If I were to pick the three best contemporary sculptors working on public art today, they’d be Richard Serra, Mark di Suvero and Martin Puryear. Serra unashamedly trumpets the strength inherent in large COR-TEN steel pieces while di Suvero playfully undermines monumentality with his large metal pieces whose I-beams create open and playful spaces. (His “Atman” outside Cincinnati Art Museum is an excellent example.)
But Puryear does something different and especially liberating. A minimalist, like the others, in terms of avoiding overt figuration and honoring the suggestive power of lines and shapes, he often chooses organic materials for his sculpture. Especially wood. That makes his pieces seem like extensions of nature and quiet but poignant commentaries on the built environment they are near.
But even when he works in metal, he makes it look like something in a forest. Or something preserved from an ancient civilization, a simple but elegant vessel or container that has survived technological change.
My favorite of his sculptures, “That Profile” at L.A.’s Getty Center, is actually metal, but its shape — stainless-steel tubes that criss-cross and support each other, leaving open space in between — suggests a 45-foot leaf hovering with fragility. You look at it and wonder how Puryear thought of something so ephemerally beautiful.
A current show of his prints at Cincinnati Art Museum, on display now through June 13, offers insight into his motivations and process.
It features 23 prints plus a book for which he did woodcut illustrations. It is a good introduction to a major living American — and African-American — artist, for those who haven’t seen that much of his work. (And wouldn’t it be great to have one of his sculptures here?)
Puryear, 68 and born in Washington D.C., has a worldly background: He worked in the Peace Corps, studied at the Royal Academy of Art in Stockholm and received an MFA in art from Yale. He renewed an early interest in printmaking in the late 1990s, and in the 2000s has been working in drypoints and etchings with the Paulson Bott Press in Berkeley.
The color on these prints is spare — shades of black and white — and the abstracted imagery is unadorned, almost sketch-like. But less is more. A 2001 print called (or not called) “Untitled” features a biomorphic shape, something like a seashell or snail, emerging from the intersections of curved lines. But it also conjures an inverted Victrola horn, an association that adds to the image’s allure. (A smaller “ghost” image on the print’s upper corner adds to the piece’s mysteriousness.)
In several prints, such as “Untitled III (State 1)” and “Three Holes,” Puryear adds texture and provides dimensionality by ever so slightly darkening the white background. In the latter, the effect is to suggest clouds, which makes the central, somewhat-lopsided circular figure look a bit like a full tree in a breeze. Or, maybe, like the armature of a tree, since there is so much open space between Puryear’s lines. Nature meets architecture.
When Puryear creates an elemental white figure against a black ground, as he does on “Untitled V” and “Karintha, “ the results remind of Donald Sultan’s excellent linoleum paintings on display last year at the Contemporary Arts Center. Here, they have the ability to seem figurative in a disquieting way, lone objects in the darkness. “Karintha,” a woodcut, suggests a drooping flower seeking moisture at night, an eerie image.
Yet who can really say for sure? The prints leave us to contemplate their meaning, which is what makes them — like Puryear’s sculpture — so satisfying.
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