Martin Puryear

Parasol Unit, London, UK

Since he began making sculpture in the late 1960s, Martin Puryear has shaped a form of experience between art viewing and totemic reverence. His works’ obliqueness has prompted writers to read them as traces of Puryear’s formative experiences: for instance how his rare deftness at shaping wood – here cedar, ebony, hickory, maple, pear, pine, poplar, willow and African blackwood – derives from his experiences of Swedish and Sierra Leonean craft traditions, or how his works’ obduracy feeds back to the debate about the art object that preoccupied East Coast discourse when the artist was a student.

At Parasol Unit, works are displayed across two floors, with the main ground-floor space occupied by larger-than-life-sized sculptures made between 1993 and 2014. Without exception they are closed forms, albeit with different degrees of inwardness. Night Watch (2011) looms over the visitor, a mass of tall, tightly-packed grasses bowed by the wind and embedded in a table top – an unsettling vision of hoarded supply. By contrast, Brunhilde (1998–2000), a benign cage of interlaced cedar and rattan, exemplifies Puryear’s method of ‘drawing in space’ – as the artist once described That Profile (1999) – his monumental outdoor commission for the Getty Center. Like that work, Untitled (1995) calls to mind the shrunken head of a tailor’s dummy. Composed of black tar laid over wire mesh and supported on a cedar ‘neck’, the image stakes out the artist’s African American identity with quiet power while maintaining allusions to Constantin Brâncuși, as well as the trio of metaphysicians: Carlo Carrà, Giorgio Morandi, and Giorgio de Chirico, whose lexicon of impenetrable signs christened the modern gallery ‘an immense museum of strangeness’.

web_mp_brunhilde_1998-2000.jpg

Martin Puryear, Brunhilde, 1998-2000, cedar, rattan, 2.4 x 2.9 x 1.9 m. Courtesy: Matthew Marks Gallery, New York © Martin Puryear; photograph: Richard Goodbody

Martin Puryear, Brunhilde, 1998-2000, cedar, rattan, 2.4 x 2.9 x 1.9 m. Courtesy: Matthew Marks Gallery, New York © Martin Puryear; photograph: Richard Goodbody

Upstairs, this humanoid form is cast in bronze, its surface miming wood grain. Set on a plinth across from Shackled (2014), a black iron hook, the artist’s shift in media marks a gear change. Awaiting a manacled slave, Shackled, with its smooth curves, makes clear that the absence of human presence in Puryear’s work is the root of its social and political force. This is especially vivid when the artist makes explicit the issue of race, as in earlier works including Ladder for Booker T. Washington (1996), a terrifying rickety ladder that tapers as it makes its precarious ascent. Also displayed here are several monochrome woodcuts printed to accompany an edition of Jean Toomer’s masterwork of the Harlem Renaissance, Cane (1923). The imagery of roots predominates in this series, and Karintha (2000) – with its solitary, drooping cotton boll – is a piercing image of drought on Southern soil, and one of the artist’s principal leitmotifs.

web_mp_le-prix_2005.jpg

Martin Puryear, Le Prix, 2005, painted yellow pine, alaskan yellow cedar, 310 x 229 x 33 cm. Courtesy: Collection of Gretchen and John Berggruen, San Francisco, and Matthew Marks Gallery, New York © Martin Puryear; photograph: the artist's studio

Martin Puryear, Le Prix, 2005, painted yellow pine, alaskan yellow cedar, 310 x 229 x 33 cm. Courtesy: Collection of Gretchen and John Berggruen, San Francisco, and Matthew Marks Gallery, New York © Martin Puryear; photograph: the artist's studio

The issue of human liberty is often implicit in Puryear’s work and here both The Load (2012), a wooden cart bearing a caged glass orb, and Big Phrygian (2010–14), a large red pupa of painted cedar, make for universal emblems. The Phrygian cap has served as a malleable national sign since antiquity, which is appropriate for an artist of such formal and semiotic hybridity. However, as I found out this week, it is also the medical term for a folded gallbladder. Martin Puryear is a social surrealist for our times; his first solo exhibition in London is uncomfortably overdue.

Main image: Installation view, 'Martin Puryear', 2017, Parasol unit, London. Courtesy: Parasol unit, London

Alex Estorick is a writer and editor based in London

Issue 192

First published in Issue 192

January - February 2018

Most Read

The punk artists’s invasion of the pitch during the Croatia vs. France match reminded us what Russia’s new ‘normality’...
In further news: Brexit voters avoid arts; New York libraries’s culture pass unlocks museums; Grayson Perry-backed...
If artificial intelligence were ever to achieve sentience, could it feasibly produce art? (And would it be good?)
The punk activist-artists have been charged with disruption after they charged the field during the France vs Croatia...
27 educators are taking the London gallery to an employment tribunal, demanding that they be recognized as employees
In further news: Glasgow School of Art to be rebuilt; Philadelphia Museum of Art gets a Frank Gehry-designed restaurant
Highlights from Condo New York 2018 and Commonwealth and Council at 47 Canal: the summer shows to see
Knussen’s music laid out each component as ‘precarious, vulnerable, exposed’ – and his conducting similarly worked from...
Nods to the game in World Cup celebrations show how dance has gone viral – but unwittingly instrumentalized for...
‘You can’t reason with him but you can ridicule him’ – lightweight as it is, Trump Baby is a win for art as a...
Anderson and partner Juman Malouf are sorting through the treasures of the celebrated Kunsthistorisches Museum for...
From Capote to Basquiat, the pop artist’s glittering ‘visual diary’ of the last years of his life is seen for the first...
‘When I opened Monika Sprüth Galerie, only very few German gallerists represented women artists’
Can a ragtag cluster of artists, curators and critics really push back against our ‘bare’ art world?
In further news: German government buys Giambologna at the eleventh hour; LACMA’s new expansion delayed
Gucci and Frieze present film number two in the Second Summer of Love series, focusing on the history of acid house
Judges described the gallery’s GBP£20 million redevelopment by Jamie Fobert Architects as ‘deeply intelligent’ and a ‘...
Is the lack of social mobility in the arts due to a self-congratulatory conviction that the sector represents the...
The controversial intellectual suggests art would be better done at home – she should be careful what she wishes for
Previously unheard music on Both Directions At Once includes blues as imposing as the saxophonist would ever record
In further news: Macron reconsiders artist residencies; British Council accused of censorship; V&A to host largest...
In our devotion to computation and its predictive capabilities are we rushing blindly towards our own demise?
Arts subjects are increasingly marginalized in the UK curriculum – but the controversial intellectual suggests art is...
An exhibition of performances at Foksal Gallery Foundation, Warsaw, unfolds the rituals of sexual encounters
An art historian explains what the Carters’s takeover of the Paris museum says about art, race and power
Artist Andrea Fraser’s 2016 in Museums, Money and Politics lifts the lid on US museum board members and...
The Ruhrtriennale arts festival disinvited the Scottish hip-hop trio for their pro-Palestinian politics, then u-turned
The Baltimore’s director on why correcting the art historical canon is not only right but urgent for museums to remain...
Serpentine swimmers complain about Christo’s floating pyramid; and Hermitage’s psychic cat is a World Cup oracle: the...
The largest mural in Europe by the artist has been hidden for 30 years in an old storage depot – until now
Alumni Martin Boyce, Karla Black, Duncan Campbell and Ciara Phillips on the past and future of Charles Rennie...
In further news: po-mo architecture in the UK gets heritage status; Kassel to buy Olu Oguibe’s monument to refugees
The frieze columnist's first novel is an homage to, and embodiment of, the late, great Kathy Acker
60 years after the celebrated Brutalist architect fell foul of local authorities, a Berlin Unité d’Habitation apartment...
The British artist and Turner Prize winner is taking on the gun advocacy group at a time of renewed debate around arms...
The central thrust of the exhibition positions Sicily as the fulcrum of geopolitical conflicts over migration, trade,...
The Carters’s museum takeover powers through art history’s greatest hits – with a serious message about how the canon...
The 20-metre-high Mastaba finally realizes the artist and his late wife Jeanne-Claude’s design
‘What is being exhibited at Manifesta, above all, is Palermo itself’
With the 12th edition of the itinerant European biennial opening in Palermo, what do local artists, curators and...
In the age of Brexit, why Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to return the ‘stolen’ Parthenon marbles has never been...
The curators seem set to ask, ‘how civilized is the world’s current state of affairs?’
US true crime series Unsolved takes two formative pop cultural events to explore their concealed human stories and...

On View

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

April 2018

frieze magazine

May 2018

frieze magazine

June - August 2018