Stand amidst the sculptures of Martin Puryear and you are aware that he is one of the few living artists whose work consistently communicates wit and visual eloquence. On exhibit at Matthew Marks (through January 10, 2015) are ten recent sculptures executed in a variety of woods and metals. Although these pieces do not have the monumental impact of works in his 2007 exhibit at MOMA, they are enormously satisfying. Puryear's devotion to craftsmanship is evident in the meticulous and elegant realization of each piece. His manipulation of materials serves to expand our expectations of their properties, while his manipulations of a single form suggest new ways of seeing it. In this exhibit, Puryear takes the form of the Phrygian cap (more on this below) and offers it up whole and in parts--sensuous, obstinate, uncertain, decorative.
Begin with Up and Over, a modestly sized piece in cast ductile iron. The form is organic, almost anthropomorphic, as it curves over and presses tightly against itself. There is a tenderness to this piece that completely subverts the hardness of the iron. I find it captivating from every vantage point.
|UP AND OVER 2014 cast ductile iron 18 5/8 x 26 1/2 x 12 3/4 inches|
|BIG PHRYGIAN 2010-2014 Painted red cedar 58 x 40 x 76 inches|
Another of the variations on the form is evident in the open network of Untitled, one of the larger pieces on exhibit. In this piece, although the saplings have been bent and tied together, Puryear has left the wood in its most natural state.
|UNTITLED 2014 Hardwood saplings, cordage 174 1/2 x 148 x 52 inches|
Puryear is known for his exquisite craftsmanship with wood and in this exhibit he puts his skills on display. He makes use of a variety of woods (among them tulip poplar, pine, ash, holly, ebony, yellow cedar, and red cedar). Puryear works the wood to various effects -- in several pieces, paper thin layers of wood are joined into curving forms, while elsewhere, thicker pieces of wood are joined to build torqued arches and bulbous volumes.
|CASCADE, 2013 Alaskan yellow cedar, 66 x 54 3/4 x 17 inches|
|QUESTION 2010, Tulip poplar, pine, ash 90 x 109 1/4 x 34 1/2 inches|
|PHRYGIAN PLOT 2012 Inlaid holly and black dyed veneer 60 x 74 x 4 inches|
Puryear paints some of his pieces, some to a delicate and organic effect as seen in Shell Game, in others (as in Big Phrygian) with a heavy intensity, and in still others (such as Faux Phrygian), his brilliant colors serve to emphasize the geometry of the forms.
|SHELL GAME 2014 Tulip poplar, milk paint 56 1/4 x 72 x 9 1/2 inches|
Puryear's wit can be seen in how he titles each piece. The word cascade generally evokes a powerful downpour, while Puryear's Cascade is delicate and turns back up on itself, defying the downward pull. Rather than concealing something, as usually occurs in a shell game, his Shell Game is cut open to reveal its hollowed out and delicately painted innards. Puryear pulls out all the stops with Faux Vitrine, a display case that tilts in such a way that anything placed on its shelves would slide right off. Approach it from the another side and this colorfully painted piece morphs into something else entirely--devoid of color and optically confusing with shelves of polished stainless steel. Many people in the gallery did a double-take, perhaps thinking they were looking at two different sculptures.
|FAUX VITRINE 2014 Mirror polished stainless steel, curly maple, black walnut, marine plywood, Japan color 73 3/4 x 46 1/2 x 40 3/4 inches|
Another element of Puryear's work is its political/historic content. Historic references were noticeably present in several of the pieces in the retrospective at MOMA. (For more about that as well as other insights into Puryear's work, read sections of John Yau's recent article in Hyperallergic).
In this exhibit, the Phrygian cap (also called a 'liberty cap') is a recurrent reference point. This soft, conical cap, often depicted in red, first appeared in antiquity and can be seen in Greek sculpture and vase paintings. It was also associated with a felt cap worn by emancipated slaves of ancient Rome. Later worn by the sans-culottes during the French Revolution, it signifies freedom and liberty. (For the trivia nerds among you, the Phrygian cap also appears in the coat of arms of Haiti, the Seal of the US Senate, the War Office seal of the US Army, on several state flags and in the coat of arms of Argentina. Small images appear at the end of this post.)
In the press release for this exhibit, Puryear states "Although I was certainly aware of numerous depictions of this cap in European and early American art when I began work on the Big Phrygian sculpture, I only discovered the engraved image of the black man wearing the read Phrygian cap.... years afterwards." The engraving, which dates from 1794 when slavery was first abolished in France, includes the caption "Moi libre aussi" (I am free too).
The cap appears in its most visually explicit form in the large, red Big Phrygian. With Shackle, Puryear combines a reference to the shape of the cap with a ring evoking the chains which shackled the slaves. Executed in iron, the sculpture is small but emphatic, with a subtly textured surface.
|SHACKLED 2014 Iron 27 1/2 x 30 5/8 x 8 3/8 inches|
While clearly referencing both the historic symbolism of the Phrygian cap as well as its shape, perhaps Puryear is also making a personal statement about his freedom as an artist. But whether or not you choose to consider his intentions, go see this exhibit for the joy of his artistry.
A selection of Phrygian caps in art and politics .......