Working primarily in wood and stone, Martin Puryear is one of the premier artists in contemporary sculpture. Known for his objects and public installations, the artist’s “evocative, dreamlike explorations in abstract forms retain vestigial elements of utility from everyday objects found in the world.”
The oldest of seven children, Puryear, who was born in 1941 in Washington, D.C., had originally intended to pursue a career in the sciences. He would switch to painting but, encouraged by one of his professors at Catholic University where he would later earn a B.A. in Art, Puryear ultimately decided to become a sculptor.
The year following his graduation, Puryear traveled to Sierra Leone, where he spent the next two years with the Peace Corps. Teaching at the mission’s secondary school, Puryear taught French, English, Biology and classes in Art, while also learning woodworking skills from local carpenters that would come to have a significant impact on his practice.
In 1966, Puryear moved to Stockholm, where he enrolled in the Royal Swedish Academy of Arts and spent several years studying before he was accepted at Yale University. Puryear earned an M.F.A. in Sculpture in 1971 from the University’s School of Art and Architecture.
Puryear’s work, particularly his early sculptures, was directly impacted by a major shift in sculpture in the late 1960s, as well as his own interest in minimalism. He maintained a studio in Brooklyn from 1973 to 1977, completing his first outdoor commission for Artpark in Lewiston, New York. After a fire destroyed his studio, Puryear moved to Chicago in 1978.
The following decade would see the artist establish himself as one of the most renowned sculptors practicing today. In 1983, Puryear was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, which would allow him to travel to Japan. In 1986, he was an artist-in-residency at the American Academy in Rome, Italy, and in 1989 represented the United States at the Bienal de São Paulo in Brazil, where he was awarded the Grand Prize. Puryear was named a MacArthur Fellow that same year.
Profiled in the award-winning PBS series art21, Puryear says, “I’m really interested in vernacular cultures where people lived a little closer to the source of materials and the making of objects for use.” He added that he most interested in trades where people make things, though not necessarily artistic. “They’re artistic in the sense that they can have formal beauty, but they’re not done with an artistic motive; they’re done often with a utilitarian motive.”
One of Puryear’s most well known works is his 1996 piece, Ladder for Booker T. Washington. The sculpture, which towers more than 36 feet in height, is constructed an actual ladder.
His goal was make a piece that had a forced perspective; a work that made it appear “to recede into space faster than it in fact does.” The ladder, made from an ash sapling that once grew on his property in New York, narrows as it rises from the bottom to the top. Suspended some three feet above the floor, the sides of the ladder undulate as they near the top, the entire piece appearing to float in the air. Puryear then titled the work after it was finished.
“The idea of Booker T. Washington,” Puryear says, “the resonance with his life, and his struggle, and the whole notion that his idea of progress for the race, was a long, slow progression of putting your buckets down where you are and working with what you’ve got. And so it really is a question of like the view from where you start and the end, the goal.”
But the artist doesn’t want too much read into the titles of his pieces. “I came from a generation where the work was itself the information, though there remains this belief that the work itself can have an identity that can hopefully speak.”
Puryear also contends that artwork doesn’t have to serve as a vehicle for commenting on society. “Whether it’s through beauty or through ugliness or whatever quality you put into the work, that is what the work can be about.”
The sculptor has received numerous other honors and awards, including the Skowhegan Medal for Sculpture, and in 1994 received an honorary doctorate from Yale University. He was awarded the National Medal of Arts and Humanities from President Obama earlier this year.
Puryear has had more than twenty solo museum exhibitions. His 2007 exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art in New York, Martin Puryear, offered a major retrospective of the artist’s three decade-long career.
The acclaimed show traveling to the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth in Forth Worth, Texas; The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco, California.