Spotlight Artist: Martin Puryear (b. 1941)

 Untitled 1995 Wire mesh, steel, tar, cedar, particleboard Overall: 87 × 49 × 24 in. (220.98 × 124.46 × 60.96 cm) ​VMFA
Untitled 1995 Wire mesh, steel, tar, cedar, particleboard Overall: 87 × 49 × 24 in. (220.98 × 124.46 × 60.96 cm) ​VMFA

From VMFA: "Puryear’s abstract sculptures, while often simple in shape and materials, are richly allusive. This combination of qualities links him to a group of artists loosely called Post-Minimalists. The dark, monolithic form of this piece suggests a colossal head or a primitive totem, although its asymmetry and its vessel-like quality recall organic forms like seedpods or gourds. Puryear finished the piece—a metal grid overlaid with squares of wire mesh—with a coating of tar. The coating defines the sculpture’s massive form, but viewers can peer into the piece and out the other side."

“What I’m interested in is work that has a myriad of associations but is also extremely pared down.” ​ —Martin Puryear

Use this link to learn about Martin Puryear and to view more of his work: Martin Puryear @ Matthew Marks Gallery


Martin Puryear was born in Washington, DC, in 1941. In his youth, he studied crafts and learned how to build guitars, furniture, and canoes through practical training and instruction. After earning his BA from Catholic University in Washington DC, Puryear joined the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone, and later attended the Swedish Royal Academy of Art. He received an MFA in sculpture from Yale University in 1971. Puryear’s objects and public installations—in wood, stone, tar, wire, and various metals—are a marriage of minimalist logic with traditional ways of making. Puryear’s evocative, dreamlike explorations in abstract forms retain vestigial elements of utility from everyday objects found in the world.

In Ladder for Booker T. Washington, Puryear built a spindly, meandering ladder out of jointed ash wood. More than thirty-five-feet tall, the ladder narrows toward the top, creating a distorted sense of perspective that evokes an unattainable or illusionary goal. In the massive stone piece, Untitled, Puryear enlisted a local stonemason to help him construct a building-like structure on a ranch in northern California. On one side of the work is an eighteen-foot-high wall—on the other side, an inexplicable stone bulge. A favorite form that occurs in Puryear’s work, the thick-looking stone bulge is surprisingly hollow, coloring the otherwise sturdy shape with qualities of uncertainty, emptiness, and loss. Martin Puryear represented the United States at the Bienal de São Paulo in 1989, where his exhibition won the Grand Prize. Puryear is the recipient of numerous awards, including a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Award, a Louis Comfort Tiffany Grant, and the Skowhegan Medal for Sculpture. Puryear was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1992 and received an honorary doctorate from Yale University in 1994. Martin Puryear lives and works in the Hudson Valley region of New York.




Essential Questions

AFTER CAREFULLY REVIEWING THE RESOURCES ASSIGNED ABOVE: Answer the following questions completely and with specificity to the provided resources, previous Artist Spotlight information, personal reflection, and additional research as needed:

1. Choose a work of Puryear's to sketch, beyond the primary thumbnail you have already completed. Feel free to look at images beyond those provided on the included website. Include the credit line info.

2. List the important facts about Puryear's life, work, and his inspirations (so that you can better understand the content of his work and what makes him the artist that he is).

3. Explain your thoughts about his work and how you might be able to draw inspiration from it.


CURIOUS? Here is even more information:

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