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Building a Vision From the Ground Up

Though his public sculptures require a collaborative process, Martin Puryear maintains an intensely personal focus.

December 05, 1999|HUNTER DROHOJOWSKA-PHILP | Hunter Drohojowska-Philp is a frequent contributor to Calendar

A fishnet hemisphere of sandblasted stainless-steel tubes towers 45 feet over the plaza of the Getty Center in Brentwood, framing the bright blue sky. The sculpture, by Martin Puryear, resembles a basket balanced on its side, or a baseball catcher's mask perched on short, metal legs.

"That Profile," as the sculpture is titled, is the fourth and most recent contemporary artwork commissioned by the Getty Trust, the funding organization that supports the Getty Center and its museum, the latter of which primarily devotes its attention to art made before the 20th century.

Lisa Lyons, a leading contemporary art curator and consultant to the Getty, oversaw the work's permanent installation, as well as the accompanying exhibition of Puryear's work on view at the Getty Museum through Jan. 9. Her task was to find a work that would help vitalize the vast, open plaza that greets visitors first arriving at the center by tram.

"I recommended Martin because I felt that the Getty should look to an artist who had a track record of producing successful large-scale works for public places," Lyons said. "I also thought that the culmination in his work of precise geometry and organic form would play well on the plaza." Puryear, 58, lives with his wife and daughter in Accord, N.Y., but came to L.A. recently to oversee the installation of the 4-ton sculpture. Standing on the Getty's glittering marble plaza, he squints at the site of his work and explains, "I wanted to work with line rather than plane, describing volume with linear elements because I didn't want to make a work that was in any way like a barrier. I really wanted transparency, a work that was going to present you with the sky and space. I wanted a work that was airy and light, that describes space without obscuring it or closing it in."

Over the course of the past decade, Puryear has completed half a dozen public works, including last year's 40-foot-tall paraboloid of hammered bronze, "Bearing Witness," for the plaza of the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington, D.C. Awarded a MacArthur Foundation fellowship in 1989, Puryear is critically acclaimed as a sculptor who takes pride in crafting his own large-scale work out of wood or metal. Accustomed to feeling his way through the creative process in the privacy of his own studio, Puryear has not entirely enjoyed dealing with the teams of fabricators and engineers necessary for large-scale public work. "There is a tremendous amount of communication required between myself and the people who are going to realize the work," he says with a sigh. "Holding on to the idea I had at the germination of the project, through the process of scaling up and doing feasibility studies, I struggle with that."

To visualize the completed sculpture, Puryear completed two maquettes to address the details and materials of "That Profile." The sandblasted struts have a velvety gray texture, while the knots that appear to tie the crosspieces are made of silvery patinated bronze. The piece was fabricated by Amaral Custom Fabrications, yacht builders in Seekonk, Mass., who also constructed his piece in Washington.

Seated in an office at the Getty, Puryear admits to being ambivalent about his success in the competitive realm of public art. "You have to make the strongest and most intense work that you can. As an artist, it's not your business to pander to people's limitations. Still, when you are doing something for a public space, at least you acknowledge the people you are making it for."

Asked if his title, "That Profile," refers to a specific person, Puryear says, "I am ambivalent about [titles] because I think they can close off people's experience of the work if they stop at the name and don't go further. . . . I like to think the titles have a value that is close to poetry. They take you to another realm."

Puryear seeks poetic value in his sculptures as well. "I think poetry has always seemed to me to have a real strong place in the way I see art that moves me. I think there is a sort of mediation in the work between the natural and the cultural, between the man-made and the natural. The frisson between those two worlds is really interesting to me."

Puryear's work often combines geometric and organic forms, using a variety of woods that he bends, cuts and twists, then adding surfaces of tar, leather and wire mesh, and the result is a sense of effortless elegance. During his 1994 retrospective, organized by the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman called the work "touchingly soft-spoken and self-effacing."

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