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The Anti-Ironist 

click to enlarge Marin Puryear, Untitled, print, 1999.
  • Marin Puryear, Untitled, print, 1999.


Martin Puryear’s sculptures, which were exhibited in a major retrospective at MoMA in 2007, represent a striking departure from the overly ironic, content-driven, late mannerist oeuvre one has come to expect from an art-world luminary. There is a return to minimalist form: large, tactile, abstract sculptures made of wood, wire mesh, tar, rawhide, and other natural vernacular materials. Their craftlike assemblage and elemental shapes contain vestiges of preindustrial cultural artifacts, such as baskets, huts, tools, and boats, yet they also have biomorphic elements, implying metamorphosis. The hollow interiors of the closed vessels are trapped inner spaces resonating with a kind of consciousness, a latent alertness. The tension between formal and implied opposites—containment and sieve-like penetrability, tensed movement and sagging weight, obtuseness and grace—suggests there is more than meets the eye.

As it happens, Puryear works and resides in Ulster County. Thanks to this geographic connection, an exhibition of his prints will be shown at the Kleinert/James Art Center, in Woodstock, from September 12 to October 18. Given Puryear’s stature as one of the most celebrated artists in America—he has a closetful of awards, including one from the MacArthur Foundation—the show is a coup for the local venue.

Included in the exhibition are seven woodcuts inspired by the 1923 novel Cane, written by Harlem Renaissance writer Jean Toomer (the prints are the originals of a special artist’s edition published in 2000). But most of the 22 works consist of large-scale etchings related to Puryear’s sculptures. These employ a primal visual vocabulary: stark contrasts of black and ivory, a line that is by turns elegant, terse, and organic, a single object depicted against a ground. With the simplest of means, Puryear sets into motion a multiplicity of allusions that creates slippages in meaning.

In Untitled (LA MOCA portfolio) (1999), a black ovoid shape resembling both a head with two earrings and an upsidedown jug is balanced on a delicate ruled line. The ivory-colored ground is smudged with fingerprints, splattered with a dusting of ink and incised with hatched lines. These expressive marks imbue the bare page with a history and animate the image, as if exclamations were emanating from the otherwise mute, mysterious head.

A similar shape, turned upside down, pierced with three holes, and drawn as a spidery white armature on a black ground, is depicted in Untitled (2002). It’s both a vector field and a leaky pot. The form is dematerialized, a representation spun out of the barest of materials, yet resolutely handmade, asymmetrical, ample. High tech and low tech fuse: the lightning-quick, networked infrastructure of the information age and the obdurate, material resistance of daily life with its repetitious tasks. Jug (2001) is cartoonlike, a bulging sea creature in a mottled ground that resembles fluid seen under a microscope. It is uncomfortably large, a soft, feminine form pulling against its small, bulls-eyes handles and emphatic spout, a container that’s too contained. Untitled II (2002) is a pirouetting line, describing a vessel whose handle curls up like the arabesque head of a cubist guitar. Two carefully placed ellipses add dimension to the form, but they are ambiguous, suggesting rolling motion rather than solid object.

Puryear’s uneasy, beautifully made art points to an unusual, eclectic education, a well-traveled sensibility. Born in Washington, DC, he lived in Sierra Leone for two years as a Peace Corps volunteer, studied printmaking and wood carving in Sweden, and obtained an MFA from Yale, in 1971. Besides his free-standing and wall-mounted sculptures, he has created large-scale, site-specific works in stone, bronze, or steel in California, Japan, China, and Washington, DC. The works at the Kleinert/James were previously shown in an exhibition at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

“Martin Puryear: A Survey of Prints,” will be exhibited September 12 through October 18 at the Kleinert/James Arts Gallery, 34 Tinker Street, Woodstock. An opening reception will be held on Saturday, September 12, from 5-7pm. (845) 679-2079;www.woodstockguild.org.

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  • An exhibition of prints by Martin Puryear opens at the Kleinert-James Art Gallery in Woodstock.

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