Martin Puryear: The Call of History

North Cove Pylons at Battery Park City, 1995. Granite and stainless steel, north pylon: 72 x 5.75 ft; south pylon: 56.75 x 7 x 7 ft.

Two new sculptural works and two design projects by Martin Puryear demonstrate his talents as a literal mold-maker and a figurative mold-breaker. The sculptures (“Everything that Rises” in Washington state [1993- 97], “Bearing Witness” in Washington D.C. [1994-98]), and the design projects (“North Cove Pylons” in New York [1992-95] and the Vera List Courtyard of the New School for Social Research, also in New York [1990-98]) have much in common. For each of these projects, Puryear invented forms with abstract and cultural associations. Each took years to complete. The design projects successfully promote harmony and social well-being. The two site sculptures are innovative in their construction and form, but perhaps because of their somber, even cautionary character, they have not received the critical attention or the public acceptance they deserve.

North Cove Pylons at Battery Park City, 1995. Granite and stainless steel, north pylon: 72 x 5.75 ft; south pylon: 56.75 x 7 x 7 ft.

Puryear began his career with studies of craft traditions and fine art in Sierra Leone, West Africa, the Swedish Royal Academy of Art, and Yale University. Over the years his exhibitions, including his first solo exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, two Whitney Biennials, and the São Paulo Biennial, and a traveling retrospective organized by the Art Institute of Chicago (1991-92), have tended to focus on constructive approaches to curved and shaped objects that may appear to be carved. He often uses wood and other natural materials chosen to emphasize each work’s conceptual components, including titles. “Everything that Rises” and “Bearing Witness” illustrate the artist’s ability to nod toward history yet look to the future-to create forms with many possible antecedents that nevertheless circumvent classical ideals.

Everything that Rises, 1996. Bronze, 23 ft. high.

“Everything that Rises” is a complex, engineered, symmetrical vessel, yet it looks elementary, like a perfect peanut or a dividing cell. Facing the L-shaped Physics and Astronomy buildings on the University of Washington campus, themselves barely a year old at the time of the dedication, the sculpture has a stillness counterbalancing the motion of the giant pendulum inside one of the buildings. Flannery O’Connor fans will recognize “Everything that Rises” as the beginning of one of her titles, “Everything that Rises Must Converge.” O’Connor is herself quoting Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the French theologian, who uses the phrase to allude to union with God. The title also suggests a defiance of gravity as well as risings of a social or sexual nature. Puryear says:

“I don’t want to be overly literal. Flannery O’Connor is one reference, but it’s obviously an incomplete phrase as it is. I like to give my work titles that are provocative and open up possible ways for people to look at the work and think about the work rather than close it down…I thought since this was a project for a site near a new physics complex-again, I don’t want to be too literal-that something about the movement of fluids or gases in space was an interesting idea. It led automatically to thinking about vessels for controlling or containing or directing those kinds of movements or things in space. It kind of coincides with my recent interest in working with copper and bronze in a way that is more about the trade of the coppersmith than about the trade of the sculptor-founder-the person who casts bronze and cuprous metals in the foundry. I was interested in this whole trade of working with plate copper sheet to form shapes in commercial use, to hold cases or to hold liquids.”

The silicon bronze form, 27 feet tall and weighing 8,000 pounds, with a 2,000-pound base, reflects its surroundings like a dark mirror and is itself reflected in the glass entrance of one building. In scale, it mediates between the buildings and passing students. Richard Andrews, the gallery director of the university’s Henry Gallery and a major player in Seattle’s dynamic public art program, says, “Normally the problem in sculpture is angularity in a dynamic form that can be viewed differently from any point of view. What interested Martin about this was that the work was the center point of the paths in this complex of buildings and gave the same view from any point of view.” Calling “Everything that Rises” a “point of all paths coming together, a hinge point for this plaza and building,” Andrews dismisses an initial flurry of negative remarks, arguing that dissent is more common than praise in the field of public art, and that, by now, “the work is more assimilated into its site.”

In addition to the difficulties of public reception, there were formal challenges. According to Puryear:

“One challenge was to dare to do a piece that was radially symmetrical (circular in cross section at any point throughout its length), as though it were turned on a lathe. That’s antithetical to how most sculpture is looked at, especially classical sculpture…The idea of revolution around a fixed center has generated arc forms as well as compass imagery in my past work. What interests me [in “Everything that Rises”] is the implicit rotation inherent in such a form-the notion that it seems to be spinning like a vessel on a potter’s wheel, or balanced on its end like a top. This makes it an anchor, a fixed point on the site.”

Andrews agrees: “What’s really beautiful about the piece is its singularity. It’s a still point and also a very large object that floats in space. It’s a sculptural counterpoint to Barnett Newman’s “Broken Obelisk”, which is also on the campus.”

By working with the Vendome Copper & Brass Works for “Everything that Rises” and with Merrifield-Roberts, a maritime shipbuilder as well as art fabricator, for “Bearing Witness”, Puryear has underscored his identification with both American craft traditions and the physical sciences. Vendome Copper & Brass, a fabricator of process equipment for chemical plants, distilleries, and breweries, constructed “Everything that Rises” by making dies to form 12 truncated cones, which were then welded together, according to project director Phil Hambrick. The base is designed to withstand wind and seismic conditions.

Bearing Witness, 1994-98. Hammer-formed bronze plate, 40 ft. high.

“Bearing Witness”, Puryear’s General Services Administration (GSA) commission in Washington D.C., is one of three sited works for the Federal Triangle Plaza between 13th Street and Pennsylvania and Constitution Avenues. The sculpture is 40 feet tall and weighs about 20,000 pounds. Merrifield-Roberts, originally a maker of aluminum racing yachts, also built Claus Oldenburg’s 50-foot spoon for the Walker Art Center and Roy Lichtenstein’s sculpture of six brush strokes. To reduce the weight, project director Paul Amaral and naval architect Brit Chance engineered the inside of the work like a boat. The armature and base are stainless steel, and the exterior skin is commercial bronze.

According to Puryear:

“This is one of the more challenging pieces I’ve done, because it’s in such an official public place. I grew up in Washington D.C., and I’m aware that the works of art there aspire to timelessness by taking their cue from classical architecture and decoration. That’s not what I’m about, but I did want to have something that would tie the work to the fact that it is in the official seat of government. Its context is weighted. For myself, I wanted my work to be directed toward people rather than toward the government. In a democracy, the people talk back to the government. When I was asked for an explanation of the title, I said, “A true democracy requires that the governed be enlightened, vigilant, and vocal.” Basically, we are the government. Most people see a giant head, but the form is abstract and not based on any one set of associations.”

“It’s an extremely important piece for Martin, because he incorporates the hand-wrought character [for which he’s noted] into his large-scale sculpture,” observes Dale M. Lanzone, the original GSA director of the project and presently president of Marlborough Chelsea in New York. “There is nothing hidden in the construction of the piece. Each bronze plate is a compound curve; the forces applied to it are resonant in the material.”

The sculpture is abstract yet has many possible references, including a symbolic head with a protruding chin and neck angled into a flat face and a rounded cranium. This “everyman” or “everywoman” rises from the plaza floor on a narrow neck, with a “shoulder” appendage slightly raised above the ground and visible welds in place of facial features. Visitors to the plaza often find the figure enigmatic, some seeing a head, others a mandolin or an upended clown shoe with bulbous toe. Though Puryear is never overt about his African-American heritage, “Bearing Witness” does have an implicit relationship to the hand-carved, wooden masks of the Fang culture, located in what is now Gabon, West Africa. Like Puryear’s sculpture, the Fang masks are fluent, symbolic objects with clean lines.

Critic David Levi Strauss provides a personal reading of the work: he sees in the sculpture his infant daughter’s head, “the perfect contour in the back” revealing a “proud head [that] rises on a long neck and shows a sheer face to the monuments of temporal power.”

The sculpture is, as Strauss states, sited at the center of the political power of the United States. Its relation to federal authority is complicated by the fact that the adjacent Ronald Reagan Building is in itself controversial. It has often been in the news for its budget overruns and for its lack of clear occupancy guidelines. Its purported international mission is not yet fully defined, and as of the fall of 1998, the building has been dedicated but is still unfinished. Puryear eschews political or literal readings of his work, but it is tempting to interpret the sculpture as an outsider, a bronze-skinned witness to the bureaucratic and political machinations that surround it.

Vera List Courtyard at the New School for Social Research, 1990-98.

In contrast to the wary reception of these two public sculptures, Puryear’s North Cove and New School design projects were immediately popular. For the Vera G. List Courtyard at the New School, Puryear and his collaborator, landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh, remade the entire space from the wall surfaces and hardscape to the landscaping. Three of Puryear’s signature round bench forms (fabricated in maple, granite, and steel) link the courtyard and lobby. The wooden bench in the lobby is fabricated in staggered laminated layers of thick maple, assembled radially for stability, and lathe-turned to achieve the shape. In the courtyard, the circular granite and steel bench forms, the latter fabricated from three-eighth inch sheets of cut and molded steel, show some association with Puryear’s latticed pine yurt structures. The bench forms, simultaneously sensuous, functional, and spiritual, are spaced in a triangular configuration in relation to the large rectangular outdoor courtyard between two buildings. Set into a non-geometrical landscape framed with stands of red maple and bamboo, additional benches and broad steps provide more space for individuals to converse or to study. A clear glass canopy over the main walkway and a curving side ramp offer protection from rain and wheelchair access.

The “North Cove Pylons” occupy one of the most popular stretches of a jogging and skating path in Battery Park, next to a yacht marina. The two stacked lanterns, fabricated from granite, stainless steel, and lighting elements, are distinctive for their clean lines, elegant construction, and unique forms. Puryear calls them “barrel-shaped lanterns whose shape is described by a light stainless-steel lattice. Each has its own light source contained within it.” One rises on a solid cylindrical granite base in six elliptical shapes that become gradually smaller. Each tier of the openwork pylon is lit from the bottom. The light scatters as it hits a stepped concave mirror at the top of each tier. The open steel lattice interacts visually with the surroundings.

The second pylon rises on a granite base that is square in plan but barrel-shaped in elevation. From the base rise six dark-hued, stainless steel hopper shapes (inverted, truncated pyramids). The solid forms, which look like stone, become gradually longer, reversing the linear geometry and airy mass of the adjacent pylon. Each tier lights the tier above it. In the “North Cove Pylons”, Puryear plays with the building blocks of the sculptor’s craft: light, space, stone, metal, geometry, construction methods, and mass.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the popularity of his design projects, Puryear differentiates them from his sculpture:

“I don’t like to have these things confused with my sculpture. These are somewhere between sculpture, architecture, and design. Although I’m primarily a sculptor, when I design something for use, I don’t insist that it be called sculpture. If I’m asked to design a bench, I’m happy having it called a bench. I think that responding to function is a very high calling; it can help generate some wonderful forms.”

In these four innovative projects and in recent exhibitions at the American Academy in Rome and the Caixa Foundation in Madrid, Puryear is thinking beyond current paradigms. His aesthetic counterbalances the dissonances and slick images of our media-saturated era. Puryear’s work links American and multicultural values, world cultures, 19th-century craft traditions, and the latest fabricating technologies.

Works consulted

Benezra, Neal. “Martin Puryear”. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1991.

Juncosa, Enrique and Michael Brenson. “Martin Puryear” (exhibition catalogue). Madrid: Fundación “la Caixa,” 1997.

Landecker, Heidi. “New Public Spaces” Architecture, August 1995, pp. 55 – 61.

David Levi Strauss. “From Hand to Head and Back Again: Some Lines for Martin Puryear,” Forma Lignea: Nunzio and Martin Puryear. Rome and Milan: American Academy in Rome and Electa, 1997, pp. 64 – 77.

Quotations are from interviews conducted by the author, who also wishes to thank the Donald Young Gallery, Rayne Roper Wilder, Melissa Moreton, Kurt Kiefer, Esley Hamilton, and Carol Meagher for supplying information and/or photographs.

Jan Garden Castro is a writer and art historian based in St. Louis, and the author of The Art and Life of Georgia O’Keeffe.