Puryear’s skill as a sculptor is grounded in experiential training. After attending Catholic University in his native city of Washington, DC, he spent much of the 1960s in Sierra Leone and Scandinavia, where he learned various woodworking techniques from local artisans. Wood remained Puryear’s primary material after he returned to the United States. Despite the dominant influence of Minimalism, the artist quickly realized his need to remain engaged with his materials and with the physical process of making objects. By 1984, when Puryear made Greed’s Trophy, he had established a reputation as a leading sculptor of the post-Minimalist generation.
Around this time, Puryear began to introduce wire, wire mesh, and tar into his work. Greed’s Trophy is his first wall sculpture made of wire—an element that possesses the ability to convey volume while remaining open and porous; Puryear later described his use of wire mesh as “mediating between a feeling of massiveness and fragility to reach a point of extreme vulnerability.” The quiet expressiveness and suggestive titles of Puryear’s sculptures open them up to metaphorical interpretations: Greed’s Trophy resembles a cage or an animal trap, perhaps hinting that greed can be an emotional and psychological snare.
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)
The wire and the cagelike form of Puryear's sculpture may suggest a hunter's trap or a fisherman's basket; another allusion could be to sport, and the lacrosse stick. These different echoes resonate with the title Greed's Trophy, but the work has no single model among human artifacts, and its traces of them fuse with hints of the human body: the dark eye, and the lolling tongue at the bottom, evoke a head, while the shape—dwindling at the foot, expanding at the "chest," and swelling slightly into a circle at the top of the armature on the wall—is subtly figural. Meanwhile, as Greed's Trophy is taking us in these various interpretive directions, it remains conspicuously empty and open, its tense curves a sculptural essay in shape without physical substance.
"I was never interested in making cool, distilled, pure objects," Puryear has said, and his work is deliberately associative. Minimalism has informed his involvement with materials, but whereas the classic Minimalist object is industrially fabricated and impersonal in shape and surface, Puryear's art is steeped in cultural and historical reference, and he is enormously adept at carpentry and other manual skills. In fact Greed's Trophy, in evoking the tools of the American outdoorsman, claims a place for the history of craft in our understanding of the country's art.
Publication excerpt from The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 310.