Geoff Dunlop

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I first encountered the sculpture of Martin Puryear on visits to the States
in the mid-1980s. How different these still, silent, mysterious objects
seemed to be from what was all around me. Those were the most febrile
of times, when artists were treated like rock stars and the Saturday
cruise around the SoHo galleries was as much to do with being seen as
about looking at the art on the walls.
The few Puryear pieces I came across back then had a seriousness
about them, even a sobriety, that contrasted audaciously with the
smashed plates, the expressive outpourings of paint and the urgent acts
of self-presentation that reflected the mood of the moment. Those were
the glory days of the Thatcher-Reagan revolution (now moved on from
farce to tragedy) and the seething nights for the chosen few who could
glide with ease into the Paramount Club.
Martin Puryear’s precisely crafted sculptures, in such unrevolutionary
materials as bent and woven wood, appeared to come from a place far
away from Lower Manhattan, in both geography and time. I warmed to
them immediately, and I wanted to see more. This felt like a counter-
vision to bottle-spinning obsessions of the masters of the universe, a
quieter, more reflective way of addressing the world around us. Not only
the world of appearances but of values. How strange they would have
looked in Gordon Gekko’s apartment.
My rare encounters with Puryear’s work in subsequent years added to
my sense of respect and affection for this unusual artist. But it also left
me frustrated that there must be so much more to see, and to get to
know. For the past 20 years I have lived in rural south-west England,
and Puryear’s sculpture has never been likely to show up there. But he
has hardly been exhibited in London either. And, unfortunately, my trips
to New York and beyond have failed to coincide with the big
presentations of his meticulous art and craft, most notably the epic
MoMA retrospective of 2007. Martin Puryrear may be considered a
master in the States but, on my side of the Atlantic, he is a private
How exciting then to discover recently that the Parasol Unit had put
together a first London retrospective, over the two floors of its elegant
and contemplative gallery, just off the City Road. By ironic coincidence,
this is an area close to London’s ever-encroaching financial district, still
expanding at a pace that reminds me of the eighties at their most
I chose the timing of my first visit to the Puryear exhibition with care. I
resolved to take an extended detour on my way to the opening of the
Jean-Michel Basquiat retrospective, at the Barbican nearby. I had
always linked these two wildly contrasting artists in my mind because,
when I had first encountered the sculptures of Martin Puryear, I was in
New York to direct sequences for a series of films on art and ideas in the
1980s, commissioned by Channel 4, London and WDR, Cologne. The
New York artists I was focussing on included Cindy Sherman, Barbara
Kruger, Leon Golub, Hans Haacke and Eric Fischl…all of them
impressive survivors in the frantic race of reputation. But the artist on my
list who fascinated me most was Basquiat, the teenage graffitist who had
gatecrashed his way onto the New York art scene and become almost
miraculously rich and famous by his early twenties. Now, some 30 years
after his tragically premature death, Basquiat’s fame, and the dazzling
amount of dollars that his art can generate, have turned him into an even
more fantastical figure.
My linking together of Puryear and Basquiat is more than the result of a
casual coincidence. Both are artists of colour. And both, in their vastly
different ways, explore the themes of cultural identity, of belonging and
exclusion…themes of pressing significance in our times, and of
particular interest to me. Yet, despite what connects them, what is most
obvious about these two artists is how different they are from each other,
in character and effect. The noisy, confrontational, untutored, erratic but
expressively powerful paintings of Jean-Michel Basquiat are bristling
with both explicit and elusive texts. So very different from the mute,
precise, fabulously crafted, enigmatic yet totally confident sculptures of
Martin Puryear. These works only ever imply. They never directly state.
In his own words: “I value the referential quality of art, the fact that a
work can allude to things or states of being without in any way
representing them.”

                    Martin Puryear/ The
Puryear does make subtle reference to specific histories and injustices,
but he also creates art that seems to evoke a common experience,
beyond nationality, creed or colour. Not to exclude questions of identity
but to expand on them. To refer to what we share as well as what sets
us apart.

The generously proportioned, high-ceilinged gallery at Parasol Unit,
where the larger Puryear sculptures were displayed, is backed by a wall
of glass. This looks out onto trees, a pool drenched in greenery and, at
the time of the exhibition, more Puryear sculpture. The impact on me of
all this sensory immersion was immediate. It was like walking into an
outstanding architectural interior or hearing the opening passages of an
immersive piece of music. I became attentive, concentrated, blissfully
calm. These are the kind of reactions many of us hope to experience in
the presence of art but, of course, they can never be forced. They come
to you when they –and you- are ready.
In this room was the expected wood, both bent, woven and carved, and
metal of various kinds. Wherever I looked I saw evidence of unhurried
handcraft and studied concentration. Incongruously, I experienced
feelings I might find in a room of early renaissance paintings and
sculpture…not because of any likeness in the artworks but because of
the still concentration such objects generate, and their mood of proximity
to the act of making. Puryear’s work reaches far beyond Italy at its most
civilised (and, of course, rapacious). He evokes villages in contemporary
Africa, temples across Asia, natural phenomena almost anywhere. And
he seems to echo intense rituals and mundane daily habits from
unnamed cultures somewhere out there, or perhaps deep within our
collective memory.
Somewhat to my surprise, I quickly found myself smiling as I walked
among the larger pieces on the ground floor. It was the bold red Big
Phrygian (2010-2014), with its happy shape and droopy top, that did it.
This apparently light-hearted piece carries serious associations with
European history and the universal struggle for liberty. In fact Liberty
herself wears a hat of this shape and colour, in the spectacular painting
by Delacroix, where she leads the people of revolutionary Paris through
the barricades. When you notice them once you can spot Phrygian caps
all over the place, on classical Greek vases and tombs, on medals and
coins, on paintings by artists as diverse Rembrandt and Picasso. In
Puryear’s hands that soft, woollen headpiece grows to 5ft high and is
carved from cedar. This disruption of scale does not undercut the contemplative qualities of the work but magnifies them. Nothing said,
much implied.
Scale is also a question surrounding a small, pedestal piece called
Shackled (2014). The title instantly evokes a history that remains alive
and challenging, the slavery that lies at the foundations of almost every
one of the modern states of the Americas and which surrounds us still,
wherever we are. I assume that Puryear’s shackle is not copied from an
actual, historical fixture -it looks more like a creative invention, inspired
in part by natural forms, possibly feline- but it nevertheless carries the
dead weight of oppression and injustice. It certainly disrupted my blissful

Looking into the archive, you find the artist reusing and rescaling shapes
throughout his career. The form of Shackled has, in the past couple of
years, been exploded into the colossal Big Bling (2016). This 40ft-high
translation recently towered over Madison Square Garden, in New York,
and Fairmount Park, in Philadelphia. The solid iron has become tiered
wood, contained by what appears to be linked fencing, topped by a gold-
leafed ring. Despite the explosion of size, the original associations do
not appear to have been abandoned but, once again, magnified. In this
work we are now confronted with the complexities and contradictions of
the Big City. We have come closer then to the territory of Jean-Michel
His was most definitely a world of bling. He’d never have worn diamonds
in his teeth nor a gold chain but he’d certainly indulge himself in a
stretched limo when he was in the mood, and he would freely order eye-
wateringly expensive meals for whoever was in his entourage that night.
His was a more bohemian version of bling. When I met him he had
recently, and infamously, been portrayed on the front cover of the New
York Times Magazine, barefoot, in a paint-spattered Armani suit, with
the cool effect topped by his trademark crown of dreadlocks. He was
then at the pinnacle of his success, rich enough to hand out a fistful of
dollars to panhandlers he passed in the street, and with more than
enough ready cash to fuel the drug habit that was soon to kill him.
Basquiat had dropped out of both education and home life as a
teenager, and slept and hustled for a while on the streets of Manhattan.
Then he spent a few months of recovery in Brooklyn, in a benign school
for the hard to teach. In his months as a student at City-as- School, he
mostly drew and wrote for his own pleasure. In the process, he created
his graffiti alter ego, SAMO. To be more accurate, he co-created SAMO
with his schoolmate, Al Diaz. But when SAMO’s sharp comments on
New York life started to create a buzz that reached the attention of the
local newssheet, Village Voice, and even the New York Times, Al Diaz
found himself excluded from the partnership. SAMO was no longer a
sardonic commentator on the SoHo scene, he was becoming an integral
part of it.
A generation earlier, the young Puryear had got himself educated to the
hilt – at the Catholic University of America, Washington, the Royal
Swedish Academy of Arts, Stockholm, and at Yale. In his early twenties
he volunteered for the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone. While there he
studied wood and metalworking in the local tradition, and in Sweden he
was tutored by a master cabinet maker. Then he plunged into the art
and craft traditions of Japan. None better.
But, for all this learning, Martin Puryear never lost his independence of
spirit. At the time of his first struggles to make a living from his work, the
prevailing orthodoxy was minimalism. I saw some of his early, pared
down objects upstairs at Parasol Unit. Yet, despite their simplicity of
form and economy of material, these are crafted objects that reveal the
hand of the maker and the latent force of his presence.
He said, back in 1987: “I never did minimalist art, I never did, but I got
real close…I looked at it, I tasted it, and I spat it back out. I said, this I
not for me. I’m a worker. I’m not somebody who’s happy to let my work
be made for me and I’ll pass on it, yes or no, after it’s done. I could
never do that.”
I was struck at Parasol Unit how strongly all the sculptures in this
exhibition felt connected to each other. The labels might have placed
them 30 years apart, but they dissolved the time that separated them.
One line of consistency running through all the work I saw was the
implicit connection to nature, and to handmade objects that are both
useful and durable.

When I moved on from the Parasol Unit to the Barbican, the glass-
walled jungle of the gallery’s hospitality zone made an ideal setting for
the Basquiat bash. Exotic, stylish, democratic. I have seldom seen such
a rich mix of race and class and generation in a gallery respected for its                        intellectual rigour, and its proximity to global capital. The ticket for the
four-month show proved as hot as any curator, or gallery management,
could desire. People who have seldom been near an art gallery queued
to get in.

Recent sales have made it obvious that Jean-Michel Basquiat still gets
through to the limited class of people who can find a hundred-million
bucks to buy a painting but, much more importantly, he now engages a
new generation of people, without wealth or status, who were born after
he died, yet who share his need to challenge the rigidities of race,
gender, privilege and other pre-defined identities.

The Basquiat Barbican retrospective lacked one of the sizzling, bravura
canvases that will ensure Jean-Michel’s place in the canon, but it made
a convincing case that he was a citizen poet of unique brilliance, even
though he never wrote a formal poem in his truncated life. His magical
power was to fuse the inarticulate and the articulate, to great effect.
Jean-Michel’s inarticulacy was not, I believe, a dumb act of cynical
manipulation, as it was said to be by several contemporary critics, most
notably the usually astute Robert Hughes. In an ungenerous and unfair
posthumous appraisal, Hughes attacked the recently deceased creator
of paintings that had walked off the walls of fashionable galleries, still
wet. He called him “a wild child, a curiosity, an urban noble savage – art’s
answer, perhaps, to the Wolf Boy of Aveyron. Basquiat played the role to
the hilt.”
Hughes continued: “It was a tale of a small, untrained talent caught in the
buzz saw of artworld promotion, absurdly overrated by dealers, collectors,
and, no doubt to their future embarrassment, by critics… Basquiat never
looked like he was turning into a painter of real quality. His ‘importance’
was merely that of a symptom.”
At the time, I thought this appraisal was quite simply wrong. And I still do.
Paintings with the eloquence and charge of the many unhelpfully called
Untitled (1982 – 87), or the more specific Philistines (1982), or
Undiscovered Genius of the Mississippi Delta (1983) arrest me as
much now as when I first saw them. Their command to us all to “pay
attention” to the neglected and the underrated, to the despised and the
abused, is as effective –and necessary- now as it was thirty years ago.
Jean-Michel could be charming, generous, a delight to be around, but a
lot of the time he could be a ballbreaker, nasty, selfish and single-
mindedly on the make. But, in both good times and bad times, his
vulnerability and fragility were there for all to see. Even the way he held
the pencil, oilstick or brush could look like evidence of inner torments and
his uncertainty about his true status in the world he was so desperate to
succeed in.
I don’t believe that comparisons with geniuses he so admired, such as
Parker and Gillespie, Holiday and Young, are farfetched. Like them,
Basquiat was an outsider at the court of the rich and the oblivious while
being, at the same time, a flagbearer on the seemingly endless march
from enslavement to full emancipation. Flagbearers, of course, are easy
targets in battle.
The celebrity musicians never lost their fear of being directed to the goods
elevator at the rear of the grand venue where they were performing,
rather than to the marble entrance hall where their posters were
displayed. And the young celebrity painter never lost his habit of getting
his smart putdown in first, to defend himself from the quick dismissal and
condescension that always stalked him.
If you study archive footage and photographs of Jean-Michel you’ll see
shadows of pain, fear, disconnection and defiance cross his face
frequently. When I asked him on camera whether it was a coincidence
that so many of the thousands of faces in his paintings looked angry, he
replied: “I’m not out to frighten people…”
Then I asked whether there was any anger in him. He said: “Of course
there is. Of course there is.”
But when I followed up with, Q: What are you angry about? He went
silent. In the achingly long gap that followed, with the camera still running,
all those expressions and more crossed his face. Finally, he uttered: “I
don’t remember.”
For more than 30 years now I have reflected on that answer. Part of me
considers that he had taken so many drugs to steel himself for this
serious (as opposed to celebrity) interview that he may have blanked out
and forgotten the question. Another part wonders whether his few years
of success had tossed him into a world where you could be rebellious but
you couldn’t cross a line that alienated your best customers and most
influential critics. But my final speculation –the one I am most convinced
by- is that he was working so hard to face so many different directions
that he could no longer remember the right way to look, or even who
precisely he was. He had lost his identity, if he had ever really gained it.
Certainly, he was only a couple of years away from complete
disintegration, on canvas and within himself.
The interview concluded simply:

Q: Black people in this country get a rough deal.
Is that part of what your work’s about?
A: “Yeah, I have to say so, yeah.”

Martin Puryear has been careful to avoid such direct discourse about
imposed definitions of identity. He has not detached himself from the daily
struggles of race and class to escape their implications, but to
concentrate on becoming a worker. Someone who can make rather than
be forced to talk, and strike postures. Even the most prestigious
interviewers struggle to get through to him. When I look at pictures of
Martin Puryear I see someone at one with himself, quiet, inward, even a
little guarded – not because he is scared of being abused but because he
is unwilling to trap himself in a tangle of words, his own or anyone elses.
He recently refused my request to make a film with him. Politely of
course, but definitely, he wrote: “…although I am moved by Mr Dunlop’s
interest in my work, I simply have no desire to appear in a film, or to be
the subject of any kind of profile.”
Let the work speak for itself. Let the act of communication be embedded
in the object.
Robert Storr, one of the most eloquent commentators on the artist and
the philosophy that defines him, has made the point with compelling
eloquence: “Of major sculptors active today, Martin Puryear is, in fact,
exceptional in the extremes to which he goes to remove the personal
narrative from the aura of his pieces. Nevertheless, he succeeds in
charging them with an intense and palpable necessity born of his
absolute authority over and assiduous involvement in their execution.
“The desire for anonymity is akin to that of the traditional craftsman
whose private identity is subsumed in the realized identity of his
creations rather than being consumed in the pyrotechnic drama of the
artistic ego.”
Geoff Dunlop is an artist curator, filmmaker and writer. He lives in

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