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Puryear @ the National Gallery

It would be near impossible to top the installation of Martin Puryear's incredible sculptures in the atrium at MoMA this past year: the space was made for his work and the white cube galleries allowed for a clean viewing for the remainder of the collection. I was, however, looking forward to the next venue, the neoclassic background of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

The atrium of the NGA's East Building proved to be a challenge, swallowing the work in granite and Tennessee marble, treating them as toys under the floating Calder mobile. (In response to a question at the press preview about a relationship to Calder's art, Puryear spoke of his nine months working at Calder's studio in France, getting to know his family, his work regimen and deep respect for Calder's mixture of playfulness and seriousness; qualities he considered were in his own work.)

As with the East Building, unfortunately, the rotunda of West Building is not very gracious to Puryear's Ladder For Booker T. Washington either. When I first heard of its placement there I thought it was a perfect choice -- dueling cultural aesthetics; however, the piece seems insignificant, hung off center to the rotunda's massive black marble columns and fountain.

What works best, as I had hoped, are Puryear's works displayed in the more intimate formal galleries of the West Building, especially how these masterfully crafted yet often quirky forms relate even between rooms, such as the long graceful shaft of Desire against the rugged structure of Thicket. Desire, which could owe its origin to some form of antique farm equipment or maybe a lighthouse, grandly occupies its own gallery, a very different experience than the MoMA exhibit, another example of how sensitive the work is to location. I'm going to let Ionarts summer intern Hannah finish with her observations of the day.

Morning was something I had been looking forward to, but the reality of the early hour wake-up had made me, for a moment, a little less excited for the journey. My day seemed to be all about journeys really: first our car ride to the train station, the subsequent hour we spent on the train and finally our 5-something block walk from the train station to the National Gallery. When finally arriving and after listening to Mr. Puryear speak about his work, I realized that the subjects he chooses to focus on in his work are his own journeys, the experiences that have brought him to where he is today.

As is true of any artist, the works of Martin Puryear seem to me to be a personal representation of his travels, experiences, and interests throughout his life. Mr. Puryear's unique life has led to the creation of a select group of sculptures that highlight the path and his learning that he has gained from journeys throughout the world.

While speaking of his love for nature as a child he recalled finding himself in a city -- Washington, D.C. -- that was separated into two different worlds within. During his early years family vacations such as camping or trips to the Natural History museum would take him away from the discomfort. Searching for a new environment Mr. Puryear enrolled in a university in Sweden, where he studied Scandinavian building and furniture crafting. Much of his work shows the tools and skills he was taught during that time. Pieces such as Lever No.1, which has the distinct characteristics of an early Scandinavian viking ship. The work feels like a modern interpretation of an old world vessel, using the same simple techniques as would have been used hundreds of years ago. Other pieces such as Bower have cage structures resembling the ribs of a ship. He connects his interest in nature and the craft of ship building and the correlation between shipbuilders and their uses of the animal form to keep their ships afloat.

The scale of each piece gives one the sensation of walking through a field planted with crops that are head high: one is not able to ignore a single piece as you walk immersed in each. When standing in this space I was made to feel quite literally small by the size of these sculptures, in particular Desire. The immense size shuts me up, to have the experience Puryear hopes for rather than allowing me to try to (by my nature) define so much. Mr. Puryear has said he wants his work to "delight" those who take the time to stop and appreciate them. By better understanding Puryear's story, I was able to appreciate his sculptures as being single thoughts that make up his intriguing and truly original tale, while seeing a bit of his own personal journey.

Martin Puryear opens on Sunday, June 22nd, and runs through August 28th at the National Gallery of Art. More images of the exhibit on Flickr and from the MoMA exhibit here and in my MoMA post.

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