Puryear and Gross are both American sculptors from different generations. Gross and Puryear have similar artistic interests, both are keen observers of the human condition, both are incredible craftsman and both use wood as a primary medium.
I have encountered Martins Puryear’s work three times in the past year and a half once at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, once at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and at his current show at the Morgan Library in Manhattan. Puryear is one of the most profoundly sophisticated American artists practicing today. I believe he is also under appreciated. The exhibit at The Morgan shows his diverse range of skills. The show includes drawings, prints and sculpture. Puryear has a number of sculptural forms that he continually reinvestigates. One is the human head and another is the Phrygian cap. The Phrygian cap dates to antiquity. It is associated with freedom especially with the emancipated slaves of ancient Rome. The hat made resurgence in France in the 17th century and became know as the bonnets rouges because of its popularity with revolutionaries. It then reappeared again in America in the years leading up to the American Revolution. Puryear’s sculpture Old Mole was exhibited in Represent: 200 years of African American Art that was held at The Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2014. (Despite the shows grand name it was a rather small show and not held in one of the museum’s main galleries. It is a shame that PMA did not take the opportunity to mount a major exhibition on this theme). Old Mole is made of bent pieces of cedar wood. The form of the sculpture is related to the form of the Phrygian cap. The bent wood sculpture demonstrates Puryear’s commitment to craft. His work finds a balance between traditional craft and “high art” Old Mole skillfully juxtaposes these concepts. At the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston I encountered Puryear’s sculpture Confessional it is similar in form to his sculptures that resemble the shape of a human head. However in place of a face there is a roughhewn wooden door. The door is pierced with a few small openings. The door is reminiscent of a door that conceals a confessor priest. The door does not open. There is a small box that blocks the door. It invites the viewer to kneel in front of the door. The form of the sculpture is made of wire mesh coated with tar it allows the viewer to peer inside. (I especially enjoyed this sculpture as it relates to my sculpture. Sanctuary that can be entered by getting on your hands and knees and entering it). Recently I saw the Puryear show at The Morgan Library. I enjoyed it more than any show I have seen in sometime. The show is a mixture of sculpture, prints and drawings. I was attracted to the show because I wanted to see his sculpture Vessel. It is the largest sculpture in the show. It is made of Eastern white pine, mesh, and tar. The wooden framework of the sculpture emulates the human head, one of Puryear’s recurring themes. This one is face down. Inside the sculpture is a wire mesh and tar three-dimensional ampersand. In this context the ampersand looks like a sitting human form (I had never noticed that an ampersand looked like a seated figure!). This sculpture evokes many different thoughts and interpretations. The sculpture that struck me the most however was one titled Face Down. The form of Face Down is again a human head. It is cast in white bronze. This sculpture obviously cast from a wooden original had holes drilled in the back of the head reminiscent of shortly cropped hair. Because Puryear is African-American and that the style of the hair indicates that the head could be African-American and that the sculpture appears face down one imagines in the dirt or pavement). It is a sculpture that indicates humiliation and suppression. With recent events in Ferguson, Baltimore, and Chicago etc. and the Black Lives Matter movement this is a profoundly symbolic, important and timely sculpture.
Martin Puryear: Multiple Dimensions at The Morgan Library
October 9, 2015 through January 10, 2016
225 Madison Avenue at 36th Street, New York, NY
The Chaim Gross show at Forum Gallery focuses on his sculptures that represent circus performers. Gross’s work of this genre explores the sculpture qualities of contortionists, aerialists, acrobats, tumblers and tightrope walkers. Gross used the theme of circus performers to explore formal aspects of sculpture. He explored compact closed forms, the use of negative space in sculpture and investigated the complex relationships of multiple figures. His sculptures stress the humanity of the performers. These are not just stylized generic figures they are individual people with inner lives. One, The Hanneford Family Acrobats speaks to a recurring Gross theme the theme of family. The Renee and Chaim Gross Foundation/museum is housed in his family home in Greenwich Village. When one visits the foundation one feels his sense of family. This was not a solitary artist. This was a man with a family that had his working studio in his home. One can image Chaim working in his studio while family life went on around him. The Renee and Chaim Gross Foundation is well worth a trip to Greenwich Village.
The Chaim Gross show is at Forum Gallery January 7 – February 13, 2016 opening Thursday January 7th. 730 Fifth Ave. NY, NY