The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2016

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APR 2016 Issue

MARTIN PURYEAR Multiple Dimensions

On View
Art Institute Of Chicago
Through May 1, 2016

Internationally recognized, well exhibited, and critically acclaimed sculptor Martin Puryear currently has a fantastic show of drawings and prints on view at the Art Institute of Chicago. (An iteration of this show was at the Morgan Library through January 10, 2016.) The works included in this tightly curated exhibition span the artist’s career, from his time in Sierra Leone in the early-mid ’60s to a recent batch of etchings. In laying out the show roughly chronologically, the curators create a fluidity that the Morgan version lacked, allowing the viewer to track Puryear’s progress from a fine draftsman to a respected sculptor. Multiple Dimensions succeeds because it presents these works, many of which have not previously made it out of Puryear’s studio, as more than sketches that simply register the development of a sculpture realizing its final form. Rather, the exhibition gives the works on paper critical attention, links the concerns embedded in them to those of his sculptures, and demonstrates the breadth and depth of Puryear’s inquiry into how organic, abstract forms can resonate politically.

Martin Puryear. Untitled, 2009. © Martin Puryear, Courtesy the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery. Photo: Jamie Stukenberg, Professional Graphics.

On the first wall of the show hangs a cluster of drawings, mostly in ink and mostly with line, that demonstrate Puryear’s early dedication to close looking. After college, Puryear joined the Peace Corps to teach French, English, and biology in Sierra Leone, one of two countries in West Africa where American slaves had been repatriated. Puryear refused to take a camera because he didn’t want what he was seeing to be filtered through its lens.1 Instead, he drew what he saw—houses, figures, animals, foliage—with a confident thin line, hatched shadows and delicate ink washes, sometimes adding brief, written captions like “grass roofed house in area across from our house.” These are drawings Puryear has kept in his various studios (in Williamsburg in the ’70s, Chicago in the ’80s, and the Hudson Valley currently) for decades, drawings he made before he realized he was a sculptor.

They are interesting not only in that they are beautiful, delicate and well-composed, but also because they anticipate the formal interests that crop up repeatedly throughout his career: how things are constructed, how texture and surface—of skin, grass, thatch, and cloth—vary. The tight grip of Joseph Momoh’s hands (Untitled (Joseph Momoh), 1965) foreshadows the attention Puryear would give to his joinery. In the oval forms that comprise Gbago’s neck and the cactus (Gbago, 1966, and Cacti, 1965), we see Puryear looking both to document his surroundings and to understand how parts fit together. The drawings reveal how the Adam’s apple meets the neck skin, how the plant’s tubercles protrude from its spine, how the beetle’s legs attach to the stomach (Rhinoceros-Beetle—Female, 1965). In his sitters’ casual poses and frank gazes, these drawings expose the familiarity that Puryear cultivated with the community he was teaching and living, the Mende. These drawings are rooted in that time and in that place, which Puryear has called, in a 2016 conversation with Theaster Gates,“one of the most important experiences I could have had […] to finish college, go into the Peace Corps, and live among people who lived in the place, the part of the world that stamped me, as a black American.”2

Indeed, after leaving Sierra Leone to study at the Royal Academy in Sweden, Puryear made a number of prints that reworked the drawings he made in Africa. Modifying these images to make Gbow’s Gard (1966) and Gbago, Puryear added further compositional complexity and subtle tonal gradation. As a result, these prints—which resemble beautiful postcards—have a higher level of finish than the drawings. Alongside the prints that register his memory of Sierra Leone, Puryear made etchings of different architectural structures that are rooted in reality—in actual, monumental forms that Puryear transposed onto copper and then onto paper: Belltower, Stonehenge I, Stonehenge II, and Gate (all 1966).

Martin Puryear. Face Down, 2008. © Martin Puryear, Courtesy the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery.  Photo: Jamie Stukenberg, Professional Graphics. 

In 1967, something new happened in Puryear’s work. The monumental became the archetypal. Puryear subsumed the real, architectural forms he had transposed into rounded mounds: Zig (1966 – 67) and Klot (1967). The thatched roof of the Mende huts was incorporated as a zigzag pattern; it lost its site specificity but kept its textural sensuality. Both Zig and Klot required multiple steps to achieve the final image and demonstrate Puryear’s dedication to craft, to the precise execution of the technical, and often finicky, process of printmaking. In using two plates for Zig and four plates for Quadroon (1966 – 67), Puryear broke away from the rectangular format that drawing and etching expect. Image and form converged; abstraction became Puryear’s language.

In titling this evocative piece Quadroon, Puryear acknowledged the social connotations of the image he made. He arranged three blush colored plates and a black plate around a diamond of blank paper, at once evocative of an orifice and an acknowledgement of the complexity of racial categorization. After all, “quadroon” was a widely popular term used to refer to an individual who had one black grandparent and three white ones. It is interesting that this piece came after his time in Sierra Leone, a time when a shift in context might have allowed him to recognize how deeply, yet how falsely, the binary of black and white exists in the American conception of race, how society has developed terminology dedicated to the classification that helps keep that hierarchy entrenched.3 Throughout his career, Puryear has often used titles like this to hint, subtly or overtly, at the so-called “content” of the work; yet his art never feels illustrative of an idea. Rather, it is suggestive and deeply personal; the title functions as an ex post facto name in which Puryear makes textual a feeling or idea he sees in the piece.

Martin Puryear. Maquette for Bearing Witness. 1994. © Martin Puryear. Courtesy the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery. Photo: Jamie Stukenberg, Professional Graphics.

In its selection of drawings, Multiple Dimensions suggests that Puryear’s drawing practice anticipates his sculpture not only in that it often provides a carpenter’s guide for what he must execute, but as a way for him to find his forms. In preparatory drawings, Puryear works in two dimensions, looking to the third. His drawings speak to a future thing that will exist beyond the paper, in our space. But, in some drawings, we see Puryear repeating himself to find the forms that will reappear in his sculpture. These drawings register discovery. In a charcoal drawing from 1990, “Drawing for Untitled,” he makes an elongated head and neck form, reminiscent of a Fang Mask, a Brancusi sculpture, and a drinking vessel. This elegant, evocative form informs many of his later sculptures, such as Bearing Witness (installed 1997), which stands outside the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington DC, and Guardian Stone (2002), which was commissioned to sit outside TV Asahi’s headquarters in Tokyo. Many of Puryear’s commissioned sculptures use large formats so that the piece’s scale is divorced from its source, abstracting the thing and making it just unrecognizable enough to surprise. Puryear’s drawings, too, often feel bigger than their actual size. And here, Puryear demonstrates his accomplished sense of how to manipulate space, whether that is the plane of the paper or the places where he installs his public sculpture.

The final selection of works is perhaps the most exciting and illuminating in demonstrating the sustained process by which Puryear makes drawings and etchings to discover his forms and then uses drawing to plan their construction. In 2003, Puryear made two graphite drawings, both titled Drawing for Untitled. The smaller one renders a shaded, three-dimensional form—shaped almost like an elephant’s seated body—that curves to leave a key-shape opening. The larger flattens this form to reveal a cross-sectional slice, which looks to be made of stacked wood or stone. In two other Drawing from Untitled also from 2003, Puryear adds two more holes and softens any sharp edges. He elaborates on these forms in a more complex drawing, Untitled (2003), made with charcoal and conté crayon, so that the textures of the drawing suggest the material of the sculpture he seems to be planning. In 2012, Puryear made an etching of this more complicated form, suggesting cogs in some kind of machine. On view are two maquettes, Untitled, Maquette for Deichman Library, Oslo (2013), and Shackled (2014). The latter’s title, along with its prominent cuff, presages the forty-foot wooden sculpture Puryear plans to install in Madison Square Park in May 2016. More than a decade in development, this sculpture, crowned with an oversized gold shackle, will function as a temporary and hugely visible memorial to the slave trade so important to the growth of New York City.


  1. Mark Pascale and Ruth Fine, Martin Puryear: Multiple Dimensions. (Yale University Press, 2015): 33.
  2. “Artist Conversation: Martin Puryear and Theaster Gates.” The Art Institute of Chicago (February 4, 2016) 30’27’’
  3. Ibid. 37’50’’


Kate Liebman

Kate Liebman is an artist who lives and works in Brooklyn. She is currently a Keyholder resident at the Lower East Side Printshop, and she teaches at Columbia University, Sussex County Community College, and the Manhattan Graphics Center.


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2016

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