Known for his emphasis on craft and eschewal of industrial processes, Martin Puryear’s sculptural practice placed him on the outskirts of Minimalism in the mid-twentieth century. Though dealing with many of the same ideas about art and objecthood, Puryear sought a less detached method that focused on a human interaction with materials. Empire’s Lurch is a sublime example of the artist’s ability to fuse historical topics with expert craftsmanship. Critic Roberta Smith noted, “Mr. Puryear is a formalist in a time when that is something of a dirty word, although his formalism, like most of the 1970s variety, is messed with, irreverent and personal. His formalism taps into a legacy even larger than race: the history of objects, both utilitarian and not, and their making. From this all else follows, namely human history, race included, along with issues of craft, ritual, approaches to nature and all kinds of ethnic traditions and identities. (R. Smith, “Humanity’s Descent, In Three Dimensions,” New York Times, November 2, 2007). By embracing the modes of making as well as the conceptual elements, Puryear is able to create sculptures rich with forward-thinking narratives while also staying true to his artistic credo.
I value the referential quality of art, the fact that a work can allude to things or states of being without in any way representing them.”
One of the works from Martin Puryear’s exhibition from 1987 titled Stereotypes and Decoys, Empire’s Lurch acquiesces to this moniker only slightly. Smooth and supple, the solid presence of the form is immediately noticeable and gives the entire work great visual weight. From a large, rounded base of ponderosa pine extends a single curve that could be seen as a beakless bird’s neck. However, given Puryear’s choice of a cold green-black paint for the entire structure, it more aptly resembles an iron bollard used to tie ships at mooring. This connection is no mere happenstance. “I value the referential quality of art, the fact that a work can allude to things or states of being without in any way representing them” (M. Puryear, “Martin Puryear,” An Eye for an Eye: Focusing on Great Artists and Their Works, Washington, D.C., 2013, p. 174). Using simple forms that are both familiar and disconnected from reality, Puryear is able to pique the viewer’s curiosity. Even with its avian-like features, this abstracted form can initiate a conversation about the fall of societies built on the backs of enslaved labor and other atrocities.
Puryear’s practice revolves around objects and their making. His interest in manual labor and infusing each work with the artist’s time and effort extends from a long art historical tradition. In particular, the artist has been continuously inspired by the oeuvre of Brancusi, noting, "I saw the first recreation of Brancusi's studio and took lots of pictures. ...It was an important thing for me to see. Brancusi was a person working with his own hands. I saw all his tools in the studio. This was crucial to me. I felt I was doing the same with my work" (M. Puryear, in R. Marcoci, "The Anti-Historicist Approach: Brancusi, Our Contemporary," Art Journal, Vol. 59, no. 2, Summer 2000, p. 33). Empire’s Lurch in particular has a visual reference to the polished bronze forms of the Romanian sculptor, but its underlying historical narrative diverges from the abstract forms of Puryear’s predecessor. While Brancusi was working, the formal language of Modernism was in its early years. As new ideas were pushed forward, a new way of thinking about art took shape. Similarly, Puryear executed Empire’s Lurch during the culturally tumultuous period at the end of the twentieth-century. At a crossroads between conceptual works about race and identity and the prevailing modes of the midcentury, Puryear chose to pursue his own path and the result is a richly-storied oeuvre that speaks to his tenacity and unmatched skill.
Lot essay header image: Present lot illustrated.