Martin Puryear

(b. 1941)

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(1941– ).

Sculptor and printmaker. His laboriously hand-crafted, elegant, and idiosyncratic sculptures draw on diverse forms of cultural expression, as well as minimalism, process art, and the work of modern masters, particularly Brancusi but also including Arp, Alberto Giacometti, and Isamu Noguchi. He most often works with wood, which he variously bends, joins, and polishes or paints, but has also used other materials, notably such nontraditional substances as wire mesh and tar. Complex, abstract, tactile, and generally organic forms allude to other natural and man-made objects but only indirectly. His contemplative works almost never reveal their formal integrity from any one viewpoint but demand inspection over time as the viewer circles around. Close examination of the means of their construction often contributes to their appeal. In 1989 Puryear received a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award. Born in Washington, D.C., he switched from the study of biology to art while studying there at Catholic University of America. Following graduation in 1963, he served for two years in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone. One of few African Americans to experience immersion in African society, he has said that he felt like an outsider in that context, but he was drawn to craft traditions. His experience of working with local carpenters to learn their methods had long-term consequences for his artistic development, while the African artifacts more commonly admired in the West had little impact. In his mature career, while remaining sensitive to his African-American heritage, he has refrained from forcing his art into the service of identity politics. Rather, while open to metaphorical readings, his personal formalism foregrounds inherent qualities of material and shape with clarity, simplicity, and expressive reticence. From 1966 to 1968 Puryear studied printmaking and sculpture at the Swedish Royal Academy of Art. While residing in Stockholm, he also studied Scandinavian craft traditions and modern design. Between 1969 and 1971 he earned an MFA at Yale University. After teaching for two years at Fisk University in Nashville, he moved to New York. Following a 1977 studio fire that destroyed much of his work, he relocated in 1978 to Chicago, where he taught for a decade at the University of Illinois. During these years, he assimilated traditional boat-building techniques and worked with yurtlike forms, while also completing the earliest of his monumental outdoor and public art projects. On an extended visit to Japan in 1983, he observed traditional architecture and garden design. In 1990 he moved permanently to a new home in Accord, in the Catskills region some seventy-five miles north of New York. Each work that comes from his studio continues to achieve remarkable singularity, attesting to the artist's patience, ingenuity, and meticulous attention to detail.

Subjects: Art.

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