Sharp and Flat, Martin Puryear’s masterful sculpture created out of golden colored pine, is a powerful and commanding work from 1987. Part of a series of large-scale figures which he debuted that year, it’s enigmatic form, alluring—almost tactile—surface and extraordinary execution blurs the traditional boundaries of natural and man-made forms. Traditional European, African and American forms are carefully blended with the modern—most notably those of Constantin Brâncu?i, Henry Moore, Isamu Noguchi, and Marcel Duchamp—which are, in turn, all filtered through the artist’s unique personal vision. The result is a unique combination of both intellectual and technical skill, a form that—like the best of the artist’s work—engages both the heart and the mind. An important work from this pivotal period of his career, Sharp and Flat was selected by curator John Elderfield for inclusion in the artist’s 2007 seminal retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and subsequently traveled with the exhibition to the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth; the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art over the next two years.
Standing nearly five feet tall at its highest point, Sharp and Flat, is a work of impressive scale and scope. As its name suggests, the form revels in its contrasting elements; expansive surfaces of warm yellow ponderosa pine celebrate the dark knots and veins inherent to their natural state, asymmetrical angles and joints interrupt the natural flow of these elements creating interesting juxtapositions, and a soaring component reaches for the sky, disrupting the organic flow of the low, hulking form. These contrasts speak to Puryear’s desire to produce works that celebrate the means of their construction and the perfectly executed joints are the physical manifestation of the artist’s total understanding of his materials and methods. “I’m interested in making sculpture that tries to describe itself to the world,” the artist has said, “work that acknowledges its maker and that offers an experience that’s probably more tactile and sensate than strictly cerebral. And I’m not embarrassed if beauty is occasionally part of the experience…” (M. Puryear, quoted by R. J. Powell, ‘A Conversation with Martin Puryear,” in in J. Elderfield, Martin Puryear, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2007, p. 106).
Puryear’s enigmatic works are the result of his prolonged study and experiencing of sculptural forms around the world. Growing up in Washington, D.C., as a student he was exposed to the painterly abstractions of Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis and the writings of Clement Greenberg, yet he was as fascinated by the ethnographic collections of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History as he was the Post-Impressionism and Abstract Expressionism contained in the Phillips Collection. After college, unlike many artists of his generation who gravitated towards New York, Puryear volunteered for the Peace Corps and was sent to teach in Sierra Leone. Here, he was exposed to traditional sculpture and the importance of artistic production, “…what I found truly visible and vital was the traditional utilitarian objects—the works of weavers and potters with whom I was in occasional contact… I also got to know a lot of woodworkers and some traditional carvers…” (ibid., p. 102). On returning to the U.S. he focused on a more primal, elemental way of making sculpture, and working with materials directly from nature, unrefined and not industrially processed. In this way, writes curator Judith Russi Kirshner, “His work skates along several edges of meaning and radiates power from its continual blurring of natural and artificial forms, of primal and primitive associations, and ideas of expansion and containment… Puryear has never had strong regional affiliations; belonging to no school, open to ideas from many different cultures, he projects as kind of maverick image” (J. R. Kirshner, quoted in J. Field, in J. Elderfield, Martin Puryear, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2007, p. 179).
Sharp and Flat was executed in 1987, during period of intense activity for the artist. It formed part of a new body of work produced during this time that became known as his Decoys series, and coincided with a period of sustained critical and curatorial attention. It was during this year that Puryear resigned his professorship at the University of Chicago to devote himself to art production full-time. In addition, a retrospective was organized at the Chicago Public Library, and an exhibition of his prints, drawings, and floor pieces was held at the Carnegie Mellon University Art Gallery in Pittsburgh. Puryear’s work was also included in three group exhibitions, one at the Albright-Knox Museum, Buffalo, and two at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York highlighting works from is collection. Sharp and Flat was included in an exhibition of the artist’s new work at New York’s David McKee Gallery. In Martin Puryear: Stereotypes and Decoys, these “neck and body” works garnered much critical attention, reviewing the show for New York Times, critic Michael Brenson enthused, “Puryear’s sculptures… do not insist. They pulsate and lock in softly, promising regularity and stability, delivering metamorphosis and change… the works are in some way about movement, but they are also about place. They may seem to fly and roll through space, but they are not about speed. ‘I think my work speaks to anybody who has the capacity to slow down’ he [Puryear] says” (M. Brenson, “Maverick Sculptor Makes Good,” New York Times, Sunday, November 1st 1987, p. 84, via www.nytimes.com).
This ability to “slow down” is a quality identified by numerous critics. On the occasion of the artist’s retrospective at Museum of Modern Art, New York (two decades after Sharp and Flat), New York Times art critic Roberta Smith, wrote of his work, “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. These references seep out of his highly allusive, often poetic forms in waves, evoking the earlier Modernism of Brâncu?i, Arp, Noguchi and Duchamp, but also carpentry, basket weaving, African sculpture and the building of shelter and ships. His work slows you down and makes you consider its every detail as physical fact, artistic choice and purveyor of meaning” (R. Smith, “Humanity’s Descent, In Three Dimensions,” New York Times, 2007).