at the Art Institute

The sculptures of Martin Puryear, 40 of which are on display in his current midcareer retrospective at the Art Institute, etch themselves on the viewer’s perception with the precision of a scalpel. Bold, often large forms in wood or metal are not as simple as they might seem at a glance; with their unexpectedly sharp angles and surprising, even playful asymmetries they strike the observer as utterly new–as objects the likes of which have not been seen before. In Stripling a long piece of wood is bent in two right angles within inches of each other, so that the wood appears to form a pair of giant pincers; in Big and Little Same a strip of wood is formed into a near-perfect circle but grows gradually thinner from one end to the other. Sharp and Flat combines two irregular polyhedrons whose unusual shapes and sharp angles form a stunning contrast to the smoothness of their flat wooden surfaces.

Indeed, the longer one looks at each piece, the more important the quality of its surface becomes. Whether a surface is painted or plain, finished or unfinished, Puryear calls attention to it through such devices as the contrast between angles and planes in Sharp and Flat. Once contemplated, each surface reveals itself to be a sensual blend of the innate qualities of the materials and Puryear’s artisanal skill and care.

That skill was not acquired easily. An African American born in Washington, D.C., in 1941, he drew, read, and made things as a child; studied painting at Catholic University in Washington; lived in Sierra Leone and learned carpentry from local workmen; studied printmaking in Stockholm while apprenticed to a master cabinetmaker; and finally studied sculpture as a graduate student at Yale. He has traveled to the Arctic and Japan, and he’s lived in Nashville, New York, and until recently, Chicago.

It should thus come as no surprise that Puryear’s work eludes easy categorization. Minimalist sculptors like Donald Judd were important early influences, yet Puryear avoids Judd’s symmetry and rectilinearity. The influence of traditional crafts is apparent in each work’s careful fabrication, yet his works are in the strict sense “useless” art objects destined for museums and collectors’ galleries. A variety of cultural influences are present, but no one predominates.

Puryear’s dedication of a large early work provides an important clue about his attitude toward different cultures. Equation for Jim Beckwourth, three elements of which are presented as separate pieces in this show, is dedicated to an early 19th-century man the catalog identifies as “the son of a white man and a mulatto slave woman . . . [who] married several Native American women . . . and was even made a chief of the Crow Indians.” Despite the current rhetoric about being true to one’s ethnic heritage, Puryear’s art does not try to preserve any specific past tradition; he appears to seek a unique way of defining himself as an individual, of creating a new identity inspired by many traditions. The dark wood piece Self is one result of this search. Its smoothly joined wood and lustrous yet mysterious surface points to a master craftsman’s skill, while its irregular curved shape, at once both abstract and organic, suggests a “self” unlike any that has existed before.

One way to approach Puryear’s art is to see each work as a tangle of interlocking contradictions whose intersection in the object makes the whole. Many of his shapes are biomorphic, and some suggest specific living beings–one is even titled Old Mole. But the work is always abstract, always suggests several possible referents as well as nothing at all in the seen world.

The contradictions in Puryear’s work extend to, and are leavened by, his gentle, subtle humor. Sanctuary, an open wooden box set atop two trunklike legs attached to the axle of a wooden wheel, has the mysterious, almost sacred quality of some of his best work, suggesting a movable altar, something to be used in the secret rituals of an unknown people. Yet the legs’ rough, organic bark surfaces and the way the legs appear to end in feet standing on a nonfunctional wheel are darkly hilarious as well. Other contradictions common to Puryear’s work also play themselves out here. The open box suggests stillness, rest, while the wheel suggests mobility–perhaps a hint of Puryear’s own life. The box’s man-made right angles and smooth wood contrast with the organic irregularity of the branches; this contrast between the machine-made and the natural, the geometric and the irregular, is a key to much of Puryear’s art, providing another way of looking at the smooth surfaces and biomorphic shape of Self, for example.

The box at the top of Sanctuary represents a common element in Puryear’s work, present in half the pieces in this show–the way his sculptures often enclose or partially enclose space. Many pieces bend wood into hoops, and several large floor works use tar and wire mesh to create an interior that can be glimpsed but not entered. In fact none of these enclosed spaces is available for the viewer to occupy, so they have no practical ritual use; but the viewer is invited to envision these “sanctuaries” as mental resting places, free of the world’s corners and edges and problems, and to enter them in imagination.

At the same time the very act of demarking a space within these works suggests a space without. Just as Puryear’s forms seem to etch themselves on the eye, they also seem to alter, twist, and reshape the empty space around them. In fact my only quibble with this exhibit is that the works are installed too close together, so that each is denied its full resonance. And yet plenty of resonance remains. In The Cut, for example, an irregular, batlike shape is created by an outline of very thin wood around an empty center. The shape is just irregular enough to surprise, to somehow shape the space around it to its will, while the enclosed center, defined by the same line, seems even, quiet, placid.

Several of these contradictions are also fused in For Beckwourth. A rectangular wooden base supports a sloping, domelike top covered with earth. Though the work suggests an Indian burial mound, its careful symmetry identifies it as a modernist sculpture, combining the organic and the machine-made, wood and earth, regularity and oddness–for despite its symmetry it is decidedly a Puryear, its idiosyncratic shape having no precise precedent.

These contradictions, however, are to some extent a critic’s construct; each work is experienced as an indivisible whole, and the diversity of reactions elicited by each can best be described in terms of contradictions. But these works are hardly collections of bipolar ideas. Some Tales uses six pieces of wood, four bent into asymmetrical shapes characteristic of Puryear’s bent-wood pieces. A fifth, thicker one is carved into sawteeth, the angles of which subtly change across its length. The bottom piece is a single rod with a small cross-member like a tooth at its midpoint–of the six, this is the only one that is symmetrical. Yet as one continues to look at it, the wood’s irregular grain and knots draw one’s attention: once again we’re at the intersection of the geometrical and the organic. But because each piece in Some Tales is a different shape, there can be no systematic bipolarity. The difference between each piece and every other creates, for the viewer, an almost ecstatic group of differences: as the eye moves from one to the next, each seems organized in a completely different way, as if according to a different principle: a heterogeneous collection of objects, or languages.

The viewer’s surprise here is similar to the surprise of first seeing one of Puryear’s utterly original shapes. Just as the pieces in Some Tales differ from one another, so each work departs from our everyday expectations, from the symmetrical, Cartesian way we’re accustomed to organizing three- dimensional space. For this reason as much as any other, these works seize the space around them, the empty space of our neutral quotidian seeing, and reshape those spaces as part of the whole–each piece’s “outside,” the interaction of its edge with the air, is as important as the enclosed spaces inside.

If each of Puryear’s works defies expectation, so in his career he has tried to push beyond his own limits. The elegant, smooth sheen of his earlier bent-wood hoops soon gives way to constructions of steel wire organized to form an airy, porous enclosure, and these themselves give way to large works of dark wire mesh covered with irregular splotches of tar–hulking, a bit foreboding, and strangely magical. Similarly his work in wood grows rougher, less finished in its surfaces.

One of the show’s most recent pieces, Thicket, preserves the irregular surfaces, stains, and imperfections of its wooden boards, which Puryear has joined together in a dense tangle. There is no question of verisimilitude in Thicket–it doesn’t look much like a forest, but staring into its mazelike intersections recalls some of the feelings of being caught in a thicket. This piece, one of the strongest in the show, undercuts many of the expectations one might have developed about Puryear’s work. While almost all his earlier work can be categorized according to whether it is or is not organized around an inside/outside dichotomy–even the solid work sometimes suggests a hollow interior–this piece has numerous “insides”: the various spaces between the boards, though none of them has the sanctuarylike quality of enclosure of Puryear’s other interiors. Puryear recasts the inside/outside paradox: the “outside” is an aggressively tangled surface, but the “inside” appears even more tangled, and entangling. There is no emptiness, no sanctuary, no place of rest.

One gazes at a carefully finished Puryear surface over time, and can see the traces of the artist’s loving hand, recovering the sense that this is work created by a single artisan, over time; as Robert Storr points out in his excellent catalog essay, Puryear’s craftsmanlike approach stands in stark contrast to postmodernist ideas about the decentered self and the reproducibility or originality of art. At the same time one takes pleasure in the sculpture’s overall shape. Though the verbal twists I’ve used to try to render some of this work’s effects may give the reader some sense of its complexity, they do not convey Puryear’s largest and richest contradiction: the irreducible simplicity of his art. The multiple opposites present in any full experience of this extraordinary body of work exist not as separate elements but as threads in a single skein. Each work is like a unique and indivisible self, an icon in a newly discovered culture, an ideogram in a new language.