Saturday, May 3, 2008

African Americans and Abstraction: Thinking of Puryear

Recently I had the pleasure of seeing the Martin Puryear restropective and hear him speak about this awesome collection of sculptures. The Modern Museum of Fort Worth has the good fortune to own a Puryear and so it was appropriate that it would host the Puryear retrospective. As one of the premiere contemporary art museums in the Southwest, MMFW created a beautiful and sensitive installation of the works, with gallery after gallery devoted to the
incomparable sculptures crafted so elegantly by Puryear.

Having taught his work for many years in my Art History and Art Appreciation classes, I was astonished at the power imbued in them when viewed as an entire body. It reinforced my original belief that sculpture should never be taught using books! Sure, one can argue that no art should, but sculpture in particular really suffers an identity crisis when viewed in two-dimension. The sheer scale of Puryear's work leaves one breathless not to mention the subtle textural surfaces most possess. I found myself spending an inordinate amount of time engrossed in these textures trying to determine how each was created. In a word, the work is exquisite!

So needless to say I was thrilled at the prospect of hearing the artist discuss his process and inspiration and was not disappointed by his offerings. Puryear is crystal clear in his delivery on his work ethic, aesthetic concerns, and creative process. He explained his switch from realism to abstraction in a way that even a novice art viewer could understand and appreciate, particularly given how so many artists are wont to engage in artspeak, rather than straight talk. As I looked around the room at the eager listeners, I was struck by how few African Americans were in the audience. I was a little downhearted by this typical situation and was reminded of an acquaintance who recently declared with assuredness that anyone could do abstract art and how he thought it was all hype and required no talent. I tried, in vain, to explain the difference between a successful abstract work and one that didn't succeed but I realized halfway through my discourse that he was never going to get it because he had no foundation from which to discuss the topic. I started thinking about how ironic it is that a people who's entire art aesthetic was derived from the originators of abstraction i.e. Africans, are so removed from it today. I thought about how Europeans appropriated that aesthetic, created numerous art movements based on it and ultimately made African Americans believe it had no meaning for us. I looked at the beauty and subtly of Martin Puryear's sublime forms and listened to him speak about the metaphorical meanings each piece embodied and couldn't help but feel distressed that we as a people have lost the ability to read any imagery except that which is realistic. We devalue all that does not speak to us on the most literal or decorative level, reducing any abstracted imagery or forms to meaningless hype.

Like so many areas of culture, we need to reclaim that which we originated and study our art history starting with its root aesthetic, African artforms. Although Martin Puryear openly
acknowledges the influence of many different cultures on his work, he spoke quite directly about the way in which African art, architecture, and life, during his tenure in West Africa spurred his
need to explore abstraction after years of working in a realist manner. Puryear, like so many European artists, began to push his creativity beyond his prior limits, looking at the essence of forms, eliminating the superfluous and only retaining the most essential elements. Like his ancestral forefathers, Puryear embraced the natural materials he used with respect, allowing them to help determine the final product he creates. He also began to visually talk about life in more subtle ways, kind of like talking in parables rather than just blurting things out. In essence, Puryear became a visual poet rather than a visual non-fiction writer, giving us the edited and reductive conversation about what is rather than filling our eyes with too many words! I think that is why his work has always moved me so completely. I cannot ever remember thinking when I looked at a Puryear piece "boy, I wish he'd left that element off" or "why did he use that material for this piece?". Everything I've seen that he created seems just right and never overstated or overworked; which underscores why it pains me that more African Americans in
Dallas/Fort Worth are not enjoying this magnificent exhibition. I guess we have a ways to go when it comes to enjoying visual art. Or maybe I am just being overly pessimistic because this is the medium I work in. If I'm real honest about it, I guess I have to acknowledge that classical jazz musicians have the same complaint, as do authors like Toni Morrison and Ishmael Reed! Be that as it may, I encourage anyone that has the opportunity to see Martin Puryear's exhibition,
even if it requires traveling to do so.

2 comments:

ndonnett said...

I wanted to really see that exhibit. But couldn't make it. I hope to see his work in person at some point in my life. I feel his strength even in a two dimensional format.
Thanks for sharing.
ps. I do agree about how hard it is to let some of your people know about what's right in front of their faces. It also get's depressing (well it use to) when they didn't appreciate or try to understand what you were doing as a visual artist and "other" people did. But as I've gotten older, it's not so bad anymore. peace and blessings,

remorji said...

I value art and hope others will soon see the light.