More with Martin Puryear

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Lever #3/Martin Puryear, 1989 Photo: McKee Gallery, New York

Here’s a continuation of that interview with Martin Puryear on the eve of his MoMA retrospective.

LACAYO: I think of your work as post-Minimalist in the way of Eva Hesse’s. She started with the simplifications of form that Minimalism offered but saw a way to use simplified form to refer to all kinds of things — psychological states, feelings about the body — that orthodox Minimalism didn’t usually speak to. You once said “I value the referential quality of art, that one can allude to things or states of being without in any way representing them.” Is there a point where you’re making art when you start to think to yourself, wait, the references are becoming too clear here, this looks too much like something in particular, maybe too biomorphic let’s say, and I want to scale it back and make it more abstract.

PURYEAR: I think it would depend on when you’re talking about my work, at what stage in that continuum, because I’m very conscious that lately the work has moved into an area where I’m really making recognizable things.

LACAYO: Wagon wheels and ladders and wheelbarrows.

PURYEAR: Right, using actual objects in the work. But there’s a rationale for that. What I’m interested in now is trying to subvert the intense control that my imagination has on the work. And the predictability that brings, because you know your own mind so well, you know your own imagination. And I guess I have such a suspicion of my own patterns, my own modus operandi becoming so entrenched. I’m always on the lookout for something new, always looking for a way to escape from anything that feels too familiar.

One of the ways to do that is to work with something that’s already a given. I’m not inventing this. It’s been part of Modernist practice for a long time, If you look at the collages of Juan Gris and Picasso, at the point where they were using newspaper. There’s a similar impulse on my part. It creates a situation that destabilizes the way you’re working, so you have to rise to a different place to incorporate that thing, to make it your work, to make it your own work. The pieces with the wheels and the wheelbarrow — those are objects with a previous life in the world.

This is a move that’s fraught with a lot of uncertainty. It’s been complicated and sometimes I’m not sure about it. But why should I just be doing the same thing all the time, over and over again? I have a real aversion to making endless variations on a theme. I tend to want to plow under what I already know and expose some fresh ground for a new direction.