In this spare, understated composition, Puryear’s fine webbed lines have been rendered with a slightly wavering hand, a tangible record of the artist’s sensitive employment of the etching needle. One of approximately twenty-five prints Puryear has made to date, the work demonstrates his predilection for direct, physical mediums such as etching and woodcut, which involve the process of scratching or digging into metal or wood. Its abstracted form recalls the artist’s better-known sculptural works in wire or latticed wood strips, and the evocative shape echoes their frequent bird- or molelike references. A related detail etched delicately in red at the upper left transforms this otherwise iconic presentation of the main figure into something like a freehand sketch, reinforcing a sense of spontaneity.
With its clean lines and organic shape suggesting both a natural form and a useful object, such as a vessel or musical instrument, this print reflects the wide range of influences that inform Puryear’s overall oeuvre. These include a lifelong aptitude for carpentry, an affinity for various craft traditions, and an early fascination with subjects as diverse as ornithology, archery, and Native American history. As a young man Puryear spent two years working for the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone, where he developed a profound respect for the wood-carvers of that region.
He later enrolled in the printmaking program at Sweden’s Royal Academy of Art, and while there found himself drawn to Scandinavian wood carving. Upon his return to the United States, in the late 1960s, he studied fine art at Yale University, absorbing the current developments in Minimalism, earthworks, and site-specific sculpture. Blending modernist abstraction with a commitment to handcraftsmanship, Puryear’s work is remarkable for the sheer beauty that comes from its exacting manipulation of materials and techniques.
Publication excerpt from The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 359.
Martin Puryear’s career began with a brief period of printmaking that was rekindled only recently. Early on he displayed a facility for drawing, a voracious appetite for learning about subjects as diverse as ornithology, archery, and Native American history, and a particular aptitude for building useful objects. During a two-year stint in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone, he developed an interest in and respect for the wood carvers of that region. Upon his return, he was accepted at Sweden’s Royal Academy of Art as a printmaking student. There Puryear found himself deeply drawn to Scandinavian wood carving and began spending his evenings in the sculpture studio while also accepting unofficial apprenticeships with local craftspeople. When he returned to the United States, he enrolled in the art program at Yale, absorbing the current developments in Minimalism, post-Minimalism, earthworks, and site-specific sculpture.
Puryear’s work, consisting primarily of sculpture in wire mesh, tar, bronze, leather, and his preferred medium of wood, reflects these diverse influences and experiences. Abstractions that resemble organic and biomorphic shapes suggest a usefulness or functionality and often reveal a labor-intensive handcraftsmanship and an interest in culture and identity. Since the 1980s, he has resumed printmaking at various workshops, gravitating toward direct, physical mediums such as etching and woodcut. Puryear has made approximately twenty-five prints, many of which echo the forms of his sculptures, including this Untitled work. The woodcuts for Cane, a poetic novel of the Harlem Renaissance, combine organic forms and figurative presences and are named for the female characters in the story.
Publication excerpt from an essay by Sarah Suzuki, in Deborah Wye, Artists and Prints: Masterworks from The Museum of Modern Art, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2004, p. 232.