WASHINGTON — Washington-- Martin Puryear's "Lever #2" (1988-1989) is abstract like his other sculptures, but also like them it refers to the world and does not object to a referential reading. From a round knob at one end of the 25-foot piece, a long handle-like arch springs into the air to return to a central ring from which in turn flow a cluster of thin poles ending in a bell-like opening.
To the artist, the work refers to polygamy; to critic Michael Brenson it suggests both African crafts and a woman giving birth. But it can also be seen in terms of much more abstract symbolism, as both the monotheistic concept of creation and the long, slow evolution of life into a sudden bloom of civilization. Or, if one wants to see it in terms of African-American history (for Puryear is black), it can stand as an optimistic symbol of the inevitable eventual flowering of a culture long ago torn from -- but never completely separated from -- its roots, its essence.
One of Puryear's largest and most impressive works -- "Lever #2" helped win the sculptor the grand prize at the Sao Paulo (Brazil) Bienal in 1989 -- has been acquired by the Baltimore Museum of Art and is in the artist's current retrospective at Washington's Hirshhorn Museum. There it is one of 35 works from 1974 to the present.
Puryear is a sculptor of deceptively simple-looking works that have large implications. But their complexity is inviting rather than intimidating. If it doesn't make them sound lightweight (which they aren't), it's possible to say that they are positively enjoyable. One enjoys experiencing them, from the initial meeting through the process of getting into them and out the other side.
"Big and Little Same" (1981) is a near circle of wood that tapers throughout its length ever so gradually from larger to smaller in circumference, with a larger elliptical "dot" of contrasting wood on the larger end and a smaller one on the other. As with other Puryear works, one is first struck by the beauty of it as a physical object -- the form, the material. There is something psychologically as well as purely visually satisfying about it. In a sense it strikes a chord of recognition. It pleases on such a deep level that it feels as if it's responding to a previously unknown need to see just such a form.
As with "Lever #2," on a symbolic level this sculpture can be seen as referring to individual reproduction, to family, to the progress of civilization -- here one can read it either up or down, as one chooses. Finally it reverts to simplicity again -- one comes back to the handsome handmade object itself.
If there's a lot going on in Puryear's work, that reflects an artist who came to maturity gradually, absorbing the benefits of work and study in several cultures along the way, as the exhibit's catalog informs. Born in Washington in 1941, he studied art at Catholic University and in the mid-1960s spent two years in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone in West Africa. While there he studied the local crafts, especially carpentry. Subsequently, studying in Sweden, he again responded to the craft tradition, particularly in furniture-making. Later, he studied at Yale, lived in New York in the 1970s but also taught at the University of Maryland at College Park from 1974 to 1978, and traveled to Japan to study architecture and gardens in the early 1980s.
As catalog essays by scholars Neal Benezra (curator of the exhibit) and Robert Storr reveal, Puryear's work reflects all these influences, from American minimalism and Asian understatement to the anthropological element in African art and the European and African craft traditions. Many of his early works were destroyed in a studio fire in 1977, so most of those in this show (which originated at the Art Institute of Chicago) date to a dozen years between the late 1970s and 1990.
There is both consistency and change in these works, mainly of wood but occasionally incorporating other materials such as wire or rawhide. Puryear's sculptures are always abstract and almost always quiet, non-confrontational, self-contained. Insofar as they deal with the world, they do so indirectly, by nuance and implication, but they are not complete as pure abstractions -- they want to be interpreted. As Benezra states, "Puryear has reasserted the inclusiveness of modernism, allowing and even encouraging allusion and metaphor to enrich and complicate his work."
But there has been development, too. On the whole, the sculpture has become bolder, less compulsively finished, more complex and open-ended. An earlier work such as "Bask" (1976), a solid arc of pine, lies almost voluptuously on the floor, suggesting a sea creature, perhaps a seal, in repose. It's an elegant form but not a particularly complicated work.