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REVIEW | Martin Puryear: Multiple Dimensions

Martin Puryear: Multiple Dimensions

Art Institute of Chicago

“Although idea and form are ultimately paramount in my work, so too are chance, accident, and rawness.” - Martin Puryear

Martin Puryear is one of my favorite sculptors, particularly because he has an uncanny ability to bridge the ever-diminishing gap between the worlds of fine art and craft. I have always enjoyed his subtle, modern, abstract forms shaped by the natural world and by ordinary objects, his refined use of simple materials (such as wood, stone, tar, bronze, and wire), and the always present evidence of his hand. His sculptural works are sophisticated and sensual – each with a distinct personality and awareness, a novel suggestiveness that is playful, thoughtful, and intense.

Works presented such as Face Down, a bold, faceless, severed head made of white bronze (pictured at top), or Untitled, an organic circle made from maple sapling, pear wood, and yellow cedar (pictured here) are consummate examples of Puryear’s exploration of conceptual freedom and liberation in form. My eye is always moving: over and under, inside and out, always reaching for something beyond the edges of the works. This is perhaps my favorite part, that there is always an element of blatant confinement – of shape, of line, of a spirit fighting against being contained. There is a rigidity, from the material of course, but also in the strict cultured forms – these hard pauses caused by definitive edges become abrupt resting points and exciting launch points for the eye. This is not surprising, given that his works in many ways defy categorization, at least conceptually. Over the last thirty years, Puryear has created a body of work that examines identity, culture, and history built upon an education which included ornithology, falconry, and archery among other things. Equally as influential was the time he spent in the 1960s in Sierra Leone, West Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer, where he rigorously schooled himself in the region’s indigenous crafts, both ideologically and aesthetically. Of the influences that are ever-present in his work, Puryear once noted, “I think there are a number of levels at which my work can be dealt with and appreciated…It gives me pleasure to feel there’s a level that doesn’t require knowledge of or immersion in the aesthetic of a given time or place.” His ability to capture and translate the entirety of the environments of his experiences, playfully experimenting with scale, materials, and varying levels of abstraction, is what continues to draw me back and draw me in.

Intentionally, Puryear’s staunchly rendered forms such as the Untitled series of three heads created in pine and bronze (pictured here with two Drawing for Untitled in the background) hide the laborious, handmade undertaking required to make them; and Multiple Dimensions seeks to reveal the artist’s deep exploration of ideas across medias, from quick sketches to monumental, finished compositions, in order to give an overreaching view of the artist’s creative and studio practice. Puryear himself has described his artistic development as “linear in the sense that a spiral is linear. I come back to similar territory at different times.” Featuring over one hundred drawings and prints in juxtaposition with twelve sculptures, this exhibition is the first to explore this aspect of the artist's oeuvre. I find many are not nearly as engaging as his three-dimensional works, but getting to view his iterative and cyclical process and realizing that he works and reworks his ideas and forms, sometimes over many years, as he experiments in scale, material, and medium was a nice revelation.

His drawings capture, in many ways, how I have, in turn and unexpectedly, experienced the sculptures. Untitled (LA MoCA portfolio), a work on paper consisting of hard and soft ground etching and aquatint on cream Japanese paper and laid down on white woven paper, depicts one of Puryear’s typical and evocative shapes. The image seen here has been interpreted as a head with hoop earrings or as an inverted jug with handles, but his expressive lines and smudges follow the same directions my eyes take over his similar, sculptural forms; their boldness or softness echoing the sentiments I am left with as I turn away. Having not seen the works on paper before, its quite remarkable how Puryear is able to capture, or rather anticipate, the viewer’s interaction and response in two dimensions prior to the actual making in three-dimensions. It is, as the supporting text of Multiple Dimensions suggests, “an unprecedented look into Puryear’s inspirations, methods, and transformative process,” a view of an “evolution of thought—how a sketch of a house in Sierra Leone is transformed 10 years later into an abstracted proto-sculptural form (as in Zig, pictured below), or how a head-like shape is reworked in bronze, wood, black conté crayon, and graphite.

Another standout print is Quadroon: a soft ground etching and aquatint, in black, with plate tone monotype in brown, on cream woven paper. According to the accompanying text for the piece, the term quadroon was “In use until the early twentieth century…referring to a mixed-race person, specifically someone whose ancestry is one-quarter African. The image can be read as an abstract evocation of this historically charged notion, with the black lower-left corner of the composition contrasting with the gradation of lighter hues in the other quadrants.” Puryear has introduced the notion of the body, even without the directional context, through his organic and bulbous forms in soft, fleshy colors – it reads as skin, as limb, as organ. The bold lower quarter is richly black, its field spreading into the seams and joints of the adjacent sectors; becoming a poignant comment of classification of both the individual and of a race – even some four decades later.

While I admittedly, and will more than likely, always be drawn to Puryear’s sculptures more than his drawings, this exhibition interestingly embodies his careful and methodical process – one that feels in a perpetual state of arrested motion. It embodies what he himself describes as “mobility with a kind of escapism, of survival through flight.” Puryear consistently presents artworks, whether as sculptures or works on paper, that rest at the crossroads many of us fine ourselves: an intuitive longing for stability with a contradictory need for change. He masterfully offers a peek of the road less traveled.

Martin Puryear: Multiple Dimensions is open now through May 1 at the Art Institute of Chicago, located at 111 S. Michigan Avenue, Chicago. For more, visit: or to watch a conversation between Martin Puryear and Theaster Gates, visit:

Images (from top to bottom): Face Down, 2008, white bronze, 5 x 28 x 11 inches, Courtesy of the artist © Martin Puryear, Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery, Photography by Jamie Stukenberg, Professional Graphics; Untitled, 1982, maple sapling, pear wood, and yellow cedar, Courtesy of the Judith Neisser Collection; Installation View: Untitled, 2009, pine, Courtesy of the artist © Martin Puryear and Untitled, 2009, bronze, Courtesy of the artist © Martin Puryear and Untitled, 2009, bronze, Courtesy of the artist © Martin Puryear with two Drawings for Untitled in the background; Untitled (LA MoCA portfolio), 1999, hard and soft ground etching and aquatint, on cream Japanese paper, laid down on white woven paper (chine collé), 23.8 x 17.8 inches (image/plate); 29.9 x 21.5 inches (sheet), Collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, Restricted gift of Kaye and Howard Haas, © Martin Puryear; Quadroon, 1966-1967, soft ground etching and aquatint, in black, with plate tone monotype in brown, on cream woven paper, Courtesy of the Artist © Martin Puryear; Installation View; Zig, 1966-67, soft ground etching and aquatint, with open bite, and plate tone, printed from two shaped plates in black, on ivory-woven paper, Courtesy of the Artist © Martin Puryear

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