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Martin Puryear
Birth Date: 
Birth Place: 
Washington, D.C.
Best known for his abstract sculptures, Martin Puryear is also a printmaker, the designer large outdoor sculpture installations and an arts educator. Born in Washington, D.C. in 1941, he was interested in art from an early age and took drawing lessons while in grade school. After graduating from high school in 1958, Puryear enrolled in the District of Columbia Teachers College intending to focus on natural history. After two years he transferred to Catholic University of America and changed his major from biology to art. The first exhibition of his paintings was in a group show at the Adams-Morgan Gallery in Washington in 1962. After his graduation in 1963, Puryear was accepted by the Peace Corps, trained for a year and began service in 1964 in the West African country of Sierra Leone, where he taught English, French and biology in a remote village. He recorded his years there in drawings and woodcuts, and came away impressed by the utilitarian objects made by local potters, weavers, woodworkers and carvers. After his tour of duty ended in 1966, he traveled around Europe for the summer and then entered the Royal Swedish Academy of Arts to study printmaking. He also created sculptures in addition to prints. His first solo exhibition, prints and sculptures, was at Stockholm’s Gröna Palletten Gallery in 1968. Puryear became interested in Scandinavian designs for furniture, and spent three weeks observing famed American furniture maker James Krenov (1920-2009) in his Stockholm studio. Puryear returned home in 1968 and in 1969 entered the School of Art and Architecture at Yale University to study sculpture. After receiving his Master of Fine Arts in 1971, Puryear taught at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn. The Henri 2 Gallery in Washington mounted Puryear’s first American solo show in 1972. In 1973 he left Fisk for a studio in Brooklyn and the following year began teaching for three days a week at the University of Maryland in College Park, Md. A fire destroyed his Brooklyn studio and apartment in February 1977, but he was able to create new sculptures for his first solo museum exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington later in 1977. That year he received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Grant and the first of many commissions for outdoor sculptural installations. He accepted a professorship at the Chicago campus of the University of Illinois and moved there in 1978. His work was included in the 1978 “Young American Artists” exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York and the Whitney Museum of American Art’s 1979 Biennial (and again in the 1981 and 1989 Biennials). He received Guggenheim Foundation and Louis Comfort Tiffany grants in 1982. The University of Massachusetts, Amherst, mounted a “Ten Year Survey” of Puryear’s works in 1984. He was a visiting artist at the American Academy in Rome in 1986. Puryear left the University of Illinois in 1987 but lived in Chicago until 1990, when he moved to Ulster County, New York, some 100 miles north of New York City. Chosen to represent the United States in the São Paulo Bienal of 1989, Puryear won the grand prize. That year he was awarded a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. The Chicago Art Institute organized a retrospective exhibition of his work in 1991, which traveled to Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. Yale awarded Puryear an honorary doctorate in 1994. Among his many commissions for outdoor sculpture, Puryear finished a large stone and wood installation at Oliver Ranch near Geyserville, Calif., that year. The Fundación La Caixa in Madrid mounted a retrospective exhibition of his works in 1997. After attending the opening of the exhibition he returned to the American Academy in Rome for a residency. Puryear returned to printmaking in the late 1990s. He created two softground etchings with the printer Jacob Samuel (b. 1951) at Lapis Press in Los Angeles in 1999, one published in a portfolio to benefit the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. The following year San Francisco’s Arion Press published a new edition of Jean Toomer’s (1897-1967) 1923 novel “Cane”, illustrated by ten woodblock prints by Puryear. And then in 2001 he began creating etchings at Berkeley’s Paulson Press, with a total of twenty-three prints created from 2001 through 2014. New York’s Museum of Modern Art organized a major retrospective of his work in 2007 that traveled to Ft. Worth, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., the de Young Museum presented an exhibition of his prints in 2008 and the Art Institute of Chicago organized an exhibition of his prints and drawings in 2015 that traveled to New York and Washington. Among the many honors accorded Puryear are memberships in the American Academy of Arts and Letters (which awarded him its Gold Medal for Sculpture in 2007), the National Academy of Design and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (which awarded him the National Medal for the Arts in 2011). (TNB 7/2017) Selected bibliography: Elderfield, John, et al. Martin Puryear. Exhibition catalog. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2007. Pascale, Mark. Martin Puryear; Multiple Dimensions. Exhibition catalog, with an essay by Ruth Fine. Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, distributed by Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2015.