Biography of Martin Puryear
American artist Martin Puryear combines traditional craft techniques with modernist abstraction in his monumental sculptures and intricate prints. His body of work, which he has created over an impressive 30-year career, defies categorization and often examines notions of culture and identity throughout African-American history.
Born in 1941 in Washington D.C., Martin Puryear was educated at The Catholic University of America before joining the Peace Corps and volunteering for two years in Sierra Leone where he learned traditional woodworking techniques. He then studied printmaking at the Royal Swedish Academy of Arts in Stockholm before returning to the United States in 1969 to enroll in the graduate programme at Yale University.
Martin Puryear often uses symbols associated with slavery in his works. First installed at Madison Square Gardens in New York, his largest public sculpture titled Big Bling is decorated with a gold-leaf shackle that resembles the shackles worn by slaves when they were taken by ship to America. Some of his other most iconic pieces are similarly political—adopting the shape of the revolutionary liberty cap or poetically telling the story of turn-of-the-century African-American leaders and fighters. While Puryear is primarily celebrated for his large-scale sculptures, his delicate prints have become increasingly popular thanks to recent exhibitions. Rooted in nature, they often use similar shapes to his sculptures, carrying the key themes of his works to the page.
Major exhibitions of Martin Puryear’s work have been held at The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C, the San Franciso Museum of Modern Art, the Art Insitute of Chicago and the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The sculptor represented the United States at the 1989 Bienal de São Paulo where he won the festival’s Grand Prize. Martin Puryear received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1982, the Gold Medal in Sculpture by the American Academy of Arts and Letter in 2007 and the National Medal of Arts in 2011. He has lived in Hudson Valley, New York since 1990 and continue to work in a self-built studio there to this day.