Crafty Homecoming


National Gallery Showcases Washingtonian Martin Puryear

Almost any artist would relish the opportunity to show their work in a prized hometown venue. But when that local venue is the National Gallery of Art and the artist happens to be internationally acclaimed sculptor Martin Puryear, such a show takes on an entirely new dimension — not the least of which is the distinct variety of shapes and sizes that are the hallmark of Puryear’s simple yet stunningly powerful pieces.

Forty-six of those pieces are on display in the artist’s first retrospective in the United States in more than a decade. And fittingly, this “local” artist’s work has been installed throughout the National Gallery — in both the East and West Buildings (with the majority in the West side).

Many visitors to the National Gallery might consciously or unconsciously categorize art as either modern or classical depending on whether it appears in the East or West Building. But the physical placement of this exhibit has more to do with the architectural opportunities each wing affords to fully showcase Puryear’s sculptures, some of which are small, wall-mounted pieces, while others reach up to the ceiling or occupy an entire room. Thus, some require the viewer to stand back for perspective, while others demand detailed examination.

As National Gallery Director Earl A. Powell III put it: “The elegance of the National Gallery’s two buildings, offering both classical and modern architectural settings, highlights the impressive scale of many of the sculptures while allowing our visitors to focus their attention on the handmade aspects of Puryear’s art.”

Born in Washington, D.C., in 1941, Puryear’s art is grounded in sculpture, architecture and craft traditions from around the globe. As a young man, he studied craft making, learning how to build guitars, baskets, furniture and even canoes. This attraction to and even love of natural materials used in his craftwork is evident throughout his sculptures, which are also characterized by their minimalist yet striking geometric forms.

For instance, his giant globular wire mesh and tar baskets with wood lids look like safe havens for island castaways. Indeed, one of them is titled “Maroon,” and seems to combine Puryear’s interest in boat building, weaving and furniture making. In sharp contrast is “Circumbent,” an elegant curved single piece of bent and dyed ash wood.

Then there is the giant wheel, spoke and basket effect of “Desire,” which occupies an entire exhibition room — the largest of Puryear’s work on view in the West Building. And at the center of the rotunda in the West Building, museum-goers can experience the 36-foot-tall wooden “Ladder for Booker T. Washington,” a spindly, crooked ladder made of jointed ash wood that narrows at the top, creating a distorted sense of perspective. Other sculptures, meanwhile, use cedar and pine, gumwood, feathers and even rawhide in their compositions — a reflection of Puryear’s own wide range of interests, which include ornithology, falconry and archery.

Puryear graduated from Catholic University with a bachelor’s degree in art and a strong interest in painting. Later, he joined the Peace Corps and was assigned to Sierra Leone, where he taught English, French and biology, also organizing the equivalent of an art club there. It was through the Peace Corps experience that he was able to observe the pottery, weaving and carving techniques of local artisans that would influence his later work.

Puryear then went to Sweden to study printmaking at the Royal Academy of Art in Stockholm, in the process learning about Scandinavian furniture making. By this time, his interest had shifted from painting to sculpture, and when he returned to the United States, Puryear enrolled at Yale University, earning a master’s of fine arts in sculpture.

Today, Puryear’s sculptures span an artistic career of more than 30 years, and there is no definitive way to categorize these pieces. Rather, the viewer should be open to the many ideas presented in his art, including themes of identity, culture and history. But there is also something warm and comforting in his work, as Puryear has so obviously concentrated on the crafts and woodworking traditions that he loves, rather than being overly burdened by the minimalist influence prevalent in his formative years. Puryear’s sculptures are indeed abstract, but their clean, organic shapes and materials are constant reminders of artisans who work closely with the earth’s resources.

As a child growing up in Washington, Puryear reputedly went on frequent trips with his parents and siblings to the Smithsonian museums and the National Gallery of Art. It’s been a long journey from those childhood days, but the Martin Puryear exhibition is truly a homecoming not to be missed.

Martin Puryear through Sept. 28 National Gallery of Art on the National Mall between 3rd and 9th Streets at Constitution Avenue, NW For more information, please call (202) 737-4215 or visit

About the Author

Rachel Ray is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.