Known for his elegant, evocative sculptures executed in wood, stone, wire, and metal, Martin Puryear was born in 1941 in Washington D.C. His formal art education was intense and diversified. He studied biology and art at Catholic University of America and there earned praise for his paintings. His work with the Peace Corps took him to Sierra Leone where he concentrated on drawings and where he learned about local indigenous woodworking methods. Soon after this he studied printmaking at the Royal Swedish Academy of Arts in Stockholm where he learned about Scandinavian design and crafts and where he began creating sculptures.
In the late 1960s Puryear enrolled in a graduate sculpture program at Yale, earned an MFA in 1971, and then began teaching in graduate art programs at Fisk University and at the University of Maryland in College Park. His work at this time often referenced craft traditions such as boatbuilding and yurt construction and he also began making large outdoor sculptures. In the late 1980s Puryear stopped teaching to focus on making his own art which by then had evolved to include site-specific installations as well as small, intimate sculptures.
Art commentators have often compared and contrasted Puryear’s work with that of Minimalist sculptors due to its clarity of form. His use of metaphor, however, as well as his interest in organic material and his insistence on executing works by hand rather than by industrial fabrication set his work apart from the strict formalism of the Minimalist sculptors.
While not the primary focus of his work, drawings and prints have also been a consistent part of Puryear’s artistic practice. Puryear has created graphic works both as independent pieces and as part of his working process for developing his sculptures. Recently, his drawings and prints and certain related sculptures were featured in a traveling exhibition organized by the Art Institute of Chicago which opened at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York. To date, Puryear has contributed to only one book, the Arion Press edition of Cane (2000) by Jean Toomer, which he illustrated with a suite of woodcuts and, for the deluxe edition, with a wooden slipcase using four types of wood with colors mimicing different skin tones.
Puryear’s work has been the subject of retrospectives at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (1992) and the Museum of Modern Art (2007) among others. He has been honored with many awards including fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (1978) and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation (1989). He was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1992.
Books by Martin Puryear available from Boreas Fine Art:
[Puryear, Martin ] Toomer, Jean. Cane. San Francisco: Arion Press. 2000.
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