If any one outcropping of the cultural skyline of Fort Worth, Texas, can be said to state a case for a Bold New Millennium, it is the 2002 landmark address of the Modern Art Museum, designed by the architect Tadao Ando as a sculptural statement in itself. The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth is at once the oldest such museum in Texas – chartered in 1892 – and handily the newest in aspect. I spend a great deal of time there for both workaday and leisurely purposes: The Modern’s art-film theatre is descended from an imports-and-independents movie program that I developed during 1996–2002 at one of the downtown movie houses, and my jazz trio performs at the Modern as a matter of routine. Full disclosure, and all that.
As befits a monumental sculpture of architectural pedigree, the building that houses the Modern of Fort Worth has fared particularly well as a showcase for internal exhibitions of sculpture. The exhibit of the moment is called Martin Puryear, newly opened for a run through May 18.
The retrospective survey of works by a celebrated American artist features nearly 50 sculptures in an arc reaching from Martin Puryear’s first solo museum show in 1977 to the present day.
Working primarily in wood, Puryear, 67, has maintained a commitment to manual skills and traditional building methods. His forms derive from everyday objects, both natural and man-made, including tools, vessels and furniture. His sculptures are rich with psychological and intellectual references, examining issues of identity, culture and history. Key influences can be traced to his studies, his work and his travels through Africa, Asia, Europe and the United States.
Chief curator Michael Auping explains: “Puryear’s work has a way of sneaking up on us perceptually, and it is partially through his surfaces that we are drawn in, invited to inspect his wooden objects more closely, as one would a more intimate construction, through the subtlety of inflection that he … imparts to the surface.”
Puryear’s most striking forced-perspective work, Ladder for Booker T. Washington (1996), is part of the permanent collection of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth – and as such, an ideal element of familiar leverage into the greater range of the exhibition. This towering object was inspired by homemade ladders that Puryear had noticed in the French countryside while working at Alexander Calder’s studio on an invitational grant.
In a conversation five years ago with Auping, Puryear explained the monument: “It just occurred to me that this would be an interesting project to try to do, to make a very tall or long ladder … I had been interested in working with a kind of artificial perspective through sculpture, which if you think about it is not so easy to do. With a ladder, a very long ladder, I could make a form that would appear to recede into space faster, visually, than it in fact does physically…”
And like the functional ladders that inspired it, Ladder for Booker T. Washington is made from a single sapling that the artist had split down the middle. He added rungs to form a 36-foot ladder that narrows to just over an inch in width at the top. This sculpture – relocated to a double-height gallery for the present exhibition – has been one of the Museum’s steadiest draws since its installation for the building’s opening in 2002.
Other sculptures newly installed for the exhibition include Greed’s Trophy (1984), a 12-foot-high net of wire mesh; Desire (1981), a wooden wheel measuring 16-by-32 feet attached to an eight-foot-high basket; and Some Tales (1975–1978), six wooden segments of varying lengths, some of which resemble saws, spanning 30 horizontal feet of wall space.
The sculptures examine a chronological evolution, demonstrating how the artist refers, repeatedly, to earlier ideas for the sake of reinterpretation of familiar themes. Among these works are Puryear’s Ringseries of the late 1970s, his Stereotypes and Decoys sculptures of the 1980s, the vessel-like forms of the 1990s and the more allegorical works of times more recent.
From childhood into adolescence during the 1940s and ’50s, Puryear constructed and crafted such objects as bows and arrows, furniture and guitars. As a teacher with the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone, he observed and learned the craft of carpenters. Puryear spent two years at the Swedish Royal Academy of Art in Stockholm, where he began working on independent sculptural projects investigating popular craft traditions and modern Scandinavian design. Having returned to the United States to complete a master’s degree and to begin teaching, Puryear resumed his studies during the 1980s, centering upon Japanese architecture and garden design. He has concentrated exclusively upon his own artistry since the late 1980s.
Prowler and Fishhead co-author Michael H. Price is responsible for the Forgotten Horrors series of movie-history books from Baltimore’s Midnight Marquee Press. Price’s arts-scene commentaries can be found at www.fortworthbusinesspress.com, and in the Times Leader of Wilkes-Barre, Pa.