Martin Puryear: Process and Scale

September 23 – December 17, 2023

  • Side view of maquette for&nbsp;<em>Lookout</em>
    Photo by Jeffrey Jenkins

For close to fifty years, Martin Puryear (American, b. 1941) has created works that transpose his distinctive abstract sculptural language to a monumental scale. From his earliest outdoor work at Artpark, in Lewiston, New York, in 1977 to his newly inaugurated permanent commission for Storm King Art Center, Puryear’s public and site-specific sculptures engage with nature, history, and civic life. Regardless of size, all of Puryear’s sculptures originate with the artist’s hand, whether through drawings or with models that the artist carves or fashions from pieces of wood. About his process, Puryear has said, “My creativity flows from my brain through my hands to the work. I think I am a craftsperson, or an artisan, in the sense that I have always worked with my hands."

Sculptures in their own right, Puryear’s models allow the artist to work through questions of form, scale, and medium. The artist’s process models are often accompanied by a hand-whittled wooden figure that serves as a stand-in for the viewer. The presence of these figures suggest that from the moment of inception, Puryear seeks to understand the relationship between his monumental sculptures and the viewer as much as the environment in which they are situated.

To accomplish his most ambitious visions in a variety of materials, including smooth metal, hewn stone, bundled thatch, and arched brick, Puryear identifies expert collaborators and craftspeople, from engineers and masons to architects and shipbuilders. While his primary goal is to create the form as opposed to testing the limits of a particular material, Puryear’s monumental projects often became ways to learn from experts whose trades are not often associated with the realm of fine arts. The artist uses his process models and drawings as a means of communicating his ideas with the makers and fabricators that help him realize his work at a large scale.

When viewed in relation to one another, the assembled models and drawings reveal the years of planning that precede Puryear’s finished works, affording a rare view into the artist’s practice. These models, including proposals for several unrealized projects, offer a throughline to Puryear’s large-scale sculptures spanning decades and continents. Drawn from the artist’s archives, such intermediary artifacts of process provide valuable insight into the development of the formal vocabulary and the themes that have been central to the artist’s artistic exploration over the course of his prolific career.

Puryear’s newest outdoor work, Lookout, a permanent site-specific commission for Storm King, is now on view atop the hillside in the Art Center’s North Woods.

Storm King’s commission and exhibition by Martin Puryear are made possible by generous major support from Janet Benton and David Schunter, Bloomberg Philanthropies, Roberta and Steven Denning, Bridgitt and Bruce Evans, Glenstone Foundation, Ellsworth Kelly Foundation, Ohnell Family Foundation, the Hazen Polsky Foundation, Thomas A. and Georgina T. Russo, and Margaret VB Wurtele. 

Lead support is provided by Agnes Gund, Barbara Bluhm-Kaul and Don Kaul, The Ronald and Jo Carole Lauder Foundation and Matthew Marks Gallery. 

Support is also provided by Robert Lehman Foundation and Sidney E. Frank Foundation and supported in part by Allison Berg, Jennifer Brorsen and Richard DeMartini, Andrew L. and Gayle Shaw Camden, Tommy and Dathel Coleman, Martha Gabbert, Debby and Rocco Landesman, and the Ralph E. Ogden Foundation.  

This project is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.