Thylacine embodies the exquisite craftsmanship and rich poetic associations for which Martin Puryear is celebrated. At first glance, the work appears as a finely wrought Minimalist-inspired sculpture in its geometric simplicity. Yet the title of the work, which refers to an extinct animal known as a Tasmanian tiger, opens the sculpture up to another level of elegiac resonance. The thylacine was an unusual carnivorous marsupial that had roamed Australia, but was extinguished in the Twentieth century by settlers who were terrified by the animal. In this light, the sculpture poignantly evokes the striped tail of the thylacine, isolated and ceremoniously curved in a closed circle, a victim of human civilization.
The discipline of craft was itself on the verge of extinction in the field of sculpture during Puryear's formative years of the 1960s, when Minimalism's industrial reductionism held sway. Puryear developed a reverence for the character of handmade objects, and particularly hand-carved wood, through a number of different experiences in his life. He had practical experience in crafts as a youth (carving canoes, guitars, etc.). Following college he studied African techniques of woodworking while volunteering in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone, then explored furniture-making techniques while studying at art school in Sweden before studying sculpture at Yale University. Puryear's unique confluence of influences is evident in Thylacine, in its sensitively sculpted form and burnished surface.
The form of the circle has been particularly important in Puryear's sculptural oeuvre, as it brings together his art school training in drawing and his dedication to working in three-dimensional form. As he explains, "The circles are about line. From a few feet away they become lines drawn on a wall, yet they do not have volume. I have to build things. Even when I returned to the impulse to work with line on the wall, it was not with paint, pencil or crayon but by building it. Each of the circles reads as a line, but it really is an object. In a sense I guess you could say it's drawing with wood" (M. Puryear, quoted in Martin Puryear, exh. cat., Amherst, 1984, p. 23).