The hand-tooled poetry of artist Martin Puryear

SHARE The hand-tooled poetry of artist Martin Puryear

I don’t often dig back into the archives, but when I first heard the news of the Art Institute of Chicago’s new exhibit, “Martin Puryear: Multiple Dimensions,” which will be on view in the museum’s Modern Wing through May 3, I recalled writing about my thrilling first encounter with the artist’s work more than three decades ago.

This is what I found: “During the summer of 1981, I went to a sculpture show at the Chicago Cultural Center and saw a work [not in the current exhibit] that has haunted my imagination ever since. The piece, made of pine, red cedar, poplar and Sitka spruce [and balanced in a slender wagon wheel form], easily dominated the high-ceilinged exhibition space. But despite its monumentality it possessed a seductive grace and poetic beauty that defied easy explanation.”

Martin Puryear: Untitled, drawing for outdoor sculpture in fieldstone and copper. (Photo: Courtesy of the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery)

Martin Puryear: Untitled, drawing for outdoor sculpture in fieldstone and copper. (Photo: Courtesy of the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery)

I’ve seen a good deal more of Puryear’s work since then, and have continued to be enchanted by the seamless, near magical way he transforms elemental forms made of wood, bronze, iron and steel into pure poetry — at turns enigmatic, totemic and whimsical.

The Art Institute show (seen in a different form last fall at New York’s Morgan Library and Museum, and headed next to the Smithsonian American Art Museum) has a minimalist magic all its own. For alongside 12 sculptures — many untitled, and ranging from a simple intertwining of circles made of maple sapling, pearwood and yellow cedar, to a weighty bronze form that could be the abstracted evocation of an old iron, to “Sanctuary,” a sort of rustic, wooden counterpart to a Giacometti figure — there are more than 100 drawings and prints.

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‘MARTIN PURYEAR: MULTIPLE DIMENSIONS’ When: Through May 3 Where: Art Institute of Chicago (Modern Wing),111 S. Michigan Tickets: $20 – $25 (general admission) Info: (312) 443-3600; www.artic.edu

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Many of these works on paper have been borrowed directly from the artist and never displayed before, with some subtly restored “survivors” of the devastating fire that ravaged Puryear’s Brooklyn studio in 1977. Study their lines and forms and you will see the artist’s imagination at work, along with the genesis of his sculpture.

A tall, slender man, Puryear, 74, was born in Washington, D.C., one of seven children of parents he described as “adventuresome.”

“My mother was a schoolteacher, and my father was a man who built what he needed,” said Puryear, who over the years also has figured out how to make tools, boats, musical instruments and furniture. “From early childhood I loved to draw, and I was always very interested in nature. My family often went camping when I was a kid. My dad bought a big tent at Montgomery Ward and drove us up to Canada, which was not a common thing to do then.”

“I got a set of tempera colors as a child, and then by the late 1940s I had oil paints,” said the artist. “And my parents, seeing that I was interested in art, somehow got me into a private after-school program for children.”

Martin Puryear: Untitled (LA MoCA portfolio), 1999. The Art Institute of Chicago. Restricted gift of Kaye and Howard Haas.  |  Photo courtesy of the artist and Art Institute of Chicago

Martin Puryear: Untitled (LA MoCA portfolio), 1999. The Art Institute of Chicago. Restricted gift of Kaye and Howard Haas. | Photo courtesy of the artist and Art Institute of Chicago

Although he began his academic life studying biology, Puryear earned his B.A. in Fine Art from the Catholic University, and then spent two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Sierra Leone, where he taught biology, English and French.

“It was in Africa that I first saw people working in wood without electricity,” said Puryear. “That had an impact on me; it was very freeing. I saw people building houses and furniture with hand tools, something I’d never seen in the U.S. At a small missionary school there I learned how to make furniture, and I showed them how to make guitars.”

Martin Puryear accepts the National Arts and Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama in 2012. | Alex Wong/Getty Images

Martin Puryear accepts the National Arts and Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama in 2012. | Alex Wong/Getty Images

“For my work I borrow techniques that already exist — from steam, to lamination [the gluing of layers], to the near-obsolete industrial trade of pattern-making, which is the extremely precise carving of wood for the models on which iron machine parts are based. Today much of that is done with lasers.”

Over the years, Puryear spent time in two other countries that left a lasting impression on him.

From 1966 to 1968, he studied at the Royal Swedish Academy of Arts in Stockholm, before heading home to enroll in the graduate program for sculpture at Yale University. And in the early 1980s he traveled to Japan, where he was beguiled by the traditional ceramics, the shrines and temples, and the elaborate wooden saki merchants’ houses preserved in the town of Takayama.

Chicago also played a vitally important role in Puryear’s life.

“After the fire I thought I would probably not want another studio in New York. Chicago had lots of industry, and studio possibilities. And I was offered a teaching job at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I arrived in the city in 1979 and stayed for 12 years, eventually joining with other artists to buy a building on Ravenswood that we converted into apartments and studios. I also met and married my wife in Chicago.”

Puryear, who was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 1989, moved to New York’s Hudson Valley in 1990, where he works in a studio of his own construction and a house he describes as “an un-domestic industrial concrete block.”

He chuckles quietly noting: “We’ve created a more domestic addition in recent years. And the place is surrounded by 55 acres of mostly forested land, so I either find the wood I use there, or can visit the local sawmills.”

Martin Puryear: Maquette for “Bearing Witness” (1994). Courtesy of the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery. (Photo: Jamie Stukenberg, Professional Graphics).

Martin Puryear: Maquette for “Bearing Witness” (1994). Courtesy of the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery. (Photo: Jamie Stukenberg, Professional Graphics).

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