With nearly 100 works on paper including drawings, woodcuts, etchings, and preparatory sketches, this exhibition takes a bit of the mystery out of Martin Puryear’s gifts as a sculptor while, at the same time, it reveals his range and skill as a draughtsman. Titled “Multiple Dimensions,” the show gives us a great sense of the centrifugal force driving Puryear’s long career. Charcoals and woodcuts of children and animals he made as a Peace Corps volunteer in the mid-1960s in Sierra Leone, with their distilled forms, point the way to the sleek, meticulously crafted wood sculptures he made decades later (and which were the subject of a fine 2008 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art).
Puryear’s sculptures did not emerge fully realized, as this important exhibition, organized by the Art Institute of Chicago, suggests. They were accompanied by years of experimentation on paper that yielded works of quiet power and grace in their own right. Many are deceptively simple. An untitled charcoal drawing of a seated infant girl from 1964–66, all smudges and shadow, draws startling emotional complexity out of a simple composition. Preparatory drawings for the sculpture Sanctuary (1982) show Puryear experimenting with subtle variations in the arrangement of the wooden stalk-like forms that hang sensually like legs from a wooden box.
Although focusing on paper, the show includes 14 mostly recent sculptures, many referring to race and the legacy of enslavement. Watching his ideas move from two dimensions to three, the viewer can see an innocent proposition mutate into a sinister vision. Shackled (2014), for example, is a jet-black, iron sphinx with a shackle piercing its head, a grim evocation of bondage. A series of earlier drawings and a wooden maquette appear as little abstract heavens—all flowing, curvaceous forms and orifices, and without the shackle.
The human form—especially the head—creeps into Puryear’s work in unexpected and unsettling ways. The pine armature of Vessel (1997–2012) could be a stand-in for a skull but, with its black, tar-covered ampersand inside, it evokes more the human mind and its impulse toward language. The title and the form also suggest a ship, with black cargo, leading the viewer back to the theme of bondage and to a provocative parallel association: the human head as slave ship. The same shape appears again in a curious, white bronze sculpture called Face Down (2008) and in numerous works on paper dating back to 1990. Two roughly life-size heads, one in black bronze and the other in pine (both 2009), recall ancient portrait heads of Ife, Nigeria, in both the shape of their skulls and their regal bearing. They, too, are accompanied by exploratory drawings and aquatints.
In the end, some of these background sketches fail to shed much light on the sculpture and stand as little more than tedious footnotes. But at their best, as with those two heads in pine and bronze, the effect of seeing the sculptures and their paper ancestors together can be mesmerizing.