Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Martin Puryear: Process Artist

Martin Puryear is an artist who started as a painter and later turned to sculpture.  His work combines a “traditional sculptural involvement in techniques…that reflect some of the methods of Constructivism and Assemblage” (Society for Contemporary Art).  Many of his sculptures are abstract, sometimes simplified to simple ovoid and lines.  His sculptures seem to be minimalistic because of the abstract nature of the forms, but Minimalists were interested in leaving out any representation of the natural world from their works.  Puryear’s works have been simplified to simple shapes, but one can get the feeling that many of his works are a representation of something organic because of their biomorphic forms and shapes.
Puryear is more of a Process artist.  He is interested in exploring the process and the physicality in his work.  He will often leave the evidence of the human hand in the crafting of his different pieces, because to him the actual process of making the piece and “the fabrication of things” tells a narrative about the work of art (Puryear 2003). His pieces also convey a sense of history in the craft of woodworking and stone carving.
The artist’s hand and craftsmanship can be seen in his work A Ladder for Booker T. Wasington, done in 1996.  The piece shows off Puryear’s skill with wood and his forced manipulation of perspective.  The Ladder is one of Puryear’s more representational sculptures.  It is very obviously a ladder in its representation.  The natural color and the unevenness of the ladder seems to represent a nostalgic time in history when ladders were made by hand, instead of mass-produced in a factory in China.  The Ladder is 36 feet long and the rail is made of one single sapling from his estate that was split and carved by hand.  The wood has been left to its natural color, which lends to the homemade and old fashioned feel to the piece.  The spindly rails of the ladder curve in an uneven serpentine movement, marked by sharp jags and a narrowing of the rungs, which forces the rails closer together and ends with them only an inch and a half apart at the top.  This narrowing gives a skewed sense of perspective and a “diminution of space” (Puryear 2003).
The placement of the ladder seems to hang in space.  It seems to have a beginning, but it is out of reach.  It takes the utilitarianism of a ladder, which is used to get oneself from a starting point to a higher point, to extend our reach, and makes it a nonfunctional object.  It forces the viewer to look at it as more than just a ladder and instead as a metaphor of beginnings and endings and the journey to perhaps an unattainable goal.
            Puryear is stated in an interview that he didn’t start the sculpture with Booker T. Washington in mind, the title didn’t come to him until after the work was finished.  To him the work was about the tree and the forcing of perspective.  The connection with Washington, though, can be seen in the idea of progress, and the slow progression of racial equality.  It also draws similarities with Washington’s own struggles in his own life and his struggles to rise in society as a black man.  As Puryear states, it’s about beginnings, how you start and the progression to the end, the goal, and how we get there.  He wants the viewer to read their own journey into the piece along with finding connections to Booker T. Washington’s own struggles.


3.     Society for Contemporary Art.
5.     Stokstad, Marilyn; Cothren, Michael W. Art History. Pearson Publishing, Inc., publishing as Prentice Hall. New Jersey. 2011.


  1. I just saw this work of art for the first time in December, in the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. The display is really neat, because the doorway leading into the gallery is quite low - so when you peer in the door and approach the gallery (which has a vaulted ceiling to display the ladder), it seems like the ladder keeps going and going and going. And, like you said, with the "forced manipulation of perspective" makes the ladder seems to continue as well.

    -Prof. Bowen

  2. I have read about this piece a few times and I have always thought it really interesting that the beginning of the ladder seems to be just a little bit out of reach. Unattainability really frustrates me and I could not imagine how much that would drive me nuts.

  3. Great choice! I really like that this sculpture is so large and the colors chosen around it give you a sense of this is the ladder to the heavens. Or a Jacob's Ladder, taking each day and moving one step up as we are able. The shear size of the ladder and composition is what I think really makes this so striking. There is not a great deal of complexity, but this really stands out in how he has put the image together.

  4. I really enjoyed reading about this piece of art. It has a very interesting shape to it, and like you have pointed out, the frontal portion of the ladder gives us a sense of a journeys beginning, with twists and turns along the way. But the place where the ladder narrows and looks like it just disappears into the distance instead of ending, gives us a sense of an unreachable goal.

  5. This piece is really cool! I was surprised when you said that it was left its natural color (the ladder) since at first the image seems to support that it was a bright yellow, just because of the blueish black background. Which is even more interesting that the background/the surrounding room can have so much of an effect on the ladder itself that it almost causes it to change color. I also love how windey it is and how the shape becomes more organic as it reaches towards the unending ceiling. Good work! Great post! :D