Ruth Fine, curator of special projects in modern art, National Gallery of Art, and John Elderfield, ...
Many different influences have nourished the career of Martin Puryear, who was born in Washington, D.C. Puryear studied painting at Catholic University there and then served as a Peace Corps teacher in Sierra Leone from 1964 to 1966. Impressed by the artistry of the West Africans, Puryear became immersed in crafts, including wood working and basketry. Wanting to extend his time abroad, he moved to Europe in 1966 to attend the Royal Swedish Academy of Arts. In Stockholm he met the acclaimed cabinetmaker James Krenov, who permitted Puryear to observe him at work in his studio. Puryear continued his studies as a graduate student at Yale University from 1969 to 1971, a time when minimalism was a pervasive style. His sculpture reflects the purity and simplicity of minimalism, yet it also alludes to powerfully expressive organic forms.
Puryear works primarily in wood, and his sculpture reveals an appreciation of its unique qualities. He builds by joining parts rather than carving a form out of a single block of wood. In this way, the artist displays the process by which a piece was made as well as the craft and thought required in the making. His sculptures often appear heavy and monolithic, yet they are energized by sweeping curves. Some works suggest a dual identity in their resemblance to containers, shelters, or tools. As a result, Puryear's sculpture seems both familiar and mysterious.
[This is adapted from the interactive companion to the videodisc American Art from the National Gallery of Art.]