. In doing so he asks us to examine what we take for granted and why. This is the lively and heated conversation that Puryear and Serra are having through their work. Perhaps it is time to begin weighing in.

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