Postcolonial Thoughts: Martin Puryear “Passing through the color line” Part 1

by Christopher Hutchinson



The Museum of Modern Art presents a major exhibition of the sculpture of the acclaimed American artist Martin Puryear (b. 1941). The retrospective will feature approximately forty-five sculptures, following the development of Puryear’s artistic career over the last thirty years, from his first solo museum show in 1977 to the present day. Puryear began his career in the 1970s alongside other members of the Post-Minimalist generation. Working primarily in wood, he has maintained an unwavering commitment to manual skill and traditional building methods. His sculptures are rich with psychological and intellectual references, examining issues of identity, culture, and history. The exhibition will be accompanied by a publication illustrating all works in the exhibition, with additional reference illustrations of the artist’s works and other comparative material.

Western Bloodline

Without question Martin Puryear has secured his space in Western art as a master sculptor. He has been regarded by many as being among elite sculptors of any nationality. He has successfully transcended “race” and his work is received as purely art. Not art with an asterisk. Puryear achieved this without the implementation of overt ethnicity, sympathy and propaganda.

Puryear has lead by example the proof of how to be successful as an African American artist within the Western art rubric. Puryear is fully accepted into the Western art vernacular as if there was and is no difference between Africa and the West at all. He is neatly included in the “Post-Minimalist generation”. This is the smoothest transition into the Western academia by an African American artist to date. This rarity of smooth transition deserves an inquiry.

Martin Puryear Bower

Martin Puryear. Bower. 1980. Sitka spruce and pine, 64″ x 7′ 10 3/4″ x 26 5/8″ (162.6 x 240.7 x 67.6 cm). Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C

Passing as an Artist

Passing: African Americans and other minorities were historically discriminated against in the U.S., so the fair-skinned offspring of whites and people of color often pretended to be white to take advantage of the opportunities that would’ve otherwise been denied to them. This practice is known as passing or passing for white. It often required individuals to leave their hometowns and family members behind to ensure that they’d never come across anyone who knew their true racial origins.

Many young minority artists wish for the anonymity of Whiteness when it comes to their work. These artists crave a world where the artwork comes first before skin tone. Many of these artists will inevitably hatch a plan to make a beautiful exhibition and hire a White person to pretend to be them during the exhibition to attempt to get an honest response to the artwork, not skin tone then response and then eventually assumptions.

Many of these artists that begin down this path end up with work that no longer reflects them. They end up ghosts that produce pretty objects, objects that are manufactured by IKEA. Only focused on commercial success. Wanting to “pass” is a dangerous proposition that could consume your entire artistic practice.

Puryear’s work begins at an authentic African place and has succeeded in “passing”-Why and how? YALE’s Master of Fine Art department along with an impeccable mastery of craftsmanship go a long way in that smooth transition into the Western credence. Puryear’s new canon’s first stipulation is to educate yourself. You must know where your work fits in the analogs of history. The second order is to make the work impeccable. These mandates immediately remove your artwork from the category of folk, primitive, street, naïve and outsider art-outside of Western academia.

Contemporary artist Martin Puryear carefully considered the site requirements before designing and fabricating That Profile , the large-scale sculpture commissioned for and installated on the Getty Center’s Tram Arrival Plaza. In this video, Puryear’s comments about the design process accompany footage of the sculpture being made, transported, and installed.

Avoidance of Africa

African Mende carved wooden Janus mask, Sierra Leone. Double sided figural visages. 17"H.

African Mende carved wooden Janus mask, Sierra Leone. Double sided figural visages. 17″H.

Mr. Puryear’s experience with wood, his signature material, has a long history. His father was an amateur carpenter, and he made guitars while in college. As a member of the Peace Corps, he learned “old world joinery” from local woodworkers in Sierra Leone. While attending the Swedish Royal Academy, Mr. Puryear spent three weeks in the studio of furniture maker James Krenov

Stipulation number three, avoid directly addressing Africa, race, ritual, and identity. To do so would pull the work back into the realm of folk. This avoidance is crucial to the commercial longevity of an artist that has “passed”. The need to distance oneself from Africa preserves the Western rubric. This reasoning leads to this acceptance of Puryear’s work as Minimalism and Formalism first primarily. These mandates allow his clearly African practice to be in a visual limbo.

This visual limbo presents itself as the “universal” or “global” aesthetic where any quasi-indigenous people could possibly make it. In this global/universal dialogue the work can and could be applied and credited to many different art movements, all of which use Africa as a springboard to become Avant guard or relevant again while Africa remains primitive. It is easy to see how could be linked to post-minimalism.

Often associated with both Minimalism and Formalist sculpture, Puryear rejects that his work is ever non-referential or objective. The pure and direct imagistic forms born from his use of traditional craft are allusive and poetic, as well as deeply personal. Visually, they encounter the history of objects and the history of their making, suggesting public and private narratives including those of the artist, race, ritual, and identity.

This inquiry leads us to this topic. If Puryear is only using Africa as a point of appropriation and inspiration, then how is he any different than Picasso? And if he is acting like Picasso, operating from a colonial view of Africa then he should also be held accountable for that as he continues subjugation of Africa to exalt the West. Herein lays a major problem with attending any institution. If during the process of receiving your desired degree one actually reinforces the Western canon.

Some may say Puryear is not actually avoiding anything; rather he is very subtly and subversively handling such divisive topics as race, identity, and ritual. Those who entertain this thought should be reminded of Puryear’s other stipulation…every opportunity one has to speak about his/her work, make as many references to iconic Western art history. He is not subtle about the West.


Christopher HutchinsonChristopher Hutchinson is an accomplished Jamaican conceptual artist, professor and contributor to the art community as a writer, critic and founder of the nonprofit Smoke School of Art. He is a Professor of Art at Atlanta Metropolitan State College and has been featured as a lecturer including prestigious engagements at University of Alabama and the Auburn Avenue Research Library. For two decades, Chris has been a practicing artist. His works have been exhibited in internationally recognized institutions including City College New York (CUNY) and featured at the world’s leading international galleries such as Art Basel Miami. He has always had an innate passion for creating spaces where Africans and people of African descent contribute to an inclusive contemporary dialogue—ever evolving, not reflexive but pioneering. This requires challenging the rubric of the canon of art history, a systemic space of exclusion for the Other: women and non-Whites, and where necessary he rewrites it. He received his Master of Fine Arts Degree in Painting from Savannah College of Art & Design, Atlanta and his Bachelor of Arts Degree from the University of Alabama in Huntsville, Alabama.

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Categories: Art, Postcolonial Thoughts, Writing


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One Comment on “Postcolonial Thoughts: Martin Puryear “Passing through the color line” Part 1”

  1. March 23, 2016 at 1:13 am #

    Nice Post, Thanks For Post

    Liked by 1 person

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