Continued from yesterday: It is not news that Martin Puryear started out as a painter before finding his way toward sculpture. Puryear grew up in Washington, a painting town through-and-through, and stayed in DC to study painting at Catholic University. Naturally, Puryear spent plenty of time as a young man at the Phillips Collection, the No.1 place for artists in Washington to be imbued with the spirit of the brush. And sure enough Puryear was deeply impressed by paintings he saw there.
There’s a great tidbit in the timeline in the back of MoMA’s Martin Puryear catalogue in which Puryear talks about art at the Phillips and names one artist who both surprised me — and who made perfect sense: Augustus Vincent Tack, an early American modernist who painted some 20-years-ahead-of-their-time abstract landscapes even as he simultaneously painted portraits of Truman and Eisenhower. Tack was the sort of guy who could diplomatically move between Republicans and Democrats — and between figuration and abstraction. (This is Cloud’s Edge from 1935-36.) Puryear must have admired not only Tack’s ability to go from presidents to abstractions, but the way Tack shoved his landscapes right up against the picture plane, eliminating depth.
The Puryear at right is a print, Untitled (LA MoCA portfolio) from 1989, the only print I’ll show all week. (The MoMA show is sculpture-only; no prints, no drawings, etc.) It’s a super example of what I described yesterday as Puryear’s push-me-pull-you exploration of mixing depth with flatness in a single work. The shape in the print reads as an upside-down jug, or as a human head — or simply as a flat abstraction that recalls familiar, round forms. But down at the very bottom of the print Puryear gives us a visually confusing hint: a circle, receding into depth. Puryear’s abstraction manages to both sit flat and recede.
Related: You can see a nice selection of Puryear prints on the Art Institute of Chicago’s website. Puryear wasn’t the only artist to be struck by the mix of abstraction and representation in Duncan Phillips’ collection: The Phillips was a major influence on Richard Diebenkorn too. And in convergences fun: Consider Tack’s Cloud’s Edge (above), Andy Warhol’s camouflage paintings, and the distant trees in Bonnard paintings, especially those of Vernonnet.