In art, things go in and out of focus--including beauty. Twenty-five years ago, if an American painter or sculptor, when asked what he wanted to achieve, had replied "Beauty," he might well have earned a double take as a mere decorator. (Decorators were always "mere" back then.) Art was meant to issue political challenges, to confront convention, et cetera. And a lot of truly lousy, polemical art lay in that et cetera.
But today the hopes of protest and politically irritant art have gone flat. Isms and groups have largely ceased to matter. What count for much more are those stubborn talents to whom the lyrical and the private are likely to be of more value than the collective. To such artists, beauty without cliche is a supreme goal, and there is probably none around who exemplifies this shift better than the sculptor Martin Puryear.
The best sculptors, of course, have always valued craft: good making, consummate skill. Quite often in America, those responsibilities were delegated to fabricators, as in most Minimalism. But the special intensity of Puryear's work comes from doing everything himself, mainly in wood (though tar, mud and wire also figure in his repertoire). Through the action of the shaping hand on wood, he brings forth a poetry of material substance that's unique in today's America. Puryear has always been troubled by the art/craft division in American culture. "At bottom it's a class issue really," he says. "'Art' means thought; 'craft' means manual work." But it's never so simple, for craft means thinking with (not just about) material. "In Japan you'll never see that kind of snobbery; potters and carpenters are honored there as living national treasures."
But for the viewer, the work's craft ancestry promotes a confidence in looking at it. Puryear's shapes come out of several parallel worlds of form, which, when prolonged, actually do meet. One is industrial--but "obsolete" industrial: the vigorous and noble shapes of what are now antique technologies, such as the carved wooden forms once created by casting patternmakers. Another is folk technology: basket weaving, canoe building, the construction of tents, yurts and kites. (Puryear had some conventional art-school training at Catholic University of America in Washington in the early '60s, but he also worked with African carpenters in a remote village in Sierra Leone as part of a Peace Corps program, and an important part of his aesthetic education came in 1966, studying with one of the great American furniture makers, James Krenov.) Sometimes his pieces resemble hybrids of basketry and cooperage. A beautiful example is Brunhilde, 1998-2000, an open-form cage of intricately fitted cedar slats, a mysterious baglike structure that seems to inflate with breath--like a Wagnerian soprano, says Puryear, filling her lungs for the big aria. And then there are the purely organic forms, which derive from nests, seedpods, flower stems, birds' bones or marine protozoa. An example is his big red-cedar-and-pine piece, Plenty's Boast, 1994-95. As the title suggests, it could be a cornucopia. But it also evokes a slew of other things: the flaring mouth suggests an old gramophone horn, or perhaps a flower, or a weird sucking worm; the "tail" has a distinctly sinister look, as though it carried a sting, while the fitting and fairing of the wooden staves of which it is made are impeccable.