In the midst of preparing for his retrospective at MoMA, Martin Puryear took time out to talk about his life and work with the Rail’s Consulting Editor, David Levi Strauss. They are neighbors in the Hudson River Valley, and the conversation took place at Strauss’s home near High Falls, not far from Puryear’s house and studio. The exhibition is organized for MoMA by John Elderfield, and it will be on view there from November 4, 2007 to January 14, 2008, and then travel to the Modern Art Museum of Forth Worth, Texas (February 24–May 18, 2008); the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (June 22–September 28, 2008); and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (November 1, 2008–January 25, 2009).
David Levi Strauss (Rail): When I came to see you at the museum on Friday, to view all the works being installed, including the new piece, “Ad Astra,” which you made especially for the atrium, it was quite a scene, with museum visitors gathered all around the edges watching you and your assistants install the pieces. That familiar space was entirely transformed.
Martin Puryear: Well, the new piece has a very long sapling attached, like an attenuated shaft for the wagon, stretching upward “to the stars.” There are two Latin phrases the title derives from: Ad astra per ardua, meaning “to the stars through difficulty,” and Ad astra per aspera, which translates as “to the stars through rough things or dangers.”
Rail: Ad astra per aspera is the motto of Kansas, where I grew up, and I’ve always thought it fitting. Is that long shaft really one piece or is it joined?
Puryear: The main section is one piece, 48 feet in length, with an additional piece spliced on that extends it another 15 feet, so it stretches all the way up and a few inches beyond the atrium’s ceiling, which is 60 feet high, to the sixth floor. It’s slightly angled, so it’s a bit longer than the ceiling is high. As you noticed, it extends up to the edge of the elevated walkway on the sixth floor level.
Rail: So in the atrium are arranged the giant wheel of “Desire,” connected by a long wooden shaft or axle to a conical pylon made of wood lattice, with “Ad Astra,” and the “Ladder for Booker T. Washington,” suspended high in the air. On the wall is “Some Tales,” the earliest piece in the show, from 1975-78, and “Greed’s Trophy,” which MoMA owns. And then the bulk of the show will be installed on the sixth floor, with works spanning the last thirty years?
Puryear: A little over 30 years, yes, because “Some Tales,” was begun in 1975, and I managed to just finish “Ad Astra” a few days before it had to be picked up from the studio, which was what I wanted: to have something that was absolutely new, and not working in a way that has a lot of control and predictability. What was interesting for me was to see how these sculptures, which span over 32 years from the earliest to the most recent, manage to feel like they’re all members of the same family.
Rail: Looking at “Ad Astra,” I was trying to remember whether you’ve ever done anything with that much vertical reach, especially in an indoor piece.
Puryear: It actually connects all the way back to “Box and Pole,” a piece I did for Artpark in 1977, consisting of a Canadian hemlock box and one very long straight pole out of Southern yellow pine, close to 100 feet high. But you’re right. That was an outdoor commission.
Rail: From what I could tell, the arrangement of the works on the sixth floor will allow for ample space between them—there appeared to be a lot of half-walls separating them.
Puryear: Well, that’s a complicated and interesting issue because, as we were laying out the show, we understood that each work needed its independence as an object and generous space around it. Also, the traffic at MoMA is not something you take lightly. There are 42 works in the sixth floor galleries, but we worked hard not to make the place seem crowded. The planning for this exhibition far exceeded anything I’ve been involved in before.
Rail: I think this will be the first time that a group of works has been able to stand up to the massive volume of that atrium. The combination of “Desire,” “Ladder for Booker T. Washington,” “Some Tales,” “Greed’s Trophy,” and the new piece “Ad Astra” is visually and conceptually exciting. However, I wasn’t sure what I thought about the “Ladder” being suspended so high in the air, after becoming used to seeing it hovering just off the ground in Fort Worth.
Puryear: When I built it I wasn’t really thinking of an ideal way to show it. But once it was finished I realized it was probably something that should exist in a kind of idealized space that does not invite any kind of accessibility, approachability, or usability, whether real or imagined. It’s just an image or a presence in a space. The whole notion of making such a forced perspective, an artificially attenuated illusion, has always interested me. Actually, before I built that piece, I was approached about a project in Japan for which I made a proposal. It was for an enormous meeting hall, the Tokyo International Forum, designed by Rafael Viñoly. What I had proposed was a 250-foot ladder, where the illusion of forced perspective could be indistinguishable from the actual diminution over such a long distance. You wouldn’t know whether the tip of the ladder was really as far away from you as it seemed in a space that vast.
Rail: You would have started very wide at the bottom?
Puryear: Yes, and gone up diagonally through the building. I have a sketch at home of the entire thing drawn to scale. It’s on a long scroll [Laughter]. Anyway, it was never realized. So that’s when I began to think of it on a more modest scale.
Rail: The original idea was still for a split sapling?
Puryear: It would have been that shape, but in that larger dimension and scale it would have to have been constructed differently, and probably been hollow. It would have had to be an artificially contorted construction. The ladder I ended up making was in fact a naturally grown and wavy sapling, a young ash tree.
Rail: Let’s talk a little about your early years. You moved around quite a lot over the last 30 years. In 1973, you established a studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and had a very productive four years there. You must have been one of the few artists who lived and worked in Williamsburg at that time!
Puryear: Well, of course when I came to New York I began looking for workspace in Soho, because that’s where everything was happening, and the lofts I visited there would’ve been perfect for me, except that by the time I arrived they were completely out of reach financially. I didn’t have a steady job at the time, so like a lot of artists in those days I was doing anything I could to survive. I was doing some building and construction work, with my brother at times or by myself, in the city. I worked as a set carpenter in a photo studio for a while. I did a couple of renovation jobs. I was doing all sorts of freelance work and putting ads in the Village Voice to get work. Then I got an offer for a teaching position at the University of Maryland, College Park, which is right outside of Washington, D.C., where I grew up. I went down and interviewed and figured this would at least give me a reliable, steady way to survive and keep my studio rent paid in New York. So I took the job even though it involved a four-hour commute. And I did that for almost four years. Commuting was not fun, but I look back on my time in Williamsburg with a lot of fond memories. I had as much contact with the art life in Manhattan as I wanted, but I also had what felt like a quiet place to live and develop my work.
Rail: Did you like teaching then?
Puryear: I’ve always liked teaching. I can’t say that I like what often comes with it, all the committee work, and some of the campus politics drove me absolutely crazy. But I did like working with students, especially those who were motivated. What you can share is your own passion, and if they pick up on it, it can be rewarding. But it was not a way to get a lot of work done. I worked like mad. I was there three days a week, and then I would have a four-day weekend. One day would invariably be taken up making the transition from the work week to being in the studio, and vice versa. So I essentially had a three-day weekend working in the studio, which was great as far as it went, but it didn’t go far enough in terms of really being able to be productive.
Rail: In this show, “Bask,” “Circumbent,” and “Some Tales” are all from that period. So they must have survived the fire that destroyed most of your early work on February 1, 1977.
Puryear: Everything else that was in my place, which was on Berry Street, not far from the Marcy Avenue stop on the J or M train, got destroyed in the fire. It was a second floor loft with a freight elevator—a wonderful space, with a view of Manhattan, for very little money. At that time it was a fraction of what I would have to pay in Manhattan for a comparable space. I could even park my truck in a locked courtyard with a roll-down gate. But if you left your car outside with your hood unlocked, in half an hour your battery would be gone, invariably. And if you left it for much longer, other parts would disappear. There were just a lot of people struggling. It was an intense but also a very rich time.
Rail: So the whole building was destroyed?
Puryear: Actually, four floors were destroyed, which were connected to an enormous complex of loft buildings on two separate blocks, which still remain. It was a very cold winter that year, so they had cut off the water to our sprinkler system because the pipes had frozen. And that’s why the fire went as fast as it did. Luckily, I had an adjoining space off to one side that I had set up as sort of a gallery for myself, in which I kept “Some Tales,” “Circumbent,” “Bask” and a few other pieces. It was not part of the main space and it was closed off. So those few pieces were recovered nearly intact from the fire, but everything else, including all my personal possessions, books, and tools, everything I’d done on paper to that point, and most of my slides and photographs of work were gone.
Rail: This was a real turning point. As it turns out, it was also the point of departure for this whole retrospective . . . .
Puryear: That’s true. It’s the genesis of the whole growth of my work from that point on. And I did feel in some strange way that suddenly I had no past, but since my past was obliterated, I felt liberated to move forward into a new future.
Rail: In 1978 you moved to Chicago and spent the next 12 years there. That was when you really became known internationally.
Puryear: After trying for awhile to gain some visibility in New York, it just wasn’t happening, because I didn’t have the ability to do what we call today “networking,” productively. I mean, I certainly enjoyed peoples’ company, and I had a lot of friends, but I didn’t seem able to translate that into a contact that would get me someplace in terms of serious gallery exposure. It just wasn’t something that I was good at. I think Chicago at the time was a more open place. I had one person who told me when I arrived in Chicago, “You’re going exactly the opposite direction from most people, who leave Chicago for New York. We really appreciate that you’re here.” Not that I was well-known when I left New York, but when I got to Chicago some people had heard of me and I felt very welcomed.
Rail: It’s also nice to be missed. When you left Chicago in 1990 and moved here to Ulster County, the art critic for the Chicago Tribune wrote, “We lost not only a gifted sculptor, but also the first Chicago artist who had conquered the rest of the world since the photographer Harry Callahan did it in the 1960s.” And when your retrospective opened at the Hirshhorn Museum in 1992, Washington, D.C. treated you like a returning hometown hero. This is Paul Richard in the Washington Post: “Not since the 1960s, and the bursting into fame of Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland and the painters of the Color School has a modernist from Washington earned such well-deserved acclaim.”
Puryear: I think maybe the fact that I was born there, educated there, and came back and could be claimed as a genuine Washingtonian, born and bred, may have had something to do with it. And with Chicago, I was there long enough—twelve years—to have a tremendous number of friendships and contacts. I did a lot of work there, had a number of shows, and got my first really important gallery connection which I still have to this day, with Donald Young Gallery (originally Young-Hoffman).
Rail: On March 30, 1991, your daughter Sascha was born, and this was another turning point.
Puryear: It sure was! [Laughs] As you well know . . . from one dad to another. It’s been by equal measure a challenge and an amazing liberation from the kind of self-absorption that I was able to indulge in, even after I got married. Once I became a father, being married was still profoundly life-changing, but not nearly as much of a turning point as becoming a father.
Rail: We moved to Ulster County from San Francisco in 1993, three years after you got here, and our daughters, Sascha and Maya, are less than two years apart in age. I remember when I first met you, you were talking about how you needed to step back from doing so many big public commissions so you could spend more time in the studio, and it seemed like that was a struggle for a while.
Puryear: I was getting commissions that it felt crazy not to accept. But it might have been wiser to just stay in the studio. I don’t do commissions that efficiently, because for every project I tend to take on extensive research and development. I try to take into account the factors of site, material, scale, and context, so each one ends up being a completely different entity. Since they get fabricated, I have to find a way to stay as connected to the process as I possibly can. Being the obsessive and controlling person that I am, it means a lot of oversight, and usually a lot of travel back and forth to check in on it. They are usually constructed somehow with industrial processes, but it gets done differently each time. It’s been very fascinating and rewarding to go in so many different directions, but it does take its toll.
Rail: You said once that it’s a good thing you became an artist, because if you had to make a living building things for their utility, you would have gone broke a long time ago. Because the way you make things is not “efficient.”
Puryear: I tend not to have the kind of mind that thinks in terms of what I guess a business person would call “efficiency.” I think only in terms of the result, and whatever I have to do to achieve that result. I’ve often done things over and over again until I get it right, or worked on one piece for so long and then ended up having to discard it in the end because it didn’t work. I think every artist has to do that from time to time, and similarly, I am constantly finding ways to resist any kind of predictability in my work, mostly because I always seem to need to be doing something that I don’t fully understand. So there needs to be an element of discovery for me usually, which again doesn’t make for the greatest efficiency or productivity, or predictability as far as success is concerned. Even though I think I’m efficient enough once an idea is clear, I don’t have a “production” kind of attitude towards the work. So I tend not to make lots of variations on a given theme, or work in series very much.
Rail: There has always been a relation in your work to dwellings, buildings, architecture, and shelter. I’m thinking especially of works like “Cedar Lodge” (1977), and “Where the Heart Is” (1981). These pieces evoke a kind of melancholic longing, perhaps a longing for home. John Elderfield refers to this in his catalogue essay: “If at times he does seem to be re-creating a primitive dwelling, it is not as a representation, but as a wish, one that can never come true.” Does that ring true to you?
Puryear: As somebody growing up in the city all my life, I always had an interest in the natural world from the time I was very young, but my urban life was my entire life until I moved up here to the Hudson Valley. I think there is something about that fantasy of living in a natural environment that came from being a city dweller who never fully accepted the fact that he was an urban person. The irony is, now that I’m living in the country, I realize how important it is for me to maintain contact with the city. I get down to New York about once a month, and it’s almost like coming up for air. I always thought that as I grew older, I would be happier to just be in the studio and not need or want to know what was going on culturally so much, but the fact is I love the energy that’s in New York, and I enjoy seeing what’s going on.
The other part of the whole notion of habitable spaces has to do with the notion of scale. So much sculpture historically has been about looking at a thing in front of you and being completely outside of it. However colossal it is, you’re outside of it, and I’m always fascinated by what it’s like to have a sense of the inside of something, and that’s in a way what I felt as I was doing in “Cedar Lodge.” It was a kind of strange, bio-morphic, organic structure that had a door that you could enter. So I’m fascinated by that, and even in the things that aren’t inherently about dwellings or about inhabitable spaces, there is the sense that if a thing is a certain size or a certain scale in relation to your body, and that you’re conscious of the hollowness of it, I think there is a way to project yourself into it, to imagine what it would be like to experience that from the inside. This has given rise to a lot of my works which are not sealed off, unbroken skins, but are in fact various ways of articulating a space or a volume that’s permeable, visually permeable, that you can penetrate, sense the inside as well as the outside. It’s always been fascinating to me to have that dual sense. So it isn’t about fantasies of living in a primitive way, it’s about the space that you can intuit or feel inside of.
Rail: I wanted to ask you about the titles. You’ve always taken titles pretty seriously and I’ve always liked your titles a lot, because they manage to be open-ended and poetic and not nail things down too much. But when you called that piece “Ladder for Booker T. Washington,” it did fix its meaning.
Puryear: Absolutely. I discovered that the historical connectedness of that image to the reality of who Booker T. Washington was overrides any kind of expectation I might have had of the work as a primarily aesthetic experience. The ladder did in fact start with an idea that was visual, and the title, despite its specificity, was a complete afterthought. But it seemed so apt, given the contorted, precarious ascent presented by the ladder and its distorted perspective, that I couldn’t resist it.
Booker T. Washington believed that freed slaves and their descendants should prove they were deserving of equal rights when they were granted them. He was an educator whose ideas of racial uplift were more gradual than someone like W.E.B. Du Bois, for example, who was much clearer in his analysis of the intransigence of American society with respect to equality for black people. Anyway, I feel that our knowledge of each other’s history in this country is so spotty that if I can put something out there, and people get curious, they might learn a little bit about the whole history, and that’s not a bad thing.
Rail: Have you had time to look at the Kara Walker pieces that are next door to the atrium here [at MoMA]?
Puryear: I did. When I came to MoMA, I realized that she had an installation of some works on paper here, while her other show has just opened at the Whitney.
Rail: Did you read the Hilton Als piece on her in The New Yorker?
Puryear: I did.
Rail: What did you think of it?
Puryear: I think he came as close as I’ve ever seen anybody come to capturing her as a person. I find her fascinating, a really brave artist. She is someone I’ve been interested in and curious about for a long time. I think her silhouettes are brilliant. She’s incredibly eloquent with the language she’s developed for herself, and it makes me sad that people can take her work so literally that they can miss its point—that it’s really a complicated, ambiguous critique. She blows a window open to show things we’d rather forget, or that we refuse to face, about our past as a nation, and it is work that is meant to get under your skin, as it should. It gets under mine.
Rail: In her series of prints at MoMA, “Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated),” she’s taking these civil war lithographs and then screen-printing onto them, and there were a couple of them that, to me, seemed related to some of your recent works in this show. “Confederate Prisoners Being Conducted from Jonesborough to Atlanta” has a black man’s head projected right into the middle of it, so that the Union soldiers look like they are surrounding it and gazing into it. And then there is another piece over by the stairs, “Pack-Mules in the Mountains,” that has Walker’s trickster woman figure superimposed on the mule train, with an interior section cut out of it. The spatial imposition of those made me think of your work, and especially the most recent works, which I think are really much more in-your-face racially and politically than a lot of things from the past. I’m thinking of the most recent piece, “C.F.A.O.” I’m told the initials stand for “Compagnie Francaise de l’Afrique Occidentale,” or “the French Company of West Africa,” a French trading company that operated between Marseilles and West Africa. The piece consists of a complex scaffolding of milled wood rising out of an old wooden wheelbarrow—it’s the kind of thing that you see in poor countries, where impossibly large piles of material are being moved around on simple carts—and whoever is pushing the wheelbarrow is facing this large white Fang mask which is cut in reverse. It’s literally “in your face.” This sculpture hits me on so many levels I don’t even know where to start, but in some way I almost think of it as a self-portrait. I don’t know whether you ever thought of it that way. It’s in your form language, but it seems like another step out. It’s really more direct, more . . .
Puryear: It’s more overt, isn’t it?
Rail: Yes, more overt.
Puryear: The more overt and literal the elements are that I’m trying to incorporate into the work, the more of a struggle it is for me to make it work as art. I’ve been dealing with abstract forms for a long time, so the inclusion of some pre-existing things from the world (rather than from my own hand and brain) felt like a pretty dicey proposition. It still does.
In the case of “Ad Astra,” I feel that what I’ve done is make a kind of still-life composition using those wheels as a starting point. And with “C.F.A.O.,” I feel I was trying to reconstruct a feeling—and I can’t call it a dream, or even a memory, but just a way to look back to 1964, 65, 66, when I was in Sierra Leone, and there was a warehouse building in our village, Segbwema, which had those letters on it, C.F.A.O., which was an abbreviation for ‘Compagnie Francaise de l’Afrique Occidentale”—a faded metal rusting warehouse, and the local people just called it “French company.” It was by the railroad tracks, among other big warehouse buildings, where they were unloading goods and so forth. In any case, it had once been an active French trading company, in a former British colony. It just struck me, as I got to learn more about colonialism, that colonialism wasn’t simply about bringing raw materials out of the colonies, it was also about creating markets for the goods that were produced by the colonizers. A huge part of the whole colonialist enterprise was to create markets with the goods from all the administrative centers, such as Paris, Marseilles, London, Lisbon and elsewhere in Europe. It was a huge part of the way that the interface happened between Europe and Africa, or Europe and Asia during that period. So when I saw that wheelbarrow, which looks like it might have been made during the time when France still maintained colonies in West Africa—when I saw that rustic, obviously handmade, object, I had a couple of thoughts. The first thought was “I understand this object,” way the form of each part was generated by the role it had to play in making the thing function, and I felt that I could have come up with something very similar myself if I had to solve the same problem, using the materials and the means the original builder had at his disposal. The second thought, and this feels uncanny, was about the form of this mask from the Fang people of Gabon, in West Africa, which I’d seen reproduced numerous times, and which was on the cover of a book I’d picked up in Paris shortly before I came upon the wheelbarrow. The book was called L’Art à la Source (Art at the Source) by Claude Roy. To me, this very well-known mask seemed almost modern in its form.
Rail: Certainly as photographed by Walker Evans . . . .
Puryear: Yeah, it’s in so many books. Today the Fang are regarded as among the most sophisticated of the carvers in West Africa, and this particular mask, from our Western perspective, has an almost iconic status. The idea of carving it in the negative so that you actually become the mask looking out was somehow important to me, and so it’s in fact not as though you are inside the mask, but you are the mask facing outward, in a way. It’s as though you had taken a mold of the mask, and that’s what you have. As though you’d made a mold, or imprint of the mask, and that’s what you are.
Rail: Well, that’s what I saw.
Puryear: The other thing about it is that there is a shape that’s been in my work for many years that keeps coming back, so this mask in a way is, long after I first started making these shapes, a way of discovering an origin, or imputing an origin for those shapes.
Rail: I think of the shape in that untitled piece from 1989, which is actually a strip of red cedar taken off of “Lever #1,” right? Do you know what the first occurrence of that shape was?
Puryear: It might have been that . . . I know which one you’re talking about. It’s the simplest of the ribbon-like wall pieces in the show.
Rail: Michael Auping made me very happy when he brought in the words of the poet Robert Duncan (who was my main teacher in San Francisco) to talk about your work. Auping writes, “The poetics of Puryear’s image suggest what Robert Duncan called ‘access to the world mystery,’ in which ‘the immediacy of what I can grasp and form with my hands is as big as any idea I can imagine.” That’s why I’ve kept coming back to your sculptures over and over, all these years: because they have that access, and are thereby inexhaustible to me. They are dealing with very big ideas, but these big ideas are always grounded back into the body, through the hands. I was taught poetics (by Duncan and the other poets in San Francisco) as the study of how things are made, and I also think that much of poetics is about joinery. The place where things are cut and joined together or where they touch, is really where meaning is made. And that holds true for poetry or writing as well as for sculptural objects. It’s all about the edges, this cutting and joining.
The new piece, “Ad Astra,” has a kind of martial look to it, with what could be an armored cart to carry ammunition mounted on these big caisson wheels. At the same time, it casts out this impossible extension, if not to the stars, at least to the sixth floor (Laughs). I just found out that in astronomy, a “Wagon” refers to an “asterism,” like the Big Dipper. What was the origin of this piece?
Puryear: Well, in one sense it began as a response to an extremely tall space, something like the way I created an earlier work called “This Mortal Coil” in 1999 for a cathedral in Paris (the Chapelle Saint-Louis de la Salpetrière). That interior was over 80 feet high, and for that installation I also made a construction that was massive at its base but became much lighter and more fragile as it rose upwards. Actually, I first worked this way back in 1977, when I incorporated a wooden pole that rose vertically 100 feet above the ground into a work installed in an enormous field. That was my first time trying to hold a very large space with minimal means, and from that first attempt I began to think more in terms of concentrated energy than enormous mass and volume in dealing with large spaces. So there were precedents in my work to my response to the atrium space at MoMA.
I had found those wheels in France while I was working at the Calder Studio—it must have been about fourteen years ago, because my daughter Sascha was two years old at the time. They were from an old farm wagon, and I saw them in an open shed not far from the Calder place, which is surrounded by the most extraordinary rural landscape. I bought two pairs from the farmer who owned them and they’d been in my possession ever since, waiting for a suitable idea. As I’ve already said, using found objects is a departure for me, but it’s been a way of sabotaging some of the control I tend to exert in my work, and opening the door to some chance and even spontaneity. Also, the things I tend to want to appropriate are things which I feel were originally conceived and made in ways which are close to my own way of creating things.
“Ad Astra,” the work that I finally made, was pretty far removed from the original history of the wheels, and was an attempt to transform them into something that felt like my own work. It was also a question of physically balancing the whole thing so that it stands up like that, so that it’s erect.
Rail: Does it have an interior?
Puryear: Yeah, the wagon’s “cargo,” the crystal-shaped box, is hollow. The walls of it are very thick, but it is hollow.
Rail: I find these latest works pretty wild. “A Distant Place” has got that horn—people will see it as a unicorn horn or a narwhal tusk—rising up, in idealism and aspiration, out of a twisted burl, which reads like a kind of cancer.
Puryear: That’s pretty much what a burl is on a tree. It’s an uncontrolled growth on the trunk that just keeps generating these twisted and contorted fibers. This was one that a friend had collected in Vermont and brought down to me. I had thought to use it as a utilitarian thing. Burls are often used for bowls, because the wood is so dense and interlocked that they don’t split easily, and they were used by Native-Americans and by settlers throughout the colonial era. Wooden bowls can be quite fragile, but these burl bowls are very tough. But once I’d lived with it for awhile I felt I wanted to work with it intact, as an ingredient in a piece of work. And it’s always a challenge, you know: What can you do with this? How can you use this and claim it, make it yours? Especially something that has as much presence as a burl or a pair of old beautiful wheels or a wheelbarrow. How do you claim that for yourself as an artist? Like I said, I am such a controlling person. I want to take everything and impose my will on it, and this is a way that feels like more of a collaboration.
Rail: Could you talk about “A Distant Place,” as a title?
Puryear: It’s not that specific. I like what you said about putting words together as a form of joinery in poetry. That’s what I’m trying to do with titles, where I juxtapose things in order to open up various possible meanings to the imagination.
Rail: How do they generally come?
Puryear: All kinds of ways. But the main thing is that I try not to have it be something that a person can regard as a key to unlock a work and interpret it. Like I said, “Ladder for Booker T. Washington” is perhaps unique among my titles, in that it lets you into the work in a fairly specific and rather concrete way, which many people will probably never get out of, they’ll just see it as a metaphor for a certain social idea.
Rail: I think sometimes when young artists look at a career like yours, they might imagine that it’s been an unbroken string of successes and accolades, and one of the things that happens with a retrospective like this is that the rough spots get smoothed out in the art historical narrative. I know that’s not exactly how things went with you. There were good times and bad times, especially when the kinds of things that you were working with or on were sometimes considered so far out of fashion that there was no place for them in the art historical narrative. Is there anything that you can say that might be useful to younger artists about that?
Puryear: Well, it’s interesting that you bring that up now, because looking over a thirty-odd year span of my work, it’s obvious that my way of making art must seem anachronistic and out of sync with what is most vital in art today. I still work with my hands, in the belief that touch, or the way the material is manipulated, can influence the work, and that the physical making process itself can generate ideas, as well as bring them to fruition. And this is happening at a time when so much of the power in recent work resides in the ideas, whose translation into physical form has become almost perfunctory, capable of being farmed out to the skilled hands of others, often quite removed from the artist’s direct control. It’s odd for a living artist to say this about his own work today, but my way of making art seems very traditional, at least in its methodology, and in the values that guide the result. What I can say at this juncture, though, is that even as I am more aware than ever of urgent social realities, and of the youthful surges as the art of our present moment evolves in response, I hope I can continue to persist, and to hold on to what’s most important in my own work.
ContributorDavid Levi Strauss
DAVID LEVI STRAUSS is the author of Words Not Spent Today Buy Smaller Images Tomorrow (Aperture, 2014), From Head to Hand: Art and the Manual (Oxford University Press, 2010), Between the Eyes: Essays on Photography and Politics, with an introduction by John Berger (Aperture 2003, and in a new edition, 2012), and Between Dog & Wolf: Essays on Art and Politics (Autonomedia 1999, and a new edition, 2010). He is Chair of the graduate program in Art Writing at the School of Visual Arts in New York, and he is on the faculty of the Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts at Bard College.