Description: ARTIST'S DATES b. 1941
Dimensions: 68 by 78 by 35 in.
172.7 by 198.2 by 88.8 cm.
Medium: tar, steel mesh, pine and Douglas fir
Date: Executed in 1987.
Exhibited: New York, David McKee Gallery, Martin Puryear: Stereotypes and Decoys, November - December 1987, cat. no. 5, illustrated in color
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art at Equitable Center, Enclosing the Void: Eight Contemporary Sculptors, November 1988 - January 1989, p. 6, illustrated
São Paulo, 20th International São Paulo Bienal, October - December 1989, cat. no. 3, illustrated
Providence, David Winton Bell Gallery, Brown University, Reprise: The Vera G. List Collection, a Twentieth Anniversary Exhibition, October - November 1991, p. 23, illustrated
Chicago, The Art Institute of Chicago; Washington, D. C., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution; Los Angeles, Museum of Contemporary Art; Philadelphia Museum of Art, Martin Puryear, February 1992 - January 1993, cat. no. 34, pp. 114-115, illustrated in color (not exhibited at Chicago venue)
Provenance: PROPERTY OF THE ESTATE OF VERA G. LIST
David McKee Gallery, New York
Acquired by the present owner from the above in November 1987
Notes: Puryear's evocative sculptures are a perfect union of craft and artistic sensibility, achieving a purity of form and an affinity for material that evokes the spiritual nature of art. He distilled disparate influences from many cultures and disciplines into a body of work that embraces a pluralism of the creative spirit. Puryear believes that the work flows from an innate sense of the object and the material, without the constraints or filter of aesthetic ego, resulting in sculptures such as Untitled which are the epitome of resonant presence. In the words of Soetsu Yanagi, a writer studied closely by Puryear, "the thing shines, not the maker." (S. Yanagi, The Unknown Craftsman, Tokyo and New York, 1972, p. 200).
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Puryear first encountered this non-Western aesthetic attitude among native carpenters and builders in Africa, as a member of the Peace Corps during the mid-1960s. Puryear then proceeded to Sweden in 1966, where he met and worked with cabinet and furniture makers, particularly James Krenov whose profound commitment and sensitivity to his craft and materials greatly impressed Puryear. By the time Puryear entered the graduate program in sculpture at Yale University in 1969, his desire was to add a dimension of the heart and mind - of the artistic and intellectual - to the object-making of sculpture in his chosen medium of wood. Earlier in the 1960s Puryear had experimented with carved wood sculptures, but his mature work would take a new direction. "At a certain point, I just put the building and the art impulse together. I decided that building was a legitimate way to make sculpture; that it wasn't necessary to work in the traditional methods of carving and casting." (Hugh M. Davies and Helaine Posner, Martin Puryear, Amherst, 1984, p. 9). As his skills increased, Puryear's methods of intertwining, inlaying, bending and patterning various types of wood became ever more sophisticated and masterful.
Many of the artist's first major works of the late 1970s are reminiscent of structures - either a sloping lodge, prow of a ship or primitive structures that evoke a surrogate spiritual space. With the wall-mounted "ring" sculptures of the 1970s and 1980s, Puryear invented a more elegant and organic sculptural form of abstract simplicity. But by the mid-1980s, Puryear sought to return to sculpture in the round and Untitled, 1987 is a major example of Puryear's renewed vigor in sculpture of volume, depth and material complexity. One of the earliest works of this type is Vault from 1984, which introduces Puryear's use of tar and wire mesh, also used to great effect in the complex construction of Untitled, 1987. "Puryear applied [tar] to wire mesh as a surface texture, with wood now serving simply as a structural element.....[The] tar gives the sculpture a raw, tactile, and inelegant quality that was new to Puryear's sculpture....: 'I'm interested in mediating between a feeling of massiveness and fragility to reach a point of extreme vulnerability. Wire mesh allows for all of this. It can appear massive and opaque, but it is actually a thin veil'." (Neal Benezra, Martin Puryear, Chicago, 1992, p. 43).
Along with new directions in material, Puryear also expanded his vocabulary of forms, including biomorphic and figurative references in works such as Empire's Lurch (1987) with its thrusting vertical spine. As Neal Benezra wrote of Puryear's work of 1987, the sculptures of this period also expanded to include references to inanimate objects and artifacts. "These works possess an allusiveness that is cultural rather than natural; as Puryear notes, they suggest 'objects that are the product of a conscious mind'....Untitled, of tar-over-mesh-over-wood construction, contrasts two parts: a floor-based, nearly oval element which rests solidly on the ground, and a looping upper element. The contrast is between linearity and lightness above and solidity and weight below and, simultaneously, between negative and positive, void and solid, and open and closed. The sculpture suggests an implement as the upper element can be read as a fantastically large handle." (p. 46) In Untitled, 1987, the weighted base of the form contrasting with the open void of the handle is a perfect counterpoint to the interplay between the opaque darkness of tar and the veil-like quality of the mesh.
In 1989, Puryear was chosen as the official United States representative for the Sao Paulo Bienal. Untitled 1987 was one of seven works included in the artist's exhibition, for which he was awarded the grand prize.