Any reasonably complete collection of American art over the past half century will include the work of Martin Puryear, but all too often, it feels strangely out of context when displayed. Puryear’s sculptures may be the best-made material in the room, but they are also strikingly reticent, even humble. His wooden circles, curving baskets, poetic ladders and enigmatic containers are quiet and self-contained, and they don’t glare at you with the hyper-polish of machine-made metal minimalism or the narcissistic sheen of latter-day Pop.
Sadly, though, the squeaky wheel gets the oil in museums, just as it does in the dysfunctional family and the corporate office. If you don’t make the effort to actively listen to a Puryear sculpture, you may hear nothing at all.
An exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum places Puryear in his ideal context, which is Puryear’s own imaginative landscape. “Martin Puryear: Multiple Dimensions” includes 14 of his sculptures along with his lesser-known work on paper, including prints, drawings and sketches made in relationship to evolving sculptural projects. It begins with drawings from the 1960s, when he served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Sierra Leone, and ends with ongoing meditations on forms that are still taking shape in public parks and plazas, including the recently installed “Big Bling” in New York’s Madison Square Park.
Throughout, you sense the complexity of how the hand relates to the world we make. In drawings and prints, the artist has directly impressed fingerprints — markers of personal identity — onto the paper. But in work such as the 1997-2002 “Vessel,” a large wooden cage that looks like a giant bottle lying on its side, the hand is a hidden symbol of the well-made object, the perfect joint, the polished seam, the marker of craftsmanship. And in other pieces, including the 1982 “Untitled,” a wood circle made of maple sapling and pear, you feel the slow, polishing power of the hand, its presence over time smoothing and eroding natural materials into something soft and domesticated.
The hand in its multiple manifestations brings with it a sense of time, the instantaneous capture of the fingerprint, the calculation and care of the constructed object, the gentle amnesia of wood worn down over the ages. Among other things, the exhibition reminds you of how much we have lost when it comes to the hand, especially in the past century and more, when machine-made objects replaced handcrafted ones. A fraudulent language masks the void: We buy “hand-tossed” pizzas from mass-market fast-food joints and wear “handmade” clothing made from polyester and plastic. Few of us carry anything, anymore, that bears the imprint of the hand, no pens with nubs worn down by actual writing, or umbrellas with wooden handles polished by long use.
Puryear hasn’t been particularly forward when it comes to promoting his works on paper, or his drawings. After the mid-1960s, he turned to sculpture as his primary medium, and while he continued to make drawings, his production of public prints basically ceased until he returned to the form in 1999. As Ruth Fine writes in a catalogue essay, drawing was an everyday way of existing in the world and not something the artist necessarily wanted “out there” for an audience: “Perhaps one reason why he has never considered his drawings as equal to his sculpture or prints is that he has always made them with a quotidian intent, like eating or breathing, something that is essential to life but not of particular note.”
The early drawings, however, are delightful, and they are full of the same humility one feels in his sculptural work (which, no matter how large, never feels monumental). A 1965 portrait, “Gbago,” shows a man with a long, thin face, and large, columnar hat. Mostly it is an outline with a few, fleeting suggestions of shadow and three-dimensional form. In the hollow of the subject’s cheeks, however, you sense Puryear’s lifelong interest in hollows and voids, in the way that something cut out of a larger form can speak as powerfully as the volume that encloses it.
Another pen-and-ink drawing made in Sierra Leone, of a shack with a grass roof, is deft and evocative, with crosshatching suggesting the shadows, textures and inner spaces of this simple built form. It sits in the middle of the page, surrounded by blank paper, like a three-dimensional object on the floor of a studio or gallery space.
Seeing the early, representational work of an artist who has long worked in more abstract forms can lead one astray. It may seem proof of the artist’s legitimacy, or raw talent, which is somehow suspect or difficult to measure when the work floats free of mimesis. But in Puryear’s case, the early drawings are entirely charming in their own right — connected in multiple ways to the forms and ideas of his larger career and yet further proof of the honest, candid groundedness of his vision. In their quiet, attentive observation of a faraway place, they suggest a curiosity about the visual world, and the larger world, which is still the hallmark of Puryear’s unassuming but artistically evocative handicraft.
Martin Puryear: Multiple Dimensions is on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum through Sept. 5. For more information, visit http://americanart.si.edu/