In his poetic and impressive show, which goes on view today at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington's Martin Puryear elevates handicraft to art. He is a toolmaker, a carver, a boat builder, a tanner. His most memorable work, a structure made of cedar slats that is 17 feet high, is part forest lodge, part temple, part sculpture and part place.
Many sculptors of the '60s were foes of evocation and friends of the machine, fond of plastics and hard edges and a look-Ma-no-hands cool. Martin Puryear's work is not like that at all. The objects that he draws from, lengths of hickory and oak, cedar, pine and ash, suggest something green and wild, the slow growth and the swaying of tall and leafy trees.
To step into his shrine, to sense the peat moss underfoot and the skin of cedar (it smells of sharpened pencils), to see the the light-admitting hide stretched beneath the latticed dome, is to know again, as if through built-in memory, a quiet forest time before man walked on concrete.
He tanned the hide himself. He bought it from a butcher, removed the hairs and scraped away its muscle, fat and flesh. The translucent hide now seems a kind of leather painting. "Raw hide stinks," says Puryear, "but it's beautiful to make art out of garbage."
He is 36 years old. Born and raised in Washington, he studied at Catholic University, at Yale and in Sweden. He teaches at the University of Maryland. He is among the most competent and thoughtful sculptors working in this city.
After meeting Daniel Brush, a 30 year-old professor at Georgetown University, it is difficult to separate the experience of his presence from that of the painting he has installed next door.
Brush is relentlessly erudite. So, too, is the arcane pamphlet he has published to accompany his show. It includes quotes from the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad and a poem (untranslated) in Estonian. His five-panel work is called "Koalad 77: Ground-Seed, Para." Brush, who works with drafting pen and T-square, draws thousands of parallel horizontal lines. The pamphlet says, "each panel of canvas measures 114 inches by 84 inches; this size is the area/limen for the synchronometric focusing of each line of writing." Reading it one feels one is supposed to feel ignorant or thick.
When Brush says that drawing a line on canvas is, at least for Brush, "a physical and psychological exercise of incredible intensity." I for one, believe him. Those who have not heard him may see his panels merely as delicate abstractions of a half-familiar sort. His colors are most subtle, so is the way his lines, seen from a few inches, seem to dissolve into the weave of his beige canvas. His panels may be seen as either full or empty, depending on how one meditates before his well-made, private art.
The Corcoran also is showing "The Black Photographer," a group show largely drawn from "The Black Photographer's Annaul" volums I, II and III. The exhibit is, in part, a record of black people poor and rich, partying and suffering, a number of them famous (John Coltrane, Billie Holliday, Martin Luther King), many more unknown.
The artists include amateurs, professionals, and three Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists. Three older photographers - James Van DerZee of New York, the late Addison Scurlock of Washington and 79-year-old P.H. Polk of Alabama. Polk's enormously powerful portraits would be enough to justify a visit to this impressive show. The three Corcoran exhibits close Sept. 17.
Those visiting the Corcoran, even in the heat of Washington in August, will be encouraged to discover that the collections are growing, and that the galleries are cooler than they have been in years. Examples of contemporary art added recently to the permanent collection include large works by Frank Stella, Gene Davis, Sam Gillian, Cy Twombly, a stunning Ellsworth Kelly and an Andy Warhol "Mao."
And one upstairs gallery, reached by turning right at the top of the broad stair, has been successfully, if somewhat noisily, air-conditioned. The ductwork has been placed between the museum's roof and the gallery's glass ceiling. Museum officials describe the installation as "an experiment," but say other rooms will be air-conditioned as soon as funds are raised.