One of the most important American sculptors working today, Martin Puryear (born 1941) is known for refined, handmade constructions, primarily in wood. Puryear’s abstract forms, while evocative and familiar, elude specific or singular interpretations. In his work, motifs such as the Phrygian cap, human heads, and vessels take on symbolic resonance, functioning as meditations on powerful universal concepts like freedom and shelter, even as they are distilled by the artist into essential forms.
Puryear studied painting at Catholic University in Washington, DC, then spent two years in Africa with the Peace Corps (1964−−66), teaching in a village in Sierra Leone. There, he made meticulously detailed drawings, recording local houses, plants, and animals, as well as the people around him. He also experimented with woodcuts; the surface texture of the block in these works prefigures his later sculptures in wood. Many forms and motifs that emerged from these early experiments recur and evolve throughout his career.
From 1966 to 1968, Puryear studied printmaking at the Swedish Royal Academy of Arts in Stockholm. He explored a range of techniques – etching, aquatint, drypoint – involving incised lines and furrowed surfaces. Around this time, Puryear also began making sculpture. As he later explained, “It might have been the different ways of incising, which is a kind of carving, that got me considering again the way things are made.” Before leaving Europe, Puryear visited the Venice Biennale where he encountered a collection of American minimalism in the International Pavilion. The minimalist sculpture attested to the power of primary form and left a lasting impression on the artist.
Puryear went on to earn an MFA in sculpture from Yale University in 1971. There, his work began to echo the streamlined forms associated with minimalism, but were distinctive in their organic and constructed forms. Puryear’s signature mastery of material and mixing of minimalism and traditional craft has established him as a leading voice, exploring both public and private narratives of objects, experiences, and identity.
Puryear is the recipient of a 1982 Guggenheim Fellowship, a 1989 MacArthur Foundation Award, and the 2009 Gold Medal in Sculpture from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 2011, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Barack Obama. Puryear’s work has been the subject of many exhibitions, including Martin Puryear: Multiple Dimensions, which was organized by the Art Institute of Chicago and travelled to the Smithsonian American Art Museum in 2016. He has completed commissions for numerous public art projects including Philadelphia’s Pavilion in the Trees (1993), Washington, DC’s Bearing Witness (1997), and Manhattan’s temporary Big Bling (2016). In 2018, Martin Puryear was chosen to represent the United States at the 58th Venice Biennale, on view May 11 through November 24, 2019.