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Martin Puryear

February 24, 2007 - May 18, 2008


The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth presents Martin Puryear, organized by John Elderfield, The Marie-Josée and Henry Kravis Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture,The Museum of Modern Art, New York. This retrospective of the work of the acclaimed American artist (born 1941), features approximately forty-seven sculptures, following the development of Puryear's thirty-year career from his first solo museum show in 1977 to the present day. The Martin Puryear exhibition will be on view to the public at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth from February 24 through May 18, 2008.

Working primarily in wood, Puryear has maintained an unwavering commitment to manual skill and traditional building methods. His forms are derived from everyday objects, both natural and man-made, including tools, vessels, and furniture. His sculptures are rich with psychological and intellectual references, examining issues of identity, culture, and history. Cultural influences on his work can be traced to his study, work, and travel in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the United States.

In an essay for the accompanying exhibition catalogue, Modern Art Museum Chief Curator Michael Auping writes, "Bringing the eye and hand of the woodworker to Minimalism's precise forms has been one of [Puryear's] most pointed contributions to sculpture. . . . Puryear's work has a way of sneaking up on us perceptually, and it is partially through his surfaces that we are drawn in, invited to inspect his wooden objects more closely, as one would a more intimate construction, through the subtlety of inflection that he at times imparts to the surface." (right: Martin Puryear, Ladder for Booker T. Washington, 1996, Ash and maple, 36' x 22 34" x 3" (10.97 m x 57.8 cm x 7.6 cm); width narrows to 1 14" (3.2 cm) at the top. Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. Gift of Ruth Carter Stevenson, by exchange © 2007 Martin Puryear. Photo by David Wharton)

Puryear's Ladder for Booker T. Washington, 1996, part of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth's permanent collection, is included in the exhibition.This work was inspired by homemade ladders that the artist saw in the French countryside while he was working at Alexander Calder's studio on an invitational grant. Speaking to Michael Auping about this work in 2003, Puryear commented, "It just occurred to me that this would be an interesting project to try to do, to make a very tall or long ladder. For a long time I had been interested in working with a kind of artificial perspective through sculpture, which if you think about it is not so easy to do. With a ladder, a very long ladder, I could make a form that would appear to recede into space faster visually than it in fact does physically, by manipulating the perspective and exaggerating it by narrowing the parallel side pieces toward the top of the form." Like the ladders that inspired it, Ladder for Booker T. Washington is made from a single sapling that the artist split down the middle. He added rungs to form a 36-foot-high ladder that narrows to just over one inch wide at the top.This sculpture, which will be reinstalled in the double-height concrete gallery for the exhibition, has been one of the Museum's most popular works since it was installed for the grand opening in 2002.(left: Martin Puryear, Lever #3, 1989, Carved and painted ponderosa pine, 7' 12" x 13' 6" x 13" (214.6 x 411.5 x 33 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Gift of the Collectors Committee © 2007 Martin Puryear. Image courtesy Margo Leavin Gallery, Los Angeles)

Other sculptures installed for the exhibition include Greed's Trophy, 1984, a 12-foot-high net form made of wire mesh; Desire, 1981, a wooden wheel measuring 16 by 32 feet attached to an eight-foot-high basket; and Some Tales, 1975-78, six wooden segments of varying lengths, some of which resemble saws, spanning thirty horizontal feet of wall space.

The sculptures examine the chronological evolution of Puryear's work and show how the artist refers to earlier ideas, reinterpreting familiar themes in his works. Among these works are Puryear's Ring series of the late 1970s, his Stereotypes and Decoys sculptures of the 1980s, the vessel-like forms of the 1990s, and the more allegorical work of recent years.


About the artist

As a child and adolescent, Martin Puryear constructed and crafted objects such as bows and arrows, furniture, and guitars. After graduating from Catholic University of America in Washington, he served in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone, where he was a teacher.There he observed and learned the craft of local carpenters. Puryear spent two years at the Swedish Royal Academy of Art in Stockholm, where he began working on independent sculpture projects investigating popular craft traditions and modern Scandinavian design. Returning to the United States, Puryear received an MFA in 1971 from Yale University. After leaving Yale, the artist joined the faculty of Fisk University in Nashville. He taught at the University of Maryland in College Park from 1974 to 1978 and later in Chicago at the University of Illinois. In 1982, with the aid of a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation fellowship, he traveled to Japan to study architecture and garden design. Puryear stopped teaching in the late 1980s to devote his time to his art. In 1990, he moved permanently to upstate New York.

Puryear is represented by his public art projects in River Road Station of the Chicago Transit Authority; Chevy Chase Garden Plaza in Maryland; Belvedere Park in Battery Park City, New York; and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Seattle. His major solo exhibitions include a show in 1977 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art as well as traveling exhibitions organized by the University Gallery, University of Massachusetts in Amherst; the Art Institute of Chicago; and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. His work was included in the Whitney Biennial in 1979, 1981, and 1989; the Bienal de São Paulo in 1989, where he was the grand-prize recipient; and Documenta in 1992, and in numerous group exhibitions devoted to African American art, public art, and contemporary sculpture. Puryear has received numerous awards, including fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, a Louis Comfort Tiffany Grant, and the Skowhegan Medal for Sculpture. In 1992, he was named to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and he received an honorary doctorate from Yale University in 1994. 



The exhibition will be accompanied by a publication featuring essays by the Modern Art Museum's chief curator, Michael Auping; exhibition curator John Elderfield; and Elizabeth Reede.The catalogue also includes an interview with the artist by Richard Powell, a chronology by Jennifer Field, and illustrations of all works in the exhibition.


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PBS's two-season television series Art-21, Art in the Twenty-First Century welcome page explains that the series is "the only series on television to focus exclusively on contemporary visual art and artists in the United States, and it uses the medium of television to provide an experience of the visual arts that goes far beyond a gallery visit. Fascinating and intimate footage allows the viewer to observe the artists at work, watch their process as they transform inspiration into art, and hear their thoughts as they grapple with the physical and visual challenges of achieving their artistic visions." The Art-21 web site contains video excerpts from the documentary relating to each of the many featured artists including Laurie Anderson, Margaret Kilgallen, Sally Mann, Bruce Nauman, Raymond Pettibon, Martin Puryear, Collier Schorr, Kiki Smith, William Wegman and Fred Wilson.

For the Martin Puryear video excerpts and biography page, PBS introduces Puryear saying: "Martin Puryear (born May 23, 1941) is an African American sculptor. He was born in Washington, D.C., and he spent his youth studying practical crafts, learning how to build guitars and furniture. He was a Peace Corps volunteer in Sierra Leone from 1964 to 1966. His work is often described as a union of minimalism and these traditional crafts. Puryear works in media such as wood, stone, tar, and wire." Videos include a 1 minute 23 second clip on Ladder for Booker T. Washington.

The Art:21 series and its companion materials answer the following questions: who are today's artists?; what are they thinking about?; how do they describe their work? and why do they do what they do? The Season One and Two home videos are two sets with four hours each. Viewers meet "a diverse group of contemporary artists through revealing profiles that take viewers behind the scenes-into artists' studios, homes, and communities -- to provide an intimate view of their lives, work, sources of inspiration, and creative processes." Representational as well as abstract artists are featured in the videos. The Emmy nominated Season One video set features 21 artists and is divided into four general themes spanning four hours on two separate tapes. Season Two of the series features 16 engaging artists and is divided into four general themes spanning four hours on two tapes.

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