On an afternoon in early September, the University of California Berkeley Art Museum prepared to reopen after being closed for three months during a $4 million earthquake retrofit. Outside, near the Durant Street entrance, workers put finishing touches on sixty-foot-deep piers that support the exterior bracing. Meanwhile, in the grand atrium upstairs, several people busily installed “Martin Puryear: Sculpture of the 1990s,” a show of abstract sculpture that runs through January 13, 2002. The artist, a hardy-looking black man in his sixties, helped Senior Curator Constance Lewallen arrange his large-scale work on the newly polished concrete floor.
Though it was completely accidental that the show’s opening coincided with the museum’s reopening, Lewallen couldn’t have asked for a better fit. With its tall windows, high ceiling, cantilevered walkway, and galleries overhead, the atrium’s dramatic architecture makes it a great place to see sculpture — for the moment. The building’s retrofit — raising its seismic status from “very poor” to “poor” — is a temporary solution; the plan is to move into a new facility in a few years, but, these days especially, a few years seems like a long time. Certainly right now, visitors have an opportunity to see the Berkeley Art Museum at its best.
A tall wooden ladder, suspended with invisible wires, floats beneath the atrium’s ceiling. The bottom of this ladder rests a few feet off the ground and, as your eye follows its crooked, spindly path upward, you see the sides narrow gradually to the top. The round rungs almost vanish. This surreal “Ladder for Booker T. Washington” was constructed from a single cedar tree harvested from the artist’s yard in New York state. It is the only piece in the show that directly alludes to the artist’s heritage. A former slave, Washington was an educator who established the Tuskegee Institute as a trade school for blacks; he also argued that African Americans would do better if they did not agitate for social equality. In a recent conversation, Lewallen suggested that the ladder’s meaning may be ironic: “climbing a ladder of self-improvement or success, but not being able to reach the top.” The narrowing width also accentuates the ladder’s lofty 36.5-foot height. Whatever Puryear’s intent, his fantastic ladder redefines the gallery space. Wending its way upward, like the young man in the old circus ditty, it “floats through the air with the greatest of ease.”
The ladder is one of ten sculptures in this show; the rest are pieces of organic abstraction. Made of wood, or alternatively of wire-mesh and tar, many of these objects look a little like exhibits you might find at the Museum of Natural History. Things look like other things.
A dark gray painted piece titled “Lever #4” could be a sea lion stretching its neck — it “gestures upwards,” as a fellow viewer put it. Like the ladder, this “lever” mysteriously lifts your spirits. “Lever #2,” constructed of Ponderosa pine, ash, cypress, and rattan, looks a little like a giant piece of stranded kelp, its parabolic spine arcing across the floor. The humorously titled “Alien Huddle” is a family of three perfect spheres bubbling organically out of one. Some of the wire-mesh pieces are reminiscent of African masks, but as with the other work, their meanings are open-ended.
In Time magazine’s July 9 “America’s Best” issue, art critic Robert Hughes nominated Martin Puryear “America’s Best Artist.” Hughes called him “a master of both modernism and traditional crafts,” and pointed out that Puryear is able to achieve “beauty without cliché.” Rather than carving or casting his work, Puryear prefers to join elements together, as a furniture maker or a shipbuilder would. Though the objects are generally simple in form, their construction can be intricate. When he works in wood, Puryear leaves surfaces rough; the wood appears natural, and he leaves traces of his process. As you approach “Alien Huddle,” for example, you see that the two larger spheres (one emanating from the other) are formed from bent planks that were stapled into place; the staples have been removed, but the holes remain for the viewer to see.
While many sculptors choose to work in traditional stone, bronze, or steel, Puryear clearly prefers lightness and transparency to solidity. He chooses humble mediums — light-colored woods, wire mesh, tar, cork, and glass — that are more flexible than durable. His work is about contradiction. Things that seem to be heavy or massive are also airy and translucent. Wire-mesh and tar pieces appear opaque black from a distance, but up close you can look right through to their insides. “Horsefly” curves like the head of a periscope, its “eye” made of tinted glass. And then there’s “Brunhilde,” a roomy wooden lattice structure. The piece stands over seven feet tall and is about nine feet wide and five feet deep. You can walk around and peer through it.
“Brunhilde” resembles a giant burlap sack, yet it is structurally elegant. Red cedar strips swirl upward from a round base in a series of graceful, intersecting lines, swelling outward and then converging in two rounded corners. Rather than weave the lattice structure, Puryear meticulously connected hundreds of pieces of wood to make an even surface.
At one point during the installation last month, I watched as the artist reached out with his left hand, gripped hold of “Brunhilde,” and with only one arm dragged the object slowly across the floor. Could it be that light? Clearly so. The artist smiled as if pleased with the object’s strength, and perhaps a little pleased with himself and the strange sight he must have known he was creating.
Born in 1941, Puryear initially studied painting at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. His influences cover a broad geographic and cultural swath: He studied carpentry and woodworking while serving in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone, West Africa, and later moved to Stockholm, where he studied Scandinavian modernism. In 1989, he won a MacArthur Fellowship, which was followed in the early 1990s by his first national show, organized by the Art Institute of Chicago. Since then, his national and international reputation has continued to grow.
At a certain point when an artist becomes famous, his work turns valuable and precious. But the vision of Puryear dragging his piece across the floor was a reminder that all art starts with someone who simply likes to make things. In galleries, we’re asked to look but not touch. Yet it is hard to keep our hands off of sensual, curious objects such as these. Obviously, this is no mystery to Puryear. The best sculpture captures the spontaneity of children, and Puryear’s playful pieces do just that.
These days, uplifting objects are especially welcome. And perhaps building with these humbler materials makes sense too; to say something now, rather than for all time.