(Un)Familiar Territory: Martin Puryear at MoMA

Atrium view of Martin Puryear at MoMA: Desire, 1981, with Ladder for Booker T. Washington in the background
Below: view of the sixth-floor installation at MoMA

Years ago, I had a dream in which I took an elevator to the top floor of a tall building. When the elevator opened, it was into a small square room with floor-to-ceiling windows on all four sides looking out to a pitch-black night dotted here and there with lights. Inside the room there were several raised pools of water that flowed into other pools, everything connected and flowing, serene and quiet. Upon waking, I recognized that the dream was a gift from my unconscious, a tranquil vessel in which to immerse myself whenever the waking world presses too crazily or stressfully against me.

I’m telling you this because walking into the sixth floor of MoMA during the Martin Puryear exhibition I experienced something similar. Instead of walking into my own personal dream, however, I felt as if I had just entered the collective unconscious of humanity. The forms were more or less recognizable—nests, wheels, vessels, tools, even animals and humans—and the materials, mostly vines and wood, were natural and familiar, but the formal relationships were unusual, dreamlike, otherworldly. I knew this place, but I didn't. Each seemingly recognizable object yielded something completely new and unknown. And the experience of being among the sculptures was reassuring, even if the work tugged uncomfortably from time to time at odd little strings in the unconscious.









.Above left and right: Brunhilde, 1998-2000, and Old Mole, 1985

.Below: Deadeye, 2002


In his blog In it For Life, my buddy Tim McFarlane describes his experience of the exhibition as "tantalizingly close to what we know in our world but just different enough to exist on another plane altogether." Yes, yes. I’m not alone in my perceptions.

I’d like to think that anyone from any culture could walk into that room and have a response similar to the ones Tim and I had. The work, after all, comes from an artist who has lived a fully engaged life on different parts of the planet and who, with academic training and a contemporary sensibility, connects to the preindustrial, even the tribal, with his handmade sculpture. His is craft grafted to art (or vice versa), the hand everywhere present, intuition stitched seamlessly to the idea of use, the unconscious made tangible.

Here are Puryear's own words from 2007 which appeared on a wall text in the atrium:

"I value the referential quality of art, the fact that a work can allude to things or states of being without in any way representing them. The ideas that give rise to a work can be quite diffuse, so I would describe my usual working process as a kind of distillation--trying to make coherence out of things that can seem contradictory. But coherence is not the same as resolution. The most interesting art for me retains a flickering quality, where opposed ideas can be held in tense coexistence."

are from the atrium, where photographhy was pe

Atrium view of Martin Puryear. The big wheel of Desire is in the foreground. And I love the poetry of how a sliver of Matisse's Danse is visible in the window above the work. (I never liked this atrium until now.)

Above and below: Ladder for Booker T. Washington. Specific information about each work is on the MoMa website, link at bottom

When you see this exhibition, certainly in person but even in pictures, it's clear that no recently minted 25-year-old MFA recipient could have created work with as much refined vision and raw power. These sculptures issue not from youth and accademia but from a lifetime of experience, where they were cultivated and constructed. So props to artists at midcareer, whether they're as celebrated as Puryear or appreciated by only a devoted few.

Happy New Year--and success to artists all.

Click onto the MoMA site for more images and excerpts from the catalog essays.

Click here for Jame Kalm's guerrilla video of the Puryear show (via Shark Forum)


Anonymous said...

Fantastic. Fantastic. More directly ---.

Karen Jacobs said...

Good point as to the value of maturity to a body of work. I also relate to the dreamlike quality of his work. Nice review... as always.

Mark Staff Brandl said...

Beautiful post. Amazing work. The sense of maturity with freshness strikes me strongly too.

Eva said...

What a beautiful post.

Perhaps the elevator ride to the top floor is a common dream for an artist...? I had one 22 years ago. Never forgot it.

Your writing (as well as your art) is great.

Tim McFarlane said...

Great post, Joanne.

I like the point you made about Puryear's work coming from "...a lifetime of experience, where they were cultivated and constructed." That maturity has produced works that are rooted in experience and the contemporary, but are also timeless.

Luis Colan said...

Hello Joanne Mattera, hope you are doing well and enjoying the new year. I was very happy to find out that you have a blog. I became familiar with your work and name through your encaustic book. Reason why I'm writing is because you have been tagged. I listed your name and provided a link your blog on my last post. I was tagged by another artist and this is why I'm doing this. Should you decided to go along with the tag game here's what you would need to do.
Write a post saying that you were tagged. Then list 5 little known facts about you and then tag five artist/bloggers of your liking. You would have to contact them and let them know that you tagged them. Thank you for taking the time to read this and hope I didn't intrude. Take care and have a great 2008.

Steppen Wolf said...

Great post, Joanne. Enjoyed the narrative and the photographs...
Happy New Year!

AJ said...

i saw a great article on Puryear with audio and lots of photos at