Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy - Untitled

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Image of Untitled

Martin Puryear , b. May 23, 1941


55 5/16 in. x 54 in. (140.49 cm x 137.16 cm)

Medium and Support: Laminated basswood, hard maple, milk paint, and gesso
Credit Line: Gift of William M. Drake, Jr. (PA 1950), Addison Art Drive
Accession Number: 1991.1
Current Location: Loan


Untitled (1981) is part of a suite of wall works that Martin Puryear completed between 1978 and 1985. These relate to their immediate predecessors, linear wall "drawings," and to concurrent public projects that he created in Illinois, where he was living at the time.

Like the horizontal wall pieces, these sculptures were initiated in a spirit of complete independence. With the loss of his studio and most of his possessions to fire in 1977, Puryear recounted to Neal Benezra that after "a period of grieving" there followed "an incredible lightness, freedom, and mobility.”1 Without a referent body of his own work, his hands could take him wherever his mind chose, regardless of past experiments, style, or practice.

The artist's early pieces for the wall are not pictorial or illusionistic but rather utilize wood and rawhide to explore linear function; most of them, in fact, do have volume. The irregular thrust of saplings in Some Tales (1977)—one of only three works rescued from the fire—or the strong horizontality of helical rawhide strips in Some Lines for Jim Beckwourth (1978) give one the sensation of "reading" the walls and the materials as one would a book.

Created for the Whitney Biennial of 1979, M. Bastion Bouleversé (1978-79) used a long, delicately curving branch to delineate a 17-by-8-foot space on the wall. The allusion to an aerial view in the physical aspects and naming of M. Bastion Bouleverse are borne out in the public project Bodark Arc (1982), located in the Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park, Governors State University, University Park, Illinois. Covering almost four acres, it is an experimential piece, composed primarily of a rough-hewn path leading through trees and high grass, and over a pond to a series of secluded objects.2

In wall sculptures such as the Addison's Untitled, Puryear combines the operation of circularity with objects that are not freestanding and rooted in three-dimensional space, but that have to be supported by a vertical surface. The ringlike forms of these pieces are also consciously created by the artist as formats for investigations of the workings of mass with color. These range from layers of polychrome to subtle tinting. The circles are rarely perfect or closed, often ending in eloquent carved details which belie their desire for completeness.

All of these qualities are readily apparent in Untitled, a piece acquired by Chicago architect and Phillips Academy alumnus William Drake (PA 1950), which seems never to have been shown publicly before being donated to the Addison Gallery in 1991. It is a huge bracelet about 41/2 feet in diameter, a delicately scumbled, curving, gray-green dowel whose mottled and stubbly veneer is reminiscent of a covering of pungent moss or lichen. The halves of the circle come together in conelike segments, one red, one white; the viscosity of milk paint and gesso creating a skin that is at once translucent and opaque. Yet these parts do not function to join the whole, and the marriage of the sections forever awaits consummation. The shape of Untitled (and other Puryear works in this genre), its sense of incompleteness, and variation on the infinite perfection of circularity finally allude to its existential conundrum. Neither a true sculpture nor a drawing nor a painting, it combines elements of all three in an investigation of the possibilities of form.

Kellie Jones, Addison Gallery of American Art: 65 Years, A Selective Catalogue (Andover, Massachusetts: Addison Gallery of American Art, 1996), pp. 453

1. Quoted in Neal Benezra, “‘The Thing Shines, Not the Maker’; The Sculpture of Martin Puryear," in Benezra, Martin Puryear (Chicago and New York: The Art Institute of Chicago and Thames and Hudson, 1991), p. 24.

2. For Bodark Arc and M. Bastion Bouleversé, see ibid., pp. 35-42, figs. 22-25, 27.

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