Martin Puryear

Connections:  Martin Puryear
Organized by Kathy Halbreich and Trevor Fairbrother. At the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

(Originally published in The Boston Phoenix, July 1990)

Martin Puryear has been fascinated with falcons since he was in the sixth grade and a sparrow hawk – a small American falcon – made its nest in the schoolyard of the segregated school he attended in Washington D.C.  Since then, Puryear has studied and observed many falcons in life and in art, and created a series of small, abstract sculptures inspired by the falcon’s form and flight.

Nine of Puryear’s small, smooth falcons are now on display as part of an installation that he created for the MFA.  The birds are made from pine, curly maple, hemlock, iron, and bronze, and placed at various heights on the walls and floor.  Some are lightly painted, others only polished.  In some, the grain of the wood read as feathers.  Others look like restless shadows on the wall.

The falcons’ elegant silhouette was inspired by a 17th century Mughal Indian miniature painting of a falcon –  a highly prized royal bird, beloved by the emperor Jahangir, with sharp claws, pale grey feathers, and a bright, round eye – which Puryear first saw at the MFA in 1977.

Martin Puryear is the first artist to exhibit in the MFA’s new series of    exhibitions, called Connections, organized by curators Kathy Halbriech and Trevor Fairbrother to establish a dialogue between old and new art.  Connections will display the work of leading contemporary artists next to works of art, chosen by the artists, from the museum’s permanent collection. Puryear chose to exhibit the Mughal miniature and three hand-colored engravings by Audubon, each one showing a pair of falcons, in the room next to his installation.  His falcons “speak” to the falcons next door.

Puryear, an African-American sculptor who was born in 1941, was an inspired choice to inaugurate Connections, because his work beautifully illustrates the way contemporary art can be nourished by the art of the past.

He studied traditional African woodcarving in the 1960’s, when he was in the Peace Corps, teaching school in Sierra Leone, West Africa.  He also studied furniture-making in Sweden and art at Yale, and he is thoroughly conversant with Japanese art, all kinds of boat-building techniques, African sculpture, modern art and minimalism.

The installation he created for the MFA transforms the space of the rectangular room and makes it seem airy and spacious, light and round.  It is inhabited by the birds and by a large circular yurt – a Mongolian mobile home, made of thin pieces of wood crisscrossed and gently tied together.  Inside the yurt are all kinds of unfinished falcons, in various states ranging from rough blocks of wood to over-refined curves of blown glass.

The yurt is a nomadic structure, easy to assemble and to take apart. Here, it is a home, a studio, a birdcage, or perhaps a metaphor for the mind.  Inside his yurt dwell dreams and desires without names or shapes, and birds that have not yet taken form and flight. One unfinished bird form is perched on a lathe, with a puddle of sawdust below it.  Like Michelangelo’s Slaves struggling to escape from their blocks of marble, this bird’s shape is painfully emerging from the prison of its form.

I spent an inspiring hour with the artist. Our conversation ranged from Persian paintings to Egyptian sculpture to the habits of nomads to the materials Audubon used to Shaker furniture.  He recited William Butler Yeats‘s poem, The Second Coming, which begins

“Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer,”

and he quoted these lines from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow‘s poem A Skeleton in Armor:

“I, who with my childish hand
Tamed the wild gerfalcon.”

As he described the remote regions of the world where falcons live – the tundra, the Arctic North — I could almost see the falcons flying in the azure of his clear blue eyes.

Puryear’s falcons are elegant objects, yet they are also birds of prey.  They are chained to a perch, dreaming of flight; perfectly at rest, yet poised to spread their wings and reach for the sky.

Puryear constantly enriches his visual vocabulary through reading and travel, observing and making, and the arts of many different cultures are reflected and refined in his abstract wooden sculpture. And yet his art conveys a sense of scraping away and discarding everything that is not essential – a sense of travelling light, like a nomad, and soaring high, like a bird.

by Rebecca Nemser for rebeccanemser.com

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