Puryear mixes abstract with familiar

Two of the dominant tendencies of 20th-century art are radical abstraction - using simple shapes such as the square - and, at the other extreme, the kind of media-based art that takes pride in looking like TV news.

African-American sculptor Martin Puryear, one of the most highly regarded artists of our time, has built his career on bringing together the abstract and the familiar.

After several years as a figurative painter, Puryear began shaping wood into forms that suggest practical workmanship as well as art. A maker of baskets or wooden boats might call him a brother. While he leaves no doubt that he is an artist who came to maturity in the late 20th century, his work also refers to nature and traditional craft.

Puryear's objects are reminiscent of familiar forms, such as boats, dwellings, human or animal heads, gourds, bottles, buttons, baskets, and nets. But they are never simple representations of everyday objects. He reminds us that a suggestive way of seeing occurs not only in art, but also in the way we commonly recognize people and things by noticing a few details and then imagining the rest.

Although wood is his primary medium, he also works in wire mesh covered with tar. Sometimes he inserts a glass window. Viewed from a distance, the resulting objects look solid; seen close up, the mesh looks frail, almost transparent.

Puryear likes to break down conventional distinctions between strength and fragility, solidity and openness, outside and inside.

The meanings of his work can seem exquisitely ambiguous. His "Ladder for Booker T. Washington" (shown here) is 36 feet long, made from an ash tree he cut down on his property in upstate New York.

The sides of the ladder come closer and closer together at the top, reminding us of exaggerated perspective in artworks. It also suggests, less abstractly, that for African-Americans like Booker T. Washington, the lower steps of the ladder of aspiration seemed accessible, while the higher steps were too narrow to be attained.

But Puryear avoids making his art available to simplistic political interpretations. A more optimistic reading of the ladder is that all people can properly aspire to infinite heights, just as the converging perspective lines in a painting suggest infinite depth.

Martin Puryear: Sculpture of the 1990s' is at the Berkeley (Calif.) Art Museum until Jan. 13, 2002. It will be at the Des Moines (Iowa) Art Museum from Feb. 2 to April 14, 2002.

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