I guess I’ve been spoiled watching Martin Puryear’s sculpture unfold in the intimacy of McKee Gallery all these years. His black tar on mesh homunculae, which first emerged from the cocoon of the late 1980s, were particularly endearing when experienced one on one in a gallery setting. The romance of Puryear involved imagining his encounter with his materials, wood soaked in water, streched mesh and cooling tar, the comfort of their finished morphism.
Now, in Puryear’s deserved retrospective, everything scatters like so many duckpins on the sixth floor mall of the Museum of Modern Art, a disappointingly sterile place to be with sculpture. Here, the weak esthetic associations of Puryear’s forms, the elements of scrimshaw and those painted saws you buy in Vermont, are highlighted, through no fault of the artist, but through the random uselessness of curator John Elderfield. Better to have distributed Puryear’s work through the museum’s forbidding hallways where shadows and light could have enveloped the pieces. Instead, we have art as LL Bean catalogue, an equivalence of objects on sale.
So cover one eye and zone in on a piece or two. Dumb Luck and Maroon are the finest of the tar on mesh creations. A white table of lumpy objects titled Self, Believer and Reliquary show Puryear as geologist, random forms waiting to be rolled and kicked, and even borrowed by David Hammons. MoMA’s walls are oppressed with signs for this show warning people not to touch the art or bring "children under 12" within its vicinity. Well, if you deny Puryear tactility there’s nothing left. These same signs proclaim the "fragility" of these pieces, not a word any sane person would brand on Puryear.
Particularly egregious is Elderfield’s stuffed atrium of roped-off wagon wheels, a ladder and scurvy poles which appear from below like giant cheese sticks. A bolder curator would have put this stuff outside in the Sculpture Garden, subject to the elements, allowing viewers to enjoy changing patinas and sense of decay floating through Puryear’s imagination. Let the trustees drop a million or two on the artist for the privilege. Instead we are locked in a barn of wooden doodads. Greed’s Trophy, an exaggerated hockey goalie’s mask, mocks Elderfield’s effort from the atrium walls.
Affinities between Puryear and other artists are sparse and singular: Philip Guston, Lee Bontecou and the Robert Morris of the ‘60s. But, the aforementioned David Hammons is the closest, form as irony making wrinkles in the mind. Any other space would have served Puryear’s sculpture better than MoMA. For the true lover of art and what MoMA once was, the museum and its leadership remain a disgrace.
"Martin Puryear," Nov. 4, 2007-Jan. 14, 2008, at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, New York, N.Y. 10019
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).