Martin Puryear, drawing for” Untitled” (ca. 2009), compressed charcoal on ivory wove paper (all images courtesy of the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery, © Martin Puryear)

According to the wall text in the not-to-be-missed exhibition Martin Puryear: Multiple Dimensions at the Morgan Library & Museum (October 9, 2015–January 10, 2016), the artist was in “the Peace Corp in Sierra Leone, West Africa” from 1964 to ’66. While there, “he [taught] English, French and Biology, as well as “[learned] traditional craftsmanship from local carpenters.” In 1966-68, Puryear was “enrolled in the printmaking program at the Royal Swedish Academy of Art” in Stockholm.

I mention these biographical facts for a number of reasons. First, Puryear was in West Africa and Sweden during the latter half of the 1960s, a period in which America got further mired in the Vietnam War, as well as witnessed race riots and the assassinations of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. It was in 1965, shortly after Malcolm X’s assassination, that LeRoi Jones started the Black Arts Movement, specifically the Black Arts Repertory Theater, in Harlem. The Black Arts Movement advanced the view that a Black poet’s primary task is 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.” Ethnic writers and artists have to become witnesses who lay out the evidence.

Second, rather than bring a camera to Sierra Leone, Puryear decided to make drawings and woodcuts as a record of his experience. While it was easier to take a picture, he wanted to document his engagement with a particular subject, whether it was a person, a hut, a beetle or a cactus, all of which became subjects of his drawings and woodcuts. One sees in these early works the seeds of his preoccupation with certain processes, materials, and forms. I am thinking of his woodcut of a boy hauling wood, a pen and black ink drawing of a thatched hut and a graphite drawing of “Gbago”, a man wearing a hat that anticipates the artist’s interest in the Phrygian cap, or ‘liberty cap,’ which was the inspiration for some of his recent sculptures. Again, the wall text is instructive, as it quotes Puryear as saying that his development is “linear in the sense that a spiral is linear. I come back to similar territory at different times.” In 1966, he would make a drypoint etching, “Gbago,” based on his earlier drawing, with particular attention paid to the hat.

Martin Puryear, “Quadroon” (1966–67), softground etching and aquatint, in black, with plate tone monotype in brown, on cream wove paper

Third, during his time in Sweden, Puryear made the etching “Quadroon” (1966–67). The title is a loaded term historically used to define individuals of mixed race ancestry, specifically someone who is one-quarter African. In using this title to inflect an abstract circular form made of four sections, he opened it up to a history that includes slavery and official categories imposed by the dominant society to define who is subordinate and why. What Puryear recognizes in “Quadroon” is that everything — including color — has a history, which the dominant group in a society may choose to suppress or marginalize when it is convenient to do so.

As I see it, “Quadroon” marks a crucial transition in Puryear’s development. He has moved away from the figural, anecdotal records and studies he made in West Africa, and he has begun to infuse an abstract form with the history of categorization, without shying away from the official terms designed to limit an individual’s possibilities. Moreover, the print reveals Puryear’s sensitivity to color (skin tones), and the meaning it might embody. It is also in this early etching that one senses why he would reject Minimalism’s ideal of making pure, non-referential objects. The idea that a work need only to have presence — and, as Donald Judd states “only needs to be interesting” — denies history.

This is how Puryear described his response to Minimalism (and, by implication, Frank Stella’s credo: “What you see is what you see.”):

I looked at it, I tasted it, and I spat it out.

Puryear’s response is visceral rather than intellectual, and most likely refers to the time he was a student in the Yale MFA Program (1969–71), where the visiting artists included Richard Serra and Robert Morris. As the title “Quadroon” suggests, he had by this time recognized that he could not assimilate into society or, in the context of the art world, the dominant mode of production. His choices at this stage were significant because in some deep way he would never fit in, never become part of the establishment. The point is to remain true to that understanding of difference no matter what the consequence, something that Puryear has done admirably.

At the same time, Puryear’s early experience in West Africa and Sweden gave him access to a very different understanding of race, history and craft. It seems to me that his experience in the Peace Corps, working in a society that was predominantly black, with a history that was very different than the one he experienced in Washington, DC, where he was born and raised, has exerted a strong influence on his entire approach to art making. Abstraction, and his understanding that traditional craftsmanship, such as he learned in Sierra Leone, embodied a rich cultural history, enabled him to move away from the paradigm of the “I” speaking for the “We” without forgetting his personal experience.

Martin Puryear, “Untitled” (1964/66), pen and black ink on tan wove paper

If one aspect of modernist art, beginning with Paul Gauguin and Pablo Picasso, is about appropriating from so-called “primitive” cultures, Puryear seems bent on recovering that which was taken or supposedly lost. More importantly, it is wrong to see Puryear’s work as a reaction to Minimalism, or as an anomaly, or as a throwback to the age of craftsmanship. There is a commonly accepted narrative that stresses sculpture’s abandonment of craftsmanship and traditional materials for fabrication and modern materials. Within this highly exclusive telling, the history of the discrete abstract sculpture begins with Brancusi, passes through David Smith, to the Minimalists, before dissipating in the expanded field.

There is another narrative, however, that has been routinely ignored, where Brancusi leads to Isamu Noguchi and Ruth Asawa, both of whom anticipate Puryear, and is picked up by artists as diverse as Mel Kendrick, Arlene Schechet and Patrick Strzelec. Two other artists that I would connect to Puryear are the sculptor Mel Edwards and the Cuban-born modernist painter, Wifredo Lam, whom Puryear remembers seeing when he was in Sweden, though he did not talk to him. In Mel Edwards’ sculpture, “Some Bright Morning” (1963), a heavy chain and a collar-like form open up modern materials — steel and iron — to a history that included blacksmithing, slavery, and the physical pain inflicted by metal restraints. Both Edwards and Puryear recognize that abstraction does not have to necessarily culminate in non-referentiality, that it can be open to suppressed, marginalized and lost histories.

In “The Jungle” (1942–43), Lam used everything he had learned from Pablo Picasso and the European avant-garde to articulate a complex set of characteristics that were entirely his own. Made after he returned to Cuba from France, Lam wanted to recover the Yoruba gods and goddesses of his childhood, as well as depict the plight of the descendants of African slaves in Cuba. This is how Lam described what he was up to:

I decided that my painting would never be the equivalent of that pseudo-Cuban music for nightclubs. I refused to paint cha-cha-cha. I wanted with all my heart to paint the drama of my country, but by thoroughly expressing the black spirit, the beauty of the plastic art of the blacks. In this way I could act as a Trojan horse that would spew forth hallucinating figures with the power to surprise, to disturb the dreams of the exploiters. I knew I was running the risk of not being understood either by the man in the street or by the others. But a true picture has the power to set the imagination to work, even if it takes time.

Lam’s words came back during my second visit to the Puryear exhibition, while I was looking at his white bronze sculpture, “Face Down” (2008), which I had been haunted by since first seeing it.

Martin Puryear, “Face Down” (2008), white bronze (photo by Jamie Stukenberg, Professional Graphics)

The sculpture is an elongated head lying face-down on a pedestal. Its shape recalls a Fang Ngil mask worn by members of a secret society of judges. The silvery patina of the white bronze reminded me that the masks were covered with the white pigment of kaolin clay, which the Fang people believed to be the color of the dead or of spirits.  The head’s orientation makes it appear as if the mask’s face is sunken into the pedestal. Puryear has hidden the face (that is to say, the part that Picasso and other European artists had appropriated); he has both given it a proper burial and turned it into a memorial, all while turning its face away from the viewer. The neck, a cylindrical form extending up at a slight angle, can be read as a handle, implying the object might be used for an unstated purpose. Finally, might not “Face Down” also be seen as Puryear’s response to Brancusi’s “Sleeping Muse” (1910) — one archetypal form talking to another?

For “Vessel” (1997–2002), which rests on the floor, Puryear made a large open structure out of sections of wood. The shape of “Vessel” is the same as “Face Down,” right down to the contour of the ears articulated on either side. Enclosed within its open structure is a large ampersand covered in tar. Just like the wood joinery that holds the sculpture together, the ampersand (an abstract, seated figure) conveys Puryear’s belief in the capacity of the individual consciousness to make connections, to join one thing to another. The head becomes a vessel and a repository, the site of imagination. And yet, if I had not seen “Face Down,” I might not have recognized that “Vessel” can be viewed as an abstract head.

Martin Puryear, maquette for” Bearing Witness” (1994), pine (photo by Jamie Stukenberg, Professional Graphics)

Informed by Puryear’s knowledge of Fang art, the head occupies the “similar territory” that he has returned to throughout his career. In “Maquette for Bearing Witness” (1994) and a related drawing, Puryear once again uses the elongated shape associated with Fang masks. Again, it is as if the face has been sheared off, leaving only the back of the head and neck, an abstract column. Puryear’s title is open-ended and can be read a number of different ways, from “baring” or uncovering the witness, to one’s deportment, or bearing, to a ball bearing, to possessing a relation or connection to a particular subject (“to have a bearing on”). All these readings seem pointedly relevant when we consider where this colossal public sculpture has been placed. According to the GSA website (General Services Administration), “the sculpture stands in the grand, semicircular courtyard in front of the Reagan building’s Woodrow Wilson Center. “

As anyone who has followed the news knows, a group of Princeton students recently occupied the university president’s office, demanding that Woodrow Wilson’s name be removed from two of the school’s buildings. While Wilson was the president of Princeton, he declared that it was “altogether inadvisable” for blacks to apply. As Governor of New Jersey, he refused to confirm the hiring of blacks in his administration. Finally, as President of the United States, he pushed for segregation in government departments, undoing the desegregation that had slowly started to happen since the end of the Civil War. I am sure that Puryear is aware of this history.

Again from the GSA website:

In a 1998 Sculpture magazine interview, Puryear stated: “This is one of the more challenging pieces I’ve done, because it’s in such an official public place … Its context is weighted. For myself, I wanted my work to be directed toward people rather than toward the government. In a democracy, the people talk back to the government.

Martin Puryear, “”Shackled” (2014), iron

In Puryear’s transformation of a Fang mask, a faceless monument becomes an eloquently mute speaker talking back to the government. This is what Puryear shares with Lam, “the power to set the imagination to work.”

While Puryear’s ability to convert history and traditional craftsmanship — from basket-weaving to ship building — into powerfully expressive presences is unrivaled, I believe he is driven by a stronger motivation. On one level, it is his determination to recover that which has been marginalized, lost or appropriated, but that I think this is only part of what makes his work so necessary and important. It seems to me that his deepest concern is with dignity, with restoring self-esteem and honor. Originally, a judge wore the Fang mask. Now, you might say it can represent anyone and everyone who knows the true story.

Martin Puryear: Multiple Dimensions continues at The Morgan Library & Museum (225 Madison Ave, Midtown, Manhattan) through January 10, 2016.

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook, Egyptian...

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