Friday, January 04, 2008

Greenjeans Review: Martin Puryear at MoMA

There is still time to catch the best museum exhibition of 2007: the Martin Puryear retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art is on view through January 14th. Making excellent use of MoMA’s vast new gallery spaces, the exhibition presents 47 large-scale works created by the artist over the past 30 years. For their poetry, refinement, mystery, and intelligence, the works, and the show itself, are a must-see.

Puryear is a major American artist whose work is as rooted in a global sense of craft and material culture as it is in Minimalism. He has traveled extensively observing the art and craft of many societies around the world, drawing inspiration from the ritual masks of West Africa to the crafts tradition of Scandinavia. The result, as the press release states, is that “Puryear’s work is quiet but deliberately associative, encompassing his wide-reaching cultural and intellectual experiences and drawing on a varied reserve of images, ideas, and information.”

The relationship between Puryear’s artwork and the realm of craft is at once obvious and elusive. In fact, in his keynote address at the American Craft Council’s Houston conference in October 2006, Puryear expressed his own uncertainty about how he fits into the story of craft – he never set out to be a sculptor, not a craftsman per se.

Yet it is clear to this reviewer that significant aspects of his work are very much rooted in craft both in terms of the handmade (dealing with materials and process) as well as in a sense of humanity.

In an interview with the artist in the exhibition catalogue, Puryear speaks to the issue of the handmade in his work.

“I learned a lot from watching carpenters in Sierra Leone produce their work with no electricity. What they lacked in electrical power they made up for in skill and ingenuity and sheer muscle… [Starting out] I did not have the funds to equip my studio as fully as I would have liked, but I knew it was possible to make do with a few hand tools. “

He continues, “As a graduate student [at Yale, class of ‘71] I found myself coming to terms with the developments in art that had taken place here while I was abroad. Minimalism and Conceptualism were dominant among those developments, but through it all I continued to work with my hands. This made me feel like an anomaly within the department, since so many of my classmates were thinking of art in ways that made the actual creation of the art object something perfunctory, even extraneous.”

The exhibition is full of examples of Puryear’s artistic reliance upon craft and his innovative ways of engaging craft techniques. The building of each piece is part of the essence of the work, not incidental to it.

In terms of specific craft techniques, Puryear draws from timberframe joinery, boatbuilding, fine woodworking, and even basketry. Several works involve a wire mesh frame covered with wood and tar, and others are sheer aerodynamic forms constructed of sanded pine. Sometimes he uses rawhide, fiber, narrow tree trunks, or other mostly natural and often found materials. Regardless of the material, nowhere is there artifice – each work is plain about its materials, and isn’t trying to create an illusion that it’s something else.

Moreover, there is nothing slipshod or messy about the construction of the sculptures; on the contrary, the work reflects honed skill. Pieces are built as though by a craftsman who takes pride in his skill but isn’t necessarily trying to dazzle us. He seems to want the works to be strong and beautiful in a form-follows-function way, even if the function is none other than to describe form.

There is also narrative involved in the work, though it is more suggestive than didactic. One of my favorite narrative themes (or maybe it’s just a personal aesthetic associations) is the evocation of agrarian culture. Some works remind me of antique farming implements, models of devices for unknown tasks, as though they might have been discovered in a barn hayloft covered in dust and years of age and use, then put on display to teach us something about our forgotten past. The 13-foot long toothed element of the early work “Some Tales” (1975-78) could be mistaken for an old lumberjack’s crosscut saw (the same type of saw that would have been used to cut the cedar, Douglas fir, and other types of woods that appear frequently in his work). “Desire” is a monumental wooden wheel connected by an axle to a base that looks like it might have belonged to a mill for threshing wheat or grind flour. There is a sense of barnness in how nails are exposed or wood is worn. And as on a farm, in Puryear’s work there is often the aspect of both death and birth, the decaying and the fresh, the sweetness of grass and the sweetness of rot. Or maybe this is to say Puryear’s work bears the sense of the sublime.

Indeed, there is something both spiritual and existential about Puryear’s work. To see it in person, it feels very personal and human, yet almost closed off to us, almost for itself. That may be the real message of his work: the possibility of both coexisting harmoniously.

Martin Puryear
The Museum of Modern Art
November 4, 2007-January 14, 2008

View the online exhibition

Read more Greenjeans Reviews

Posted by Amy Shaw.
Photo credits (top to bottom): installation view by the author; Fogelman Photo, MoMA (exhibition catalogue cover); the author.

1 comment:

melania said...

seeing this exhibit made me feel like a kid in a fairy tale. the work is clean and clear yet also fanciful and the sense of scale is wonderfully whacked. some of the pieces (black twine cages) made me feel claustrophobic. i remember being impressed by how original his work is. to see something that feels "new" these days is rare.