Building a Vision From the Ground Up

Hunter Drohojowska-Philp is a frequent contributor to Calendar

A fishnet hemisphere of sandblasted stainless-steel tubes towers 45 feet over the plaza of the Getty Center in Brentwood, framing the bright blue sky. The sculpture, by Martin Puryear, resembles a basket balanced on its side, or a baseball catcher's mask perched on short, metal legs.

"That Profile," as the sculpture is titled, is the fourth and most recent contemporary artwork commissioned by the Getty Trust, the funding organization that supports the Getty Center and its museum, the latter of which primarily devotes its attention to art made before the 20th century.

Lisa Lyons, a leading contemporary art curator and consultant to the Getty, oversaw the work's permanent installation, as well as the accompanying exhibition of Puryear's work on view at the Getty Museum through Jan. 9. Her task was to find a work that would help vitalize the vast, open plaza that greets visitors first arriving at the center by tram.

"I recommended Martin because I felt that the Getty should look to an artist who had a track record of producing successful large-scale works for public places," Lyons said. "I also thought that the culmination in his work of precise geometry and organic form would play well on the plaza." Puryear, 58, lives with his wife and daughter in Accord, N.Y., but came to L.A. recently to oversee the installation of the 4-ton sculpture. Standing on the Getty's glittering marble plaza, he squints at the site of his work and explains, "I wanted to work with line rather than plane, describing volume with linear elements because I didn't want to make a work that was in any way like a barrier. I really wanted transparency, a work that was going to present you with the sky and space. I wanted a work that was airy and light, that describes space without obscuring it or closing it in."

Over the course of the past decade, Puryear has completed half a dozen public works, including last year's 40-foot-tall paraboloid of hammered bronze, "Bearing Witness," for the plaza of the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington, D.C. Awarded a MacArthur Foundation fellowship in 1989, Puryear is critically acclaimed as a sculptor who takes pride in crafting his own large-scale work out of wood or metal. Accustomed to feeling his way through the creative process in the privacy of his own studio, Puryear has not entirely enjoyed dealing with the teams of fabricators and engineers necessary for large-scale public work. "There is a tremendous amount of communication required between myself and the people who are going to realize the work," he says with a sigh. "Holding on to the idea I had at the germination of the project, through the process of scaling up and doing feasibility studies, I struggle with that."

To visualize the completed sculpture, Puryear completed two maquettes to address the details and materials of "That Profile." The sandblasted struts have a velvety gray texture, while the knots that appear to tie the crosspieces are made of silvery patinated bronze. The piece was fabricated by Amaral Custom Fabrications, yacht builders in Seekonk, Mass., who also constructed his piece in Washington.

Seated in an office at the Getty, Puryear admits to being ambivalent about his success in the competitive realm of public art. "You have to make the strongest and most intense work that you can. As an artist, it's not your business to pander to people's limitations. Still, when you are doing something for a public space, at least you acknowledge the people you are making it for."

Asked if his title, "That Profile," refers to a specific person, Puryear says, "I am ambivalent about [titles] because I think they can close off people's experience of the work if they stop at the name and don't go further. . . . I like to think the titles have a value that is close to poetry. They take you to another realm."

Puryear seeks poetic value in his sculptures as well. "I think poetry has always seemed to me to have a real strong place in the way I see art that moves me. I think there is a sort of mediation in the work between the natural and the cultural, between the man-made and the natural. The frisson between those two worlds is really interesting to me."

Puryear's work often combines geometric and organic forms, using a variety of woods that he bends, cuts and twists, then adding surfaces of tar, leather and wire mesh, and the result is a sense of effortless elegance. During his 1994 retrospective, organized by the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman called the work "touchingly soft-spoken and self-effacing."

Raised in Washington, D.C., the son of a post office supervisor and grade-school teacher, Puryear is one of seven siblings, most of whom are involved in the creative arts. His earliest inclination was to become a nature illustrator. "When you are a kid, you don't know what you can do with art. I never knew of anybody who made his living as an artist." He studied art at Catholic University and might have continued as a figurative painter had he not gone to Sierra Leone as a member of the Peace Corps in 1964.

As an African American, he was profoundly affected by the experience, especially the high level of craftsmanship in the village to which he was assigned, where there was no electricity. He says, "It was the first time I had ever seen people who didn't have technology who were very productive in making things. This was a society that relied on their hands to produce people's daily needs. It was very liberating when I got back to the States and needed to set up a studio but didn't have the wherewithal to invest in machinery. I knew that I could pretty much make a lot of my work without this arsenal of technical backup."

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Because of his interest in Scandinavian design, in 1966, Puryear moved to Stockholm, where he studied art at the Swedish Royal Academy of Art for two years. When he returned to the U.S. in 1969, he found the art world liberated from the restrictions of tradition. Exhibitions of Minimal and Post-Minimal sculpture, from Donald Judd to Eva Hesse, had altered profoundly the sense of sculpture. He attended graduate school at Yale University, graduating with a master's degree in 1971, and set up a studio in Brooklyn. Puryear took the Minimalist idea of simplified form and transformed it according to his own sensibilities.

"I knew who I was," he says. "I knew what my predilections were. I knew I was drawn to work by the hand. I'm a maker, somebody who actually builds, who takes a certain delight in the process of making. That is totally antithetical to what a lot of Minimalists practice."

Asked if his time in Africa and race played a part in the way he developed his sculpture, he pauses and adds softly, "I think it has to. But it's not a way that I always want to make overt; it has to be my choice how I construct that. I like to think there is a lot more to my work than an admiration for the tribal. Yet, I feel strongly that as African Americans, we have been cut off from a culture that defines us so profoundly. Unlike other immigrants, we can't trace our ancestry back to the old country. I think it's a tragedy that we have to construct an image of being African American for ourselves, so in that sense, I feel privileged to have spent some time there.

"I think creative people almost have an obligation to acknowledge the construct of being a black American and acknowledge the effect it has on us, but not to be limited by it. That construct serves to limit people's images of themselves."

Puryear began exhibiting his sculpture and completed his first major outdoor sculpture for Artpark, in Lewiston, N.Y., in 1977, but his career was set back by a fire in his studio that destroyed much of his early work and his documentation. "It was devastating," he recalls. "It took a lot of my past away."

The following year, he moved to Chicago, where he is represented by Donald Young Gallery. Nine years ago, he moved to upstate New York. Although he has taught at various colleges and art schools, it is largely through grants, sales and public commissions that he has supported his art. Puryear says there is a compelling reason to take on public commissions. "The work gets out of the museum or private collection, the sanctioned spaces of art, and goes out to take its chances in the world."

Nonetheless, he says, "I feel a hunger to work on a manageable scale after these kinds of big projects. In fact, I'm going to insist on working on a smaller scale. Once you've done a few of these large-scale things, like the columns I installed at Battery Park last year, people associate your work with that scale. It makes me want to go back to the studio and shut the door and get busy with work that I can physically embrace myself, with my own hands. These big things turn the artist's role into something more like a contractor. So I am very anxious to get back to making things." *

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"MARTIN PURYEAR: THAT PROFILE" at the Getty Center Tram Arrival Plaza, 1200 Getty Center Drive. Dates: Thursday and Friday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission: Free. Parking: $5. Reservations required. Phone: (310) 440-7300.

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