Martin Puryear


Martin Puryear Biography

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, traveled with the Peace Corps to Sierra Leone where he learned about indigenous woodworking, and then studied Scandinavian design and crafts at the Royal Swedish Academy of Arts.  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. 

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.  The clarity of form of Puryear’s work is often compared by commentators to the classic work of Minimalist sculptors.  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 their strict formalism. 

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 process for developing sculpture. 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 2015, and in 2021 the Morgan with great fanfare announced the acquisition of twenty of his prints for its permanent collection. 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 mimicking 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.  In addition to the Morgan, his work is held in the permanent collections of the Guggenheim Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Corcoran Gallery, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and others.