One Piece at a Time

Martin Puryear’s “Maroon”

That "massive" sculpture at the Milwaukee Art Museum? Take a closer look.

By - Aug 27th, 2012 09:29 pm

Go to the Milwaukee Art Museum, pick a work, stand before it for a long time. Tell us what you see. TCD’s One Piece at a Time series began with that thought in the summer of 2010. TCD senior editor Tom Strini handled the One-Piece duties then and in 2011. This summer, we have a variation. In the winter and spring, Strini worked with a class of graduate students in art at UWM. They did the One Piece drill at the Milwaukee Art Museum, wrote draft essays, then survived a writer’s boot camp with Strini. We’re publishing the results, one piece at a time.


Martin Puryear (American, b. 1941) Maroon, 1987–88 Steel, wire mesh, wood and tar 76 x 120 x 78 in. (193.04 x 304.8 x 198.12 cm) Gift of the Contemporary Art Society M1991.24 Photo credit Donald Young Gallery © Martin Puryear

Martin Puryear, a woodworker and skilled craftsman, uses few if any any electric tools for his sculptures. It’s obvious that his “hand is in the work,” as my old painting teacher used to say.

The Milwaukee Art Museum owns Puryear’s Maroon. Rough-hewn marks, left from shaving wood with an old file, are visible on it. Puryear worked a hand drill to make holes for wooden screws, which he made in his studio.

Maroon is hard to miss; it’s big. Puryear made the elliptical black form of wood, steel, wire mesh and tar. From 10 or 15 feet away, it looks massive, like a giant boulder with a wooden lid on top. A cutout square in the cap must counterbalance the dark wire mesh shape below it. It doesn’t seem to serve any other purpose.

The piece invites the viewer to approach this massive thing as a kind of game. You think it must weigh a ton. But up close, you can see it’s just a few wooden beams wrapped in wire mesh and covered with tar. You could almost lift it.

Such contradictions make Puryear’s work so compelling. He plays tricks on your eye. Maroon’s vulnerability only becomes apparent after you look the piece over for a while. Then you wonder how the structure can even bear the weight of the round top. It looks as if it could topple over and roll downhill if weren’t for a large stick that holds it in place.

As simple as it sounds, Puryear’s sculpture is intellectually complex. Curved support beams on the inside follow renaissance rules of perspective. The sculptor often uses painterly perspective tools, which he uses to create the strong and completed feel of Maroon. His enormous body of work ranges from very simple reeds that stand on their own to the complex Maroon, a formidable presence in the Milwaukee Art Museum.

Previously this summer: Gregory Martens on Joseph Cornell’s Celestial Navigation of Birds; Julie Rogers on Tara Donvan’s Bluffs; Emily Scheider on Chuck Close’s Nancy; Matthew W. Lee on Cow Herd at Lake Starnberg; Corbett Toomsen on Henry Vianden’s Landscape with Mountains and River; Brooklyn Henke on Caillebotte’s Boaters on the Yerres; Joe Grennier on Warhol’s Brillo Box; Eric Roman Beining on Torso of a Male Athlete; Aneesha Baldeosingh on Jules Olitski’s Heat Resistance.

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Categories: A/C Feature 1, Art

0 thoughts on “One Piece at a Time: Martin Puryear’s “Maroon””

  1. Anonymous says:

    Martin does great work! So good to see this!

  2. Anonymous says:

    Good review! Makes me want to go and look at it!

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