Tyler Green
Art-focused Journalism by Tyler Green

Tyler Green Modern Art Notes

Puryear and perspective: Kelly and minimalism

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Previously: Puryear at MoMA, considering perspective; Puryear and Augustus Vincent Tack.

Obviously Martin Puryear was influenced by minimalism: His surfaces are exquisite and tactile, recalling Donald Judd. Many of his forms from the early 1970s recall Robert Morris and Carl Andre so directly that Puryear’s objects (several of which are reproduced in the show’s catalogue) appear to be only minor departures from their work. As early as 1977 the classic modernist cube — here’s Tony Smith’s heroic minimalist version — began to appear regularly in Puryear’s work. (More on this later in the week.) And of course to this day Puryear’s sculptures are reductive, almost tidy in their banishment of anything even potentially, remotely extraneous.
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But in keeping with our theme this week — Puryear and perspective — there’s a key way in which Puryear, who started out as a painter, responded to both minimalist painting and to painting that was flat and reductive. Puryear grew up and attended college in Washington, DC during the peak years of the Washington Color School, when super-flat painters such as Morris Louis and Gene Davis dominated DC art. Ellsworth Kelly, who famously married line with picture plane, was also ascendant in the late 1950s and in the 1960s. Puryear assimilated their work — and then brought back the third dimension.

The image at the top and at the left is Puryear’s Bask (1976), from the Guggenheim’s collection. In the photograph at the top, Bask appears to be almost completely flat. That’s a little bit what it looks like in person: Bask (made from stained pine) is a light-soaking black, and when it is installed on a white slab (as it is at MoMA) the light-dark juxtaposition seems to flatten it even more. But as you can see from the photo at left it has plenty of depth and multi-dimensional curve. (I’ve included a detail from a MoMA installation shot in the jump if you’d like to see more.)
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Bask appears to be a direct riff on Ellsworth Kelly’s curve paintings, a series that Kelly started with a series of black-and-white paintings in 1958 (in paintings on wood) and continued them into the 1960s. Like Kelly does in many of his curve paintings, Puryear reduces Bask to a single, uniform color. The object is line… but he adds depth, the element that Kelly expunged. (At right is Kelly’s Green Curve, installed at the High Museum.)

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