Ladder for Booker T. Washington, ash and maple, 1996

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For most of his career, Martin Puryear has kept his distance from the main currents of the contemporary art world. When he was working with natural materials while pursuing his M.F.A. at Yale in the late ’60s, his contemporaries were busy playing with minimalism, post-minimalism, and conceptual art. At the time, many sculptors were removing traces of their handiwork and turning to methods of industrial production. Think of Donald Judd’s “specific objects,” nearly identical metal boxes arranged in rows, or Sol Lewitt’s “structures,” which were essentially arrangements of skeletal cubes.

The wooden objects with which Puryear made his reputation were quite different: They were organic-looking throwbacks, carved, joined, and planed using simple hand tools. Puryear has continued to look back to an earlier generation of modernists throughout his career, making works that recall British sculptor Barbara Hepworth’s reductive biomorphic shapes, pierced by holes and strings, or Romanian-born Constantin Brancusi’s columns, crudely carved wooden bases, and smooth, abstracted marble heads. But despite these affinities, Puryear’s work has never reflected an easy acceptance of modernism or any of the other influences that have crept into his work over the years. His sculptures typically suggest a cautious, reticent artist who’s determined to create but is uneasy about his relation to both the tradition in which he works and the culture into which he was born.

“Martin Puryear,” a retrospective of four decades’ worth of the artist’s work, comes to the National Gallery of Art from the Museum of Modern Art, where it was originally organized by John Elderfield, curator of painting and sculpture. The exhibit is an impressive homecoming for the D.C. native—Puryear was born in the District in 1941 and earned his B.A. at Catholic University—though it’s an awkward fit physically for the National Gallery. In the show’s D.C. incarnation, 46 sculptures, most of them typified by obscure cross-cultural mash-ups, elusive lines, and vigorously worked surfaces, straddle both the east and west buildings, not feeling entirely at home in either.

Considering the ambivalence and sense of anachronism built into Puryear’s work, the split decision on housing the show is apt. But the galleries of the west building seem a tad claustrophobic for Puryear’s eccentric monoliths. The east building installation, meanwhile, ends up looking a bit like an afterthought—six otherwise quite strong pieces, four of which are plunked down on the ground floor of I.M Pei’s structure, left to contend with the Andy Goldsworthy pieces nearby and the Alexander Calder mobile directly above. It’s almost as if they were unpacked in the middle of the room and left there, still awaiting their intended destination.

One of those four pieces is C.F.A.O. (2006-07). It’s an atypical work in Puryear’s oeuvre, because it contains both an unadulterated found object—a blue wooden wheelbarrow—and explicit figuration in the form of an oversized African mask. The wheelbarrow serves as a base, supporting the rest of the elements of the roughly 8-foot-tall piece. Perched atop it, the hollowed-out inside of the mask is plain to see; what’s obscured is the face that one would expect to be presented to the world. That face is cradled and concealed by a dense, spiky web of unadorned strips of pine.

Though it’s an unusual work for Puryear, the title hints at some of his most common artistic concerns. It’s an abbreviation for Compagnie Française de l’Afrique Occidental, a French trading company once based in Sierra Leone. As it turns out, Puryear spent two years in that country with the Peace Corps in 1964. There, the artist taught rural African villagers how to speak French. He also learned joinery from local woodworkers and became fascinated with the products of manual labor. The people he met were no longer able to make a living with their crafts; they preserved the ancient techniques mostly as ritual.

After his stint in the Peace Corps, Puryear shifted gears, studying fine art for two years at the Royal Swedish Academy of Arts in Stockholm. He learned printmaking by day, experimented with sculpture at night, and visited furniture factories in Denmark in his spare time. From studying traditional craft in West Africa, the area to which many black Americans like Puryear could trace their slave ancestry, to steeping himself in the European canon in Sweden: That’s a pretty schizophrenic mix. Echoing that mix, the face in C.F.A.O. recalls not only the 19th-century mask from the African Fang people that it copies but also the stylizations of white European artists like Pablo Picasso, who had a significant collection of African objects.

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Picasso, however, was stealing pictorial conventions from a tradition he didn’t really understand—he stripped motifs of their purpose, using them only for novelty’s sake, turning useful things into useless, rarefied objects for galleries or museums. Puryear’s repurposing may resemble Picasso’s superficially, but the piece is filled with uneasiness about the point of contact for these two disparate cultures. The pine frame connecting to and obscuring the mask’s face reads as a sort of scaffolding—as if work to construct or remodel an image of native postcolonial Africans is underway but incomplete. That the whole piece is so conveniently portable—loaded into a wheelbarrow, ready to be installed anywhere—reinforces associations with colonialism or cultural theft.

Throughout the show, Puryear’s materials reflect not only the heyday of European modernism but other eras as well: they speak to Paleolithic artifacts, ancient American Indian dwellings, and remnants of 19th-century wooden sailing vessels. Sometimes Puryear leaves his surfaces raw and scraped; other times he patinates them, giving them the false look of antiquity. Take, for example, his “Ring” series from the early ’80s. Most of these wall-mounted wooden hoops measure around 60 inches in diameter. Six of them occupy the second room of the west building installation. Some are quite plain, like an untitled piece from 1978, which is essentially a roughly stripped sapling fitted with a handle at each end and drawn into a loose knot, resembling a crude tool. But the large, smooth, elegantly curving semicircle of pine Dream of Pairing (1981) features a mottled greenish-blue paint job, punctuated with flecks of salmon and red rust. It evokes a colossal piece of ancient bronze jewelry, plucked from the ocean after having remained underwater for centuries.

All of Puryear’s sculptures beg to be examined from multiple vantage points over long stretches of time. Ladder for Booker T. Washington (1996), for example, is a snakelike, meandering sapling that has been split in half vertically and fitted with rungs. Hanging by itself in the west building’s rotunda, the piece clearly is meant to serve as a sort of focal point for the show. Unfortunately, instead of soaring against the rotunda’s oculus, it tends to get lost in the busy architecture.

The piece seems to extend from eye level to some impossibly distant point overhead—it’s 36 feet long but appears infinitely longer. The ladder, as it turns out, is an exercise in forced perspective: The rungs get shorter, smaller, and increase in frequency as the sapling tapers off near the piece’s top. The lowest rung is about 2 feet long; the uppermost one is less than 2 inches across. In other words, it’s another useless evocation of a traditionally made, useful object.

But, again, there’s the ladder’s title to consider. Booker T. Washington was a controversial figure in the black community of the late 19th century. He maintained that blacks needed to focus on education, personal excellence, and good works; he avoided direct political engagement and preferred instead to seek out sympathetic whites with whom to work around segregation. As Puryear explains in an interview in the show’s catalog, his ladder can be seen to represent “the kind of gradual, illusory notion of upward progress that Washington encouraged blacks to adopt in the nineteenth century against an overwhelming set of obstacles to our advancement.”

As Ladder for Booker T Washington suggests, the most resonant pieces in the show invariably address race and figures who’ve navigated racial divisions. Jim Beckwourth is another such figure, a man of mixed race who grew up a slave, befriended American Indian tribes, and worked as a translator and guide for the Army in the mid-19th century. The piece Some Lines for Jim Beckwourth (1978) is a series of long rawhide strips, all punctuated by tufts of black or brown animal hair and running horizontally along the wall, parallel to one another, looking like some sort of abstracted cursive—a history written in twisted ribbons of animal skin.

One wonders how closely Puryear identifies with figures like Beckwourth, who lived his life on the edges of the American mainstream. Puryear doesn’t just reference the look of old-fashioned modernism in his work; his almost monastic studio practice embodies the ethos of the earlier era. In a time when many better-known artists play the role of public figures, Puryear prefers to remain aloof, always returning in the studio, “to the same point but at a different place and time [to] rework ideas that I’ve reworked in the past and rework old material in a new way,” as he puts it in the show’s catalog.

That internal focus makes a sustained reading of his work through the lens of race difficult, especially given the inordinate emphasis the artist places on issues of surface and technique. In the catalog, he explains: “I’m interested in making sculpture that tries to describe itself in the world, work that acknowledges its maker and offers an experience that’s probably more tactile and sensate than strictly cerebral.” To that end, Puryear deliberately leaves telltale signs of his process, like the pentimenti that a painter might offer to give a sense of a picture’s life and construction. The bare red cedar strips woven into Old Mole (1985) feature exposed steel and copper nail heads and occasional ruled pencil lines. Alien Huddle (1993-95) fuses several spherical shapes, each made from tapered, joined strips of red cedar and pine, but the entire surface of the piece is left scarred by staples that have clearly been driven, then removed. (Puryear seems to enjoy planing and carving but not sanding.) He not only allows the viewer to see his process, he fetishizes it, making every tool mark a sort of adornment.

And while pieces like Ladder and C.F.A.O. may relate directly to the artist’s own experiences, Puryear tends to keep his personal feelings under wraps, concealing them and making a game out of that concealment. Hidden hollow spaces have long been a common motif in Puryear’s work. Pieces like Dowager (1990) and Confessional (1996-2000) are roughly 7-foot-tall overturned wire baskets with skins made from overlapping squares of mesh, all joining at odd angles and covered with tar, which clots the mesh weave here and there. Light travels through these screens irregularly, and the viewer struggles to see inside the hollow figures. Confessional suggests a gigantic primordial head; where the face should be, Puryear has installed a flat wooden panel with various small slits and holes that invite the viewer to drop to one knee and peer inside. The piece is a perfect evocation of Puryear’s desire to share with his audience while keeping to himself, offering only hints and beguiling shapes.

Puryear can seem like a stubborn, marginal figure, and much about the way he works marks him as a dinosaur. But in other ways, his work and life are surprisingly in tune with current events. Puryear is quoted in the catalog noting that black artists like Adrian Piper, Kara Walker, and Glenn Ligon have all dealt directly with charged, stereotypical imagery and language in their art—and yet they’ve become fairly enfranchised by now in contemporary art, fitting “almost seamlessly into a larger, more mainstream art practice today.” Yet the forthright appeals those artists offer don’t reflect current political and social realities nearly as effectively as Puryear’s evasions and elisions. This year’s presidential election features a mixed-race candidate identifying himself as definitively black. In a world where identity is increasingly fluid, dislocation is the rule, and caution is paramount, Martin Puryear, unexpectedly, seems relevant.

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