Martin Puryear - 20th C. & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Thursday, November 14, 2019 | Phillips

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  • Video

    Martin Puryear, 'Untitled', Lot 14

    20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale, 14 October

  • Provenance

    McKee Gallery, New York
    Acquired from the above by the present owner

  • Catalogue Essay

    Martin Puryear’s Untitled from 2008 showcases the artist’s use of minimal means to create biomorphic forms. With smooth, stained pine curving gently outwards until meeting the floor at an angle, the sculpture resembles something anthropomorphic, both human and thing. The work was made just one year after the artist’s first retrospective began at The Museum of Modern Art, New York where his works were described as being capable of “balancing between the geometric and the organic with Zen aplomb” (Roberta Smith, “Humanity’s Ascent, in Three Dimensions”, The New York Times, November 2, 2007, online). He is now representing the United States at the 58th Venice Biennale, solidifying the influence of his practice on contemporary sculpture today.

    Originally trained in drawing and painting, Puryear’s interest in sculpture first arose in the 1960s. In 1964, he joined the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone where he witnessed the work of joiners and carpenters, an experience he called “both inspiring and instructive.” Two years later, he moved to Sweden where he met James Krenov, a cabinetmaker: “The result of meeting Krenov was that I was more committed than ever to pursue sculpture, and more respectful of the commitment of the seriously dedicated craftsman. The clear distinction between his practice and mine gave me focus and freedom to follow my path with a lot less confusion” (Martin Puryear, quoted in Shaping the Future of Craft, American Craft Council 2006 National Leadership Conference, New York, 2006, pp. 26-27).

    After returning to the United States in 1969 and receiving his master’s from the Yale School of Art, he was met with the prevalence of Minimalist sculpture. “When I first saw Donald Judd's work, it cleared the air for me to do whatever I wanted. And I wanted purity and simplicity. But I couldn't be as distant as Judd—the working process is essential to me" (Martin Puryear, quoted in 110 Years: The Permanent Collection of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, exh. cat., Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Fort Worth, 2006, p. 280). Throughout the rest of Puryear’s sculptural practice, the importance of the artist’s hand and the labor of making would never waver. Ever evident in Untitled is his championing of the skilled craftsmanship he encountered in both Africa and Europe, combined with his desire, like Judd, to create art for the sake of art, not function.

    Many of Puryear’s freestanding sculptures like the present work are made through a process used in shipbuilding called cold molding, where thin strips of wood veneers are bent, glued and stapled to an interior frame and layered atop one another. As Anne M. Wagner espoused, “Boats, bottles, baskets, bentwood chairs—these are his sculptures’ kith and kin. In his hands, wood is as pliable as clay. Reshaped, it can conjure forms while carving out voids” (Anne M. Wagner, Martin Puryear: Liberty/Libertà, exh. cat., La Biennale di Venezia, 58th International Art Exhibition, New York, 2019, p. 85). Looking through the bottom of the sculpture and through the key-hole at the top of the form, reveals gently curving wood grain along its inner, rounded structure. The resulting object which appears dense is actually hollow, giving lightweight pine the illusion of being bronze or marble. This in turn recalls the works of his Modernist predecessors like Jean Arp and Constantin Brancusi, both of whom he considered a heavy influence.

    Like those of modernist sculptors, Puryear’s practice often informs itself, as motifs and structures continually reappear. In its form and stature, Untitled bears a strong resemblance to a foundational work by the artist called Self, 1978, Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, a work which “declares its allegiance to the tradition of Constantin Brancusi and Jean Arp. Like their work, it aims to occupy a space somewhere between the machined and the handcrafted. In other words, although distinctly reductive, Self’s form remains uncannily animate” (Anne M. Wagner, Martin Puryear: Liberty/Libertà, exh. cat., La Biennale di Venezia, 58th International Art Exhibition, New York, 2019, p. 88). Resembling what could be a hooded figure, the top of the form reads almost like a head. Later, Puryear would transform this three-dimensional shape into an actual hat as in Big Phrygian, 2010-2014, Glenstone Museum, Potomac, an overt reference to the cap worn as a symbol of freedom for black slaves in the French Revolution.

    Made exactly three decades after Self, the form is reprised here in Untitled, this time with a key-hole whose shape mimics what is perhaps an inverted version of the sculpture itself. Aesthetically, this negative space might be a precursor to a later editioned work made in iron from 2014 called Shackled, featuring a larger cut-out which spans the whole form. And yet here, the small void is more enigmatic. Perhaps it is positioned to offer a glimpse inside the form’s structure, a celebration of craft in its own right, or possibly as a cavity from which the figure’s head can see or breathe. It is precisely this multi-faceted interpretation begging the viewer to question its meaning that Puryear aims for. “If I were forced to describe my work, I’d say I’m interested in making sculpture that tries to describe itself to the world, work that acknowledges its maker and that offers an experience that’s probably more tactile and sensate than strictly cerebral” (Martin Puryear, quoted in Martin Puryear, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2007, p. 106).

A Discerning Vision Property from an Important Private Collection



signed and dated "Martin Puryear May 2008" on the inside
stained pine
37 1/2 x 28 x 14 1/2 in. (95.3 x 71.1 x 36.8 cm.)
Executed in 2008.

$400,000 - 600,000 

Sold for $475,000

Contact Specialist

Amanda Lo Iacono
Head of Evening Sale
New York
+1 212 940 1278

20th C. & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 14 November 2019