• U.S.

Art: Delight in A Shaping Hand

6 minute read
Robert Hughes

If you wanted to create a list of the American artists who came through the ugly, corrosive decade of the ’80s with their aesthetic values intact and a robust body of highly original work to show, it might not be very long. But it would certainly include the sculptor Martin Puryear. Puryear is 50, and his midcareer retrospective, organized by Neal Benezra for the Art Institute of Chicago, is now on the second stop of its tour, at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington. Through 1992 it will also be seen in Los Angeles and Philadelphia, though not, alas, in New York City. New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, though it likes to talk about “minority art” and plans the full treatment in ’92 for that feeble ephemerid Jean-Michel Basquiat, is not taking this exhibition by a man who is both black and one of the best sculptors alive.

And one can guess why: Puryear is, above all, a maker. His imagination is rooted in craft and promotes delight in the action of the shaping hand on material substance. It is about vigorous embodiment, pathos, nature, dreams and humor. It is totally unlike the overconceptualized gibberish, with its dull embroidery of French post-Structuralist theory, that lies like a pall % over the corpse of the American avant-garde and substitutes for thought in some quarters of the museum world.

Puryear works mainly in wood, though mud, wire and tar also figure in his repertory. His bank of cultural memory is filled with images of canoes and framed tents, ceremonial staves and coffins, trestle framing and basketry. In particular, having spent two years in the ’60s teaching for the Peace Corps in a village in Sierra Leone, he was influenced by the work of West African carpenters.

But an equally important part of his education was his encounter, in 1966, with the cabinetmaker James Krenov. Because of the irrational gap that exists in America between “arts” and “crafts,” few of the people who can rattle off the monikers of this or that “emerging artist” could attach any significance to Krenov’s name. But for anyone who knows the difference between a stopped rabbet and a sliding dovetail, and can appreciate the deep levels of aesthetic decision that go with an understanding of wood, his work is a kind of talisman. Krenov, says Puryear, “opened my eyes to an entirely new degree of commitment and sensitivity to materials.” And when this growing appreciation of substance — of the subtle nature of material as an entity with its own rights, not just inert stuff to be chopped into a predetermined shape — intersected with Minimalism, the “heroic” American style of Puryear’s youth, his real line of development began.

The work of Minimalist artists like Donald Judd and Richard Serra had always contained, in its heart, an industrial metaphor; it was just that Puryear preferred earlier industrial forms, those of the wooden-pattern maker, the wheelwright, the cooper. As Robert Storr points out in his catalog essay, Puryear’s project was “to recover the creative possibilities offered by highly refined crafts that have been marginalized by industrial society, or simply lost to it.” This meant rescuing a different kind of craft for sculpture, using it to realize in organic materials, chiefly wood, large mysterious forms that bordered on nature and drew poetic strength from its limitless variety.

Puryear’s work has the exact American-grain quality — if not the episodic fussiness — of that earlier virtuoso of the dovetail and the lamination, the sculptor H.C. Westermann. It also has some of Westermann’s laconic humor. Sanctuary, 1982, is one such piece: a cubical box of thick wood mounted on two raw branches with the bark still on them, which turn out to be “legs,” pedaling a wooden wheel — a sort of absurd unicycle, designed for flight.

Shelter is a favorite image of Puryear’s. For Beckwourth, 1980, presents a kind of solid wooden hogan with an ovoid top plastered in cracked mud, recalling both the primitive hut and the origins of the pendentive dome. (Jim Beckwourth is a figure often invoked by Puryear’s sculpture. The freed son of a white man and a black slave woman, he served as a guide for various Western expeditions in the early 19th century, fought in the Mexican War and was at one point made a chief of the Crow Indians — a symbol of multicultural America if ever there was one.)

Behind Puryear’s work one also sees, as a pervasive presence to whom constant homages are paid, Constantin Brancusi. Of all 20th century sculptors, Brancusi did the most to combine a reductive, Modernist sensibility with the language and techniques of vernacular carpentry. There are echoes of the great Romanian right through this show, from the roughly notched beam like a huge crosscut-saw blade in Some Tales, 1975-77, to the somber egglike or coffin- shaped forms of Maroon, 1987-88, or Lever 2, 1988-89.

The joint, said the American architect Louis Kahn, was the beginning of all ornament. Puryear’s work accepts and celebrates this. In Thicket, 1990, his intersections run free variations on the notching, lapping and tenoning of practical carpentry in order to generate a curved form with straight balks of pine. The mysterious dark, shiny lump of Self, 1978, is one of those forms that would be banal in fiber glass or even bronze; but it is made of laminated and coopered wood, and its variations of sanding and cutting, the slight bumps and dimples of the black-painted skin, give it a peculiar organic eloquence.

Where Puryear is altogether marvelous is in the pieces that speak directly and in a closely disciplined way for their own substance. Among these is the spectacular arc of Night and Day, 1984, half white and half black, a wooden effigy of the track of the sun. Especially there is the delicately ordered construction based on a nautilus shell, Bower, 1980. Its wooden web is as precise as the skeleton of an aircraft wing and yet is imbued with a promise of shelter: one would be happy to crawl inside it and rest. With this piece, Puryear’s desire for an eloquence of craft and his interest in the metaphorical relations between architecture and sculpture were fulfilled early. He seems to be that contemporary rarity, a wholly integrated artist — in short, the real thing, and a figure of undeniable importance in American sculpture.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com