Skip to content

Of his sculpture Martin Puryear has said: “I think my work speaks to anybody who has the capacity to slow down.”

Puryear is best known for his works in hard wood, his primary medium, but he also utilizes other materials including rawhide and wire. Michael Kimmelman noted in the “New York Times” (March 1, 1992), “No artist today has a greater reverence for wood or can do more with it.” In 1989, Puryear represented the United States at the Sao Paulo Bienal, thus becoming the first black artist to represent the U.S. officially in an international art exhibition.

The oldest of the children–five sons and two daughters–of Reginald Puryear, a postal worker, and Martina Puryear, an elementary-school teacher, Martin Puryear was born on May 23, 1941 in Washington, D.C. His maternal grandfather fixed clocks, and his father was adept at repairing things around the house. Puryear’s brother Michael became a cabinetmaker; his brother Mark became a musician; and his brother Maynard, a chef.

Puryear began drawing at a very early age and won a scholarship to attend a children’s art school run by Cornelia Yuditsky. Even as a youngster, he was adept at making wooden objects. “If I became interested in archery, I made the bows and arrows; if I became interested in music, I made the guitar,” he told Neal Benezra, the curator of the Department of Twentieth-Century Painting and Sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago, who interviewed him in 1991.

Because he was fascinated by nature, Native American traditions, and animals, especially falcons, Puryear’s youthful dream was to become a wildlife illustrator. After graduating from Archbishop Carroll High School, he attended the Catholic University of America, in Washington, D.C., where he studied biology. In part due to the persuasion of his art professor Kenneth Noland, Puryear switched his major to art in his junior year. He first worked primarily on paper and canvas and also experimented a little with sculpture. Fond of the works of such artists as Pieter Brueghel and Andrew Wyeth, he painted in the realist tradition. One of his teachers, Nell Sonneman, helped push him toward greater abstraction. Puryear participated in his first group exhibition in 1962, at the Adams-Morgan Gallery, in Washington, D.C.

After graduating from Catholic University in 1963 with a degree in fine art, Puryear joined the Peace Corps. He was assigned to teach biology, French, English, and art in a village in the West African country of Sierra Leone. During his time there, he developed an appreciation for the work of the country’s indigenous carpenters, sculptors, weavers, potters, and cloth dyers, who used manual implements, not electric tools. Until that point Puryear had not considered wood carving an art; Sierra Leone’s wood sculptors began to convince him otherwise.

Puryear was nudged even further toward sculpture in Sweden, where he moved in 1965 to study printmaking at the Swedish Royal Academy of Art, in Stockholm. While attending the school, with a Scandinavian-American Foundation grant, he was exposed to Scandinavian techniques of woodworking, and met the famous furniture maker James Krenov. In 1968 Puryear had his first individual exhibition, at the Grona Palletten Gallery.

Although Puryear’s stays in Africa and Sweden were important to him, he feels that journalists have sometimes exaggerated the influence of those experiences on his work. Thus, his sojourns overseas “have become the myth behind the work,” as he told Alan Artner for the Chicago Tribune (November 3, 1991). He added, “I find it’s a little unfortunate because it eclipses the fact that I’ve been here working and changing for all the time since”.

At the age of 27, Puryear returned to the United States. For a short time he worked as a designer for SCAN, a Scandinavian furniture company. In the fall of 1969, he entered the graduate fine-arts program at Yale University, in New Haven, Connecticut. For the next two years, he studied with such artists as the abstract painter Al Held and the sculptors Richard Serra and Robert Morris. He earned a master’s degree in fine arts in 1971, a time when minimalism was one of the dominant trends in sculpture.

Though some art critics have likened Puryear’s abstract sculptures to minimalist works, Puryear has drawn a sharp contrast between his approach and that of
the minimalists. “Minimalism celebrates stasis, absoluteness; it tries to expunge references,” he explained to Paul Richard for the Washington Post. “I could never in a million years do that sort of art. I tasted minimalism. It had no taste. So I spat it out.”

Drawing much of his inspiration from various craft traditions, Puryear has helped challenge the distinctions between craft and art and between low and high art. His abstract shapes, and sometimes a single shape viewed from different angles, look like ordinary tools, vegetables, vessels, animals, or people. At the same time they can evoke the high abstraction of a Brancusi sculpture. His pieces seem influenced by styles as diverse as Scandinavian furniture design, Surrealism, West African woodwork, European modernism, and Arctic carving.

Usually reticent about describing his sculpture, he told Alan Artner for the Chicago Tribune (February 1, 1987), “I’m not interested in using words to prime the world’s eyes to look at my work, but without getting too literal I think that all my work has an element of escape. Call it what you want: fantasy, escape, imagination, retreat. It is an idea of otherness.” In his interview with Michael Kimmelman for the New York Times, Puryear added, (see above) “I think my work speaks to anybody who has the capacity to slow down.”

In 1971 Puryear began teaching art at Fisk University, a traditionally Black college in Nashville, Tennessee. The following year he had his first exhibition of sculpture in the U.S., at the Henri 2 Gallery in Washington, D.C. In 1973 he moved to the New York City borough of Brooklyn, where he set up a studio and supported himself by commuting to teach at the University of Maryland, College Park.

A fire in February 1977 at his Brooklyn studio destroyed or damaged much of his work. The surviving pieces include “Circumbent” (1976), a freestanding work made of ash and resembling a curiously curved tripod, and “Bask” (1976), which is suggestive of the hump of a whale. “The fire was followed by a period of grieving and then by an incredible lightness, freedom, and mobility,” Neal Benezra quoted Puryear as saying. Puryear set up a temporary studio in Washington, D.C., and that summer, at the invitation of curator Jane Livingston, exhibited some of his sculpture at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, in Washington. One of the pieces shown was “Cedar Lodge” (1977), a large, sheltering, wooden structure that, in light of Puryear’s recent loss of his Brooklyn studio, struck people as poignant.

In 1978 Puryear resettled in Illinois, where he became a full professor at the University of Illinois, in Chicago. Puryear’s post-fire works can be grouped according to several themes. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, he was preoccupied with making colorful ring-like sculptures. Puryear also executed several pieces named after James Pierson Beckwourth (1798-1866), who was born to a white man and a black slave. As chronicled in Beckwourth’s autobiography, after gaining his freedom he served as a guide in expeditions in the American West, fought in the Mexican War (1846-48), and was made a chief by the Crow Indians. Beckwourth’s mutability seemed to appeal to Puryear’s own sense of mutability, which he was expressing in his creations. The Beckwourth pieces include “Some Lines for Jim Beckwourth” (1978), consisting of pieces of twisted rawhide arranged like lines of text on a wall, and “For Beckwourth” (1980), a mound with flattened sides fashioned out of earth, pitch pine, and oak.

Structures suggesting shelter continued to be a common theme in Puryear’s work. He has also worked with avian images, which seem to suggest flight and travel as opposed to shelter. In another piece, “Where the Heart Is” (Sleeping Mews) (1981), Puryear combined both the shelter theme and bird images. At the center of that piece stands a wooden structure that resembles a yurt (a collapsible dwelling that seminomadic peoples in Central Asia fashion out of animal skins or felt). At the fringes of “Where the Heart” Is, bird-like figures look away; their eyes hidden, they evoke a sense of longing for something distant.

Recently, some critics have taken to analyzing Puryear’s sculpture as a
commentary on race, rather than simply experiments in form and abstraction. “I won’t put a value judgment on [the interpretations],” Puryear told Alan Artner for the Chicago Tribune (November 3, 1991). “It is just interesting. I am the same artist, but the work is increasingly written about with race as a strong element. Probably something is there to tease apart, but I’m not going to become involved in it because I prefer to respect my own complexity.”

In 1989 Puryear received a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant that comes without strings and is given in five annual installments. That year he was also selected to represent the United States at the Sao Paulo Bienal, thus becoming the first black artist to represent the U.S. officially in an international art exhibition. An international five-member jury awarded Puryear, who was among the more than 140 exhibitors, the grand prize for best artist in the show. Three years after the Sao Paulo show, a major Puryear retrospective was mounted at the Art Institute of Chicago.

In addition to indoor sculptural pieces, Puryear has created several outdoor works. His first was “Box and Pole” (1977); standing in the Artpark in Lewiston, New York, it juxtaposes a cube 54 inches on each side with a towering, 100-foot pole that seems to suggest a branchless tree. This was followed by “Equivalents” (1979), displayed at Wave Hill, in the New York City borough of the Bronx, in which a cube that is 54 inches high stands a few feet from a cone that rises to 75 inches; and “Knoll” for NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] (1981-83), a slightly sloping mound 45 feet in diameter at the NOAA’s Western Regional Center, in Seattle, Washington.

His largest outdoor work is “Bodark Arc” (1982), located on the prairies of the Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park at Governor’s State University, in University Park, Illinois. The piece consists of a long walkway that, from an aerial view, traces the curve of an Indian bow. The string of the “bow” is a wide row of ancient Osage orange trees. At the center of the line of trees is a small bronze chair, which is intended to direct the sitter’s attention to the design of the walkway and its integration with the landscape. “That piece is really a kind of garden setting, like a wild garden,” he told Alan Artner for the Chicago Tribune (February 1, 1987). “And one reason that gardens are so interesting to me is that they are retreats. To go there is to put yourself in a state of mind where you are open to, in a sense, escape.”

Playing with conceptions of inside/outside and inversion, Puryear’s “Camera Obscura” consists of a cherry tree strung upside down from a wooden gallows-like structure. Some Denver residents immediately protested the chopping down of the tree for the sculpture. The protestors didn’t object to wooden sculptures set up inside the museum, which seemed to show that they had not considered one message that Puryear seemed to be sending: throughout history, sculptors have been killing trees for art.

In what Michael Van Valkenburgh, the Charles Eliot professor of landscape architecture at Harvard University, described as a “true collaboration,” he and Puryear planned and directed the renovation of the 4,500-square-foot Vera List courtyard at the New School College (formerly the New School for Social Research), in the Greenwich Village section of New York City. The project, launched in 1991 and completed in 1997, transformed a poorly functioning part of the university into a new vital center. The renovation, which was funded by the National Endowment for the Arts and Vera List, includes three sculptures that Puryear designed and
built for seating; resembling round, centrally columned, Victorian-era couches and fashioned, respectively, out of stainless steel, granite, and maple, they enable sitters to face outward and in different directions. Thus, if they so desire, the sitters can remain quite alone, despite the proximity of others.

Puryear’s creations have generally been well received within the art world. “What makes his rise unusual is that he’s never played the party game, or stroked the art world’s egos, or sought Manhattan chic,” Paul Richard wrote for the Washington Post. In 1977 Puryear received a National Endowment for the Arts grant and a Robert Rauschenberg Foundation grant. The following year he was included in the Guggenheim Museum’s “Young American Artists” exhibition, and in 1979 some of his works were featured at the Whitney Museum’s Biennial. In 1980 he was honored with a one-man show at the Museum of Contemporary Art, in Chicago, followed in 1984 by an exhibition at New York’s New Museum. All four of New York City’s major museums, the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney, and the Guggenheim, have acquired pieces by Puryear for their permanent collections.

In 1986 Puryear married Jeanne Gordon, a classical pianist and artist. In about 1990 he stopped teaching to devote himself to his art. He and his wife have lived in the Hudson River Valley of New York State since 1990, in a house that he designed with the help of the architect John Vinci. He also designed and built a studio on the same property. An avid traveler, Puryear has trekked in Norway, canoed (with handmade paddles) in the Noatak River, in Alaska, and lived in Japan, thanks to his 1983 Guggenheim Foundation grant.


Biography, Getty Museum
Art in America

Biography from the Archives of AskART