Martin Puryear (born 1941) was one of the first African American artists to receive international recognition. His art was a fusion of cultures and of categories, such as sculpture, architecture, and craft. The result was an art that functions between "fine art" and "craft" and transcends national styles and topical issues.
Martin Puryear was born in Washington, D.C., on May 23, 1941. As an adolescent he showed an interest in nature by making detailed drawings of birds and insects, but he also demonstrated an aptitude for building functional objects, such as a guitar, a canoe, bow and arrows, and furniture. He entered Catholic University as a biology major but changed the emphasis of his studies to painting during his junior year. A favorite instructor there was Nell Sonneman, who presented art as a pursuit of truth through self-sacrifice. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1963.
Eager to travel, Puryear joined the Peace Corps and was assigned to a remote village in Sierra Leone, West Africa, where he taught biology, French, English, and art at the secondary school level. The village carpenters who made furniture for his classroom impressed him with the level of their craftsmanship. He especially admired their belief that true creativity can be achieved only through the mastery of one's craft.
Upon the completion of his two-year commitment to the Peace Corps in 1966, Puryear moved to Stockholm, Sweden, where he entered the printmaking program of the Swedish Royal Academy of Art. His choice of Sweden was prompted by his fascination for the Scandinavian landscape and modern furniture design. While there he undertook a long backpacking trip above the Arctic Circle through the Lapland of Sweden and Norway, during which he observed the traditional basketry and quillwork of the local residents. Back in Stockholm, he briefly apprenticed himself to the renowned cabinetmaker James Krenov, whom he admired as a knowledgeable, dedicated craftsman as well as for his skills and designs. Various aspects of his training and experience began to reinforce each other. He realized that the teachings of Sonneman and Krenov confirmed what he had observed in the carpenters of Sierra Leone. By combining his artistic impulses with his interest in craft, he recognized that construction was a legitimate way to make art. He returned to the United States in 1969 to study sculpture at Yale University.
After earning a Master of Fine Arts degree from Yale in 1971, Puryear taught at Fisk University in Nashville for two years, and then at the University of Maryland for four years. It was during this period that his career as an exhibiting artist blossomed. In 1972 he received his first one-person exhibition at the Henri 2 Gallery in Washington, D.C. While teaching at the University of Maryland and simultaneously maintaining a studio in Brooklyn, New York, he was awarded several grants, including a National Endowment for the Arts Individual Artist fellowship. In 1977 he was given a solo exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., and received his first commission for an outdoor sculpture.
Unfortunately, that same year a fire in his Brooklyn studio destroyed many of his sculptures and tools. The following year he relocated his studio to Chicago, where he taught at the University of Illinois at Chicago. In 1979 he received a National Endowment for the Arts Planning Grant for Art in Public Places, which resulted in a number of major outdoor sculptures. Among his notable pieces are The Black Circle (1980, University of Illinois, Chicago); Sentinel (1982, Gettysburg College, Pennsylvania); and Knoll (1983, National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, Seattle, Washington.) While the public sculptures were successful, his studio pieces are what brought him national and international recognition. "It is Puryear's combination of enigma and skill that makes him so strong an artist, " wrote art critic Jonathan Goodman in 1995, reviewing two studio pieces, Alien Huddle and No Title. In 1984 the University Gallery of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst organized a ten-year retrospective exhibition that traveled to four other museums. In the same year Puryear had sculptures included in two important exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art, New York: "An International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture" and "Primitivism in Twentieth Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern." In 1984 he was also awarded a John S. Guggenheim Memorial Foundation grant, which enabled him to travel to Japan to study domestic architecture and gardens. He accepted an invitation in 1986 to be a visiting artist in residence at the American Academy in Rome. In 1989 he was awarded a MacArthur Foundation grant and also was the sole representative of the United States to the 1989 Sao Paolo Bienal, where he was awarded the grand prize; the following year he won the Skowhegan Award. In 1991 the Art Institute of Chicago organized a large exhibition of his work that traveled to the Hirshorn Museum in Washington, D.C. and then nationally.
A member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Puryear's reputation increased in the 1990s. In 1991, he collaborated with musician Wynton Marsalis and playwright Garth Fagan in designing a dance production, "Griot New York." By 1997, he was living in upstate New York, continuing his teaching and art from there. He was a visiting artist at Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina in the spring of 1997; meanwhile, a major retrospective of his work was prepared for a European tour, opening in Madrid, then going to Sweden, the country where he once studied.
The emergence of Puryear's sculpture in the 1970s provided a welcome alternative to the waning minimalist styles of the previous decade. Like the minimalists, Puryear recognized the power of simple abstract forms, but he imbued his shapes with vaguely figurative references. Many of his hand-crafted constructions resemble man-made implements and structures, such as tools, vessels, or huts, and others are biomorphic, suggesting plants or animals; however, they all resist singular interpretations. In fact, duality is a recurring theme. His pieces may appear at once to be organic and geometric, natural and machine-like, massive yet transparent, random yet structured, crude yet elegant. For example, Sanctuary (1982), a sculpture consisting of a square wooden box anchored to a wall and connected to a wheel on the floor, reflects the artist's ambivalence between the stability of a permanent home and the liberation of mobility. Pertinent to this age of world travel and informed by his experiences, cultural adaptability is another important theme of Puryear's sculpture. Through his virtuoso craftsmanship, his sensitivity to his materials and borrowed forms, Puryear paid homage to the international craft traditions to which he was indebted. By learning traditional skills and understanding traditional methods, he sought to recover creative possibilities lost to our industrialized society.
Puryear's sculpture is in the collections of many major American museums, including the Art Institute of Chicago, Hirshorn Museum, the Museum of Modern Art and the National Gallery.
The most comprehensive publication on the artist and his sculpture is Martin Puryear, the 1991 exhibition catalogue by the Art Institute of Chicago, with essays by Neal Benezra and Robert Storr. It includes a concise chronology and an extensive bibliography. Another exhibition catalogue of the same title was published in 1984 by the University of Massachusetts, with essays by Hugh M. Davies and Helaine Posner. Two general surveys of contemporary art which include discussions of Puryear are Arnason, H.H., History of Modern Art (Third Edition, 1986) and Wheeler, Daniel, Art Since Mid-Century: 1945 to the Present (1991). More information is in Cummings, Paul, Dictionary of Contemporary American Artists (1994). A critique of a Puryear exhibition by Jonathan Goodman can be found in ART news (Sepember 1995).