American, b. 1941
This Mortal Coil, 1998
Graphite on thin paper
14 x 11 in. (35.6 x 27.9 cm)
© Martin Puryear, courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery

Photo by Jeffrey Jenkins
This Mortal Coil, commissioned for the Festival d’Automne à Paris, was only on view for two months at the Chapelle Saint-Louis de la Salpêtrière. The base of the work was constructed from heavy American red cedar timbers arranged as an inverted, conical spiral staircase. The construction became lighter as it spiraled upward, terminating in a muslin staircase supported on a fragile frame, and appearing to defy gravity. The work’s installation was complicated by the chapel’s historic architecture, which Puryear was not permitted to alter in any way; instead, the sculpture had to rest on the church’s existing structures. 

Puryear originally approached the expert tradespeople of the French building guild, Les Compagnons du Devoir, about the fabrication of the work, but they balked at the idea of constructing something temporary after having trained in archival building practices meant to last for centuries. Puryear ultimately worked with theater set builders to realize the project using plywood and an aluminum ellipse that rested on the cornices of the upper reaches of the cathedral. The spiraling sculpture was supported entirely with taut cables that French alpinists helped the artist to install.