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Jan 30, 2009

Acclaimed American sculptor Martin Puryear not only makes soaring art, but inspires soaring poetry as well.

By Amy Van Vechten

Good art sparks curiosity, conversation and critique. Great art goes further, becoming a source of inspiration for other artists and a catalyst for creativity across mediums.
Martin Puryear is widely acclaimed to be a great artist. Now at age 67, Puryear was one of the first African-American sculptors to gain international recognition for work he did in the late 1970s and 1980s. In his four-decade-and-counting career, he has blended categories, styles and cultures into a personal style that defies easy description.
“The key to Martin’s work is that it’s so viscerally handmade,” says Michael Auping, curator at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth in Texas. “There’s also symbolic content. Each of the pieces has a different personal or historical significance. His work combines minimalist aesthetics with a handmade object—that’s a rare thing to find today.”
Puryear has come a long way since his work first caught the attention of the art world in 1977. That year, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. hosted a solo exhibition of his sculptures and he completed his first major outdoor commission for Artpark in Lewistown, N.Y.

Poet David Levi Strauss narrates a slideshow about Martin Puryear’s influences, process and projects in FLYP Media’s exclusive video.

Over the past year, an extensive retrospective of his work traveled from New York’s Museum of Modern Art to Fort Worth, Texas and Washington, D.C. The exhibit then spent the last three months at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA).

The Work of Martin Puryear: FLYP Media takes you inside his retrospective exhibit, which features more than 30 years of his art, with our interactive slideshow.

The museum recently celebrated the creative impact of Puryear’s sculptures across genres by gathering five poets to read and discuss poetry inspired by his work.
“Puryear’s sculptures are metaphorical structures that continually resist reduction to fixed identities or single meanings,” says author and poet David Levi Strauss. “They activate a proliferation of narratives, metaphors, symbols and illusions…working their way from head to hand, from hand to head, and back again.”
Two of the poets singled out Puryear’s sculpture from 1996, Ladder for Booker T. Washington, a 36-foot-tall structure made from split sapling. The piece is constructed with joinery, a fine woodworking technique that binds individual pieces together without resorting to the use of nails.
Puryear told Levi Strauss that he used the title of this piece to inspire specific feelings in viewers: “The joining of the idea of Booker T. Washington and his notion of progress and the form of the piece—that came after the fact. But when I thought about a title for it, it seemed absolutely fitting.”
Other works, like Box and Pole, Bower and Thicket, resist specificity and emphasize multiple meanings and interpretations.
“His work is very minimal,” Auping says. “He understands that less is more, which is essentially the credo of late Modernism. It’s very refined, reduced down to essential forms, using only a set of tools and his hands.”
But it’s Puryear’s ideology as well as his work that inspires other artists.
Poet Susan Thackery says she was drawn to Puryear’s resistance to judgment. She wrote her first poem inspired by his work when she was only 15. “Like Puryear, I disliked then and still dislike preformed categories of judgment, especially in art,” she says. “This, after all, is a good definition of prejudice itself.”
All the poets celebrating Puryear at SFMOMA insisted upon the inherent literary nature of Puryear’s sculptures and emphasized the intersection of matter and meaning between artist and object.
“Martin’s sculptures resist language while at the same time courting it,” Levi Strauss explains. “The way that they accentuate the incommensurability of word and thing, this is terrifying to a writer. And irresistible.”

In FLYP’s exclusive videos, poet Aaron Shurin explains Puryear’s influence upon his poetry, and reads two of his poems.

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We saw this exhibit at the Fort Worth Modern Art Museum and it was one of the best I have ever see.

mark weddington
Feb 11, 2009

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