Richard Serra is a hard act to follow. But if there’s any American sculptor with a body of work to compare with his, it’s Martin Puryear, whose career retrospective opens Nov. 4 at the Museum of Modern Art. A few weeks ago, as he was installing the show at MoMA, I sat down with Puryear for a rare interview. I’ll post our conversation in parts over the next few days while continuing to report in from London.
LACAYO: You grew up in Washington, D.C., where a lot of the art is public art. It’s monumental, something meant to be enduring, weighty. Do you think that entered into your thinking about sculpture, either as a model or as something to undermine?
PURYEAR: I don’t think I was influenced by the sculpture in public places. It was more a question of what I saw in museums, in particular once I became interested in thinking of myself as an artist. But I certainly was aware of civic and commemorative sculpture. I remember very clearly as a child a pair of horses in front of the Department of Commerce. I have them as strong memories and still go back sometimes to get a refresher of that feeling. They were carved in stone, massive draught horses being managed with great effort by some very muscular men. That struck me. But I don’t think the other sculpture, the commemorative work, entered into my thinking very much as art.
LACAYO: You started as a painter. When did you move to sculpture and what was it that made you decide that sculpture was where you should go?
PURYEAR: I painted my way through undergraduate education. But I was very fascinated by the idea of sculpture. I don’t think the place I studied at the time, Catholic University, had the strongest department for sculpture. The faculty was weighted towards drawing and painting. When I got my degree, I think it was at that point that I really started to think about how I wanted to work.
After that I was away from the U.S. for four years and a couple of things happened. One is that I started to work abstractly. I was a representational painter in the beginning and then gradually the work became more and more non-objective. By the time I left the country and went to the Peace Corps in West Africa I was really interested in looking for structures behind what you could see with your eye.
At the same time in West Africa I stopped painting. I made lots of drawing and lots of wood cuts. And the work became more and more graphic and more and more abstract and then I left and went to school in Sweden for two years. And at that point I began to make sculpture on my own. I wasn’t really in a program, I was just experimenting with different ways of constructing things. But that’s where it became pretty clear to me that I was more interested in making things than in making images of things.
LACAYO: When you went to the Peace Corps in 1964, Minimalism was just beginning to make itself known in the U.S. Were you aware of it?
PURYEAR: I was unaware of it when I left the States. The art I was looking at, a lot of it was American abstract painting, Motherwell, Kline. Tapies and Dubuffet, they were also impressing me a lot at that point. But when I came back Minimalism was in full force as an influence in the art world. So was Conceptualism.