Over the last 40 years, Martin Puryear has produced a body of work that reflects a technical virtuosity and iconoclastic vision. Puryear assimilates aspects of indigenous and Western artistic traditions to create sculptures suffused with lyricism and spiritual vitality. Puryear’s contributions to the field of contemporary art have been recognized by honors that include a MacArthur “genius” award, a retrospective exhibition at the San Francisco MoMa, a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of Art in New York and his designation to represent the United States in the 1989 Sao Paulo Biennial.
Stripling, executed between 1976 and 1977, represents a striking sculpture from early in Puryear’s mature career that encapsulates the quintessential concerns of his oeuvre. The sculpture cements the artist’s alchemical gift to conjure the extraordinary from the elemental, in this case from nothing more than ashwood. Comprised of two branches conjoined with a mortise and hung vertically, Stripling appears like a Lucio Fontana slash floating in three dimensions. It ruptures the wall’s unified surface and suggests a tear in the fabric of waking reality, as if proposing a portal to an alternate universe. The dramatically elongated appendages descend from the mortise and meander toward the floor, tapering and converging at the sculpture’s base in an embrace.
Stripling exemplifies Puryear’s ability to marry disparate and, at times, seemingly incongruous, elements with aplomb. The skeletal form employs the reductive strategies of Minimalism but its organic surface, burnished to reveal the ashwood’s natural grain and abundance of burls, emphasizes the timeless beauty of nature rather than the aesthetics of modern industrial fabrication. The branches’ unnatural pitch and the geometric angularity of the crowning arch testify to the presence of the artist, and, therefore, mankind, complicating Stripling’s allegiance to the natural world.
Puryear remarked about a similar sculpture that also incorporated a bent sapling, “Anyone who knows wood knows that you can’t bend wood that sharply” (J. Elderfield, Martin Puryear, New York, p. 23). When the interviewer admitted that he had wondered how Puryear had achieved this effect, the artist responded “Well, wondering is part of the experience” (ibid., p. 23). Indeed, wonder, both in the sense of awe and curiosity, constitutes a common response to his sculptures, which are as visually stunning as they are beguiling. Stripling suggests a perfectly preserved relic of a long-forgotten culture, one that prized the aesthetic and integrity of craft traditions. The exterior perfection and ontological mystery embodied by Stripling calls to mind the planks of John McCracken but celebrates the splendor of earthly, as opposed to extraterrestrial, life.
For Puryear, an artist working in an age where many of his most-celebrated contemporaries are largely removed from the physical aspects of production, this allegory of “forgotten culture” likely carries personal connotations. Stripling also corresponds to a relic quite literally, for it is one of only three sculptures to survive from this time period, after a fire destroyed Puryear’s home and studio in Brooklyn, New York, along with the majority of his contents in 1977.
Following this devastating blaze, Puryear accepted a teaching position at the University of Chicago and began to rebuild his life. As forest fires clear the brush and open the casings of dormant seeds precipitating an explosion of new life, this tragedy engendered a period of unprecedented creative growth and arguably catalyzed the inception of some of his most dynamic sculptures.
Stripling epitomizes the meticulousness, detail and conceptual consideration that Puryear has applied to every sculpture throughout his prolific career. Through his anachronistic insistence on craft and an aesthetic that summons the premodern, if not the primitive, Puryear looks forward, advancing the dialogue of contemporary art through a visual language that is as enigmatic as it is sublime.