An essay in poetic form, Untitled, 1989 is at once malleable and elegant, the shape suggesting a relationship to the human body, expanding toward the head, attenuating as it descends and droops to the floor. While the curves are subtly figural, the open internal space created by softening contours elicit associations not only with the human form, but also with the open spaces of archetypal forms. The wood in this case is red cedar, softened, attached in strips of varying widths to create a seamless transition through the elongated ovoid. Interested in "dealing with hands-on work, in the evolution of ideas through doing or making as opposed to more and more finely spun rhetoric" (M. Puryear, Art Journal, Vol. 42, No. 1, Spring, 1982, p. 36), Puryear is an artist who melds modernist biomorphic forms with minimal means. Working in a variety of media, Puryear trained in the craft of building furniture from Swedish workers while enrolled at the Swedish Royal Academy of Art. During two years in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone, Puryear was inspired by local ebony carvers and woodworkers and enlisted their techniques and forms in his studies of sculpture, receiving his MFA from Yale University in 1971. Puryear represented the United States at the Bienal de São Paulo the year Untitled was created, in 1989, where his exhibition won the Grand Prize. The form itself, a hollowed and elastic contour, carries qualities of uncertainty and emptiness. However, there are elements that suggest an inherent strength--the evidence of traditional woodworking techniques, the hint of non-Western crafts--and which account for the lean, formal beauty of Puryear's modernist, yet deeply vernacular materials and forms.
Even as many artists in postwar America turned from traditional stone and marble to industrial processes, Puryear worked through minimalist sensibilities by means of natural materials. While art works were being made by anonymous manufacturers from conceptualized working plans, Puryear was carving and joining by hand, honing obdurate materials into flexible shapes, abstract forms that foreground the material and labor of their making, much as Post-Minimalist artists emphasized the process aspect of their creations. "During Minimalism, I felt like a holdover from the craft tradition. ...When I first saw Donald Judd's work, it cleared the air for me to do whatever I wanted. And I wanted purity and simplicity. But I couldn't be as distant as Judd--the working process is essential to me" (M. Puryear, in Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, ed. Michael Auping, p. 280). Untitled is a lyrical meditation in wood, spare and refined, which alludes to nature in its seeming alliance with a relaxed, gravitational pull, an ease or limpness, that contrasts with the hard-edge materials and angularities of Minimal aesthetics. As his practice matured into the 1980s, Puryear seemed at odds with the prevailing art movements, represented by Jeff Koons and Cindy Sherman. Puryear is not overtly political in his orientation, nor is he interested in the appropriation of images or a self-conscious critique of past practices. Rather, Puryear remains committed to what is carefully and thoughtfully constructed, to a practice that reveals the presence of human touch.
Influenced as a young man by his father whose hobby was woodwork, Puryear began using tools in his father's workshop and by college was crafting acoustic guitars--a workmanship that relies on extraordinary hand-eye coordination and sensitivity to material processes of an uncanny order. Immense talent and skill allowed him to create works of sculpture in which utilitarian craftsmanship could be combined with conceptual and formal rigor. "I would say my work is abstract, even though it is not abstract to me, because I make these sculptures using methods that have been employed for hundreds of years to construct things that have had a practical use in the world" (Ibid., p. 280). Untitled is a work in which clean, elegant, sweeping contours present a paradox of materiality that in its viewing points to the metaphysical. The enigma of curves is heightened by the mystery of its making, where skills and techniques are invisible. Joinery, in which through a process of cold molding, layers of wood are fitted together, is among the many techniques Puryear has perfected and which are manifest in this work. "What was important for me was that I was building something, assembling something with my hands from parts, which I have always enjoyed doing, and it was not monolithic and it was not carved. Making compound curves in this manner makes you think differently. You are constantly having to think about how things fit together and what the final form will be" (M. Puryear, in M. Auping, "Artisan," in John Elderfield, Martin Puryear, Museum of Modern Art, 2007, p. 63). Made entirely by hand, the strip planks are joined along their edges and molded into a curved form reminiscent of the graceful looping in works by the Modernist and Surrealist Hans Arp, whose commitment to the "law of chance," while antithetical to Puryear's worked forms, nonetheless evokes the same grace and ease as Puryear's rhythmically loose contour, which seems to mimic the natural force of gravity, tracing an expressively lithe downward arc. Puryear's forms are biomorphic rather than geometric and from that point of view also look back to the organic lines of early Modernists such as Constantin Brancusi. "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 Roxana Marcoci, "The Anti-Historicist Approach: Brancusi, Our Contemporary," Art Journal, Vol. 59, no. 2, Summer 2000, p. 33).
Puryear believes that the work speaks for itself and radiates its own identity. He speaks about the beauty inherent in craft that went into the work. Untitled enacts such beauty. Its highly allusive, abstract fusion of elegant forms encompass both the history of Modernism and the formal properties of tribal artifacts; historical formalism and archetypal formations are infused with traditional woodworking techniques. In its making and meaning, Untitled's seemingly antithetical elements create a hybridity that is as complex and subtle as the artist who crafted it.