Deliberately, the sculptor Martin Puryear climbed a ladder 20 feet up the side of the scaffolding surrounding his latest work, “Lookout.” Located on a hilltop in a wooded corner of Storm King Art Center, the domed brick structure debuts as a permanent feature here on Sept. 23.
Once he reached the top, Puryear balanced on planks that had been placed so that workers could move around. “How are you with heights?” he asked a reporter. (Answer: Not great, though he went up for a few seconds). “It’s a little wiggly up here.”
At one point he grabbed a nearby rope momentarily, but at 82, he was remarkably steady, a quality that echoes his consistent art production over his more than 50-year career.
Puryear’s means of ascent made it hard not to think of his 1996 sculpture “Ladder for Booker T. Washington,” a work in wood with impractical, curving sides and a dramatically narrowing form that was featured in his 2007—’08 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art.
Since then his later career highlights have included public works like the 40-foot-tall Madison Square Park installation “Big Bling” (2016), and, as a capstone, his representation of the United States at the 2019 Venice Biennale in the complex narratives of “Martin Puryear: Liberty/Libertà.”
“Lookout,” a new Martin Puryear sculpture that will make its formal debut this month. Some viewers have likened it to a single Croc, the artist said.Credit…Amir Hamja/The New York Times
“Lookout,” which has 90 openings of varying dimensions, is Puryear’s first piece in brick; he is best known for crafting works in wood and stone defined by organic curves and forms with multiple reference points, often landing somewhere between abstraction and representation.
By Puryear’s own estimation, “Lookout” is at least his most complicated sculpture to date. It uses a technique known as Nubian vaulting, developed thousands of years ago in the Upper Nile delta. Mudbricks can be laid at an angle rather than in the typical flat orientation, and the technique requires a fast-setting mortar.
“You can create a span without having formwork,” Puryear explained. “The bricks are supported by the previous course of bricks.”
Puryear’s work has always been imbued with references to African American history and culture, and often to shelter. “I love that it comes from Africa,” he said of the technique’s origins.
The veteran curator John Elderfield, who organized the 2007 MoMA show, visited “Lookout” as it was being finished and said that it “could be the most amazing thing Martin’s ever done.”
Puryear grew up in racially segregated Washington, and has lived in places as varied as Stockholm, Nashville and Chicago. For more than 30 years he has lived on a secluded property in the Hudson Valley. The area was once a brickmaking hub, but he said that was not a primary echo in the piece, just a “happy coincidence.”
In the 1960s, he worked in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone for two years, during which he learned local craft traditions from potters, weavers and woodcarvers.
“My ancestors may have come from there,” he said of Africa’s West Coast, and his stay there left a profound impression on him.
“It was a moment when I was able to have firsthand experience of a part of the continent that produced the African American population,” Puryear said. “The nature of the trade of people from Africa, that rupture, makes it difficult for Black people to connect back to the continent.”
“We have to look through that veil” — of enslavement — “to understand our origins,” he added. “It’s a cruel irony.”
It was a 2009 visit to another African country, Mali, that had a direct effect on “Lookout.”
“I saw a roof being made in a village, and it had no internal formwork — that was a significant moment to unlock the structural principle of this piece,” he said of the vaulting technique in “Lookout.” Other brick structures, from the Upper East Side to England, also shaped his thinking.
The new work is made of two layers of brick sandwiched around concrete-reinforced stainless rebar. “It’s built to stand the test of time,” said Puryear. It can be entered under a brick archway on one side, and then it rises toward a dome.
His unconventional forms and spaces are always fodder for free association and double meanings. One work, “Bower” (1980), made from slats of spruce and pine, is like a loose-weave basket turned upside down, an enclosure that could become a trap.
“Lookout” can resemble an upturned thumb, or a version of the down-turned head he has made before. “Some people say it looks like that shoe, the Croc,” said Puryear, slightly amused.
Inside, “It’s like being in a grotto,” he said, or a “brick pouch.” There is something chapel-like about the interior too, and that tracks with his previous works that reflect his Catholic upbringing.
The 90 openings are all aligned on a center spot that was temporarily occupied by a pole topped with a tennis ball, standing in for a viewer.
“The real point about the holes is that they all point to one spot,” Puryear said. “When you reach it, you’ll be able to look out equally well through all of them.”
He added that entering the work flips the dynamic between viewer and art: “When you’re inside, you become the object.”
“Lookout” has been under construction since last year — there was a break over the winter — and the idea of having some kind of piece at Storm King goes back decades, since Puryear first discussed it with the center’s former director, David Collens.
“He asked me for a temporary piece, but I said I was interested in something permanent,” said Puryear, who does not mind waiting.
“He deliberates so intensively and intentionally,” said Brooke Kamin Rapaport, the deputy director and chief curator of the Madison Square Park Conservancy, who worked with Puryear on both “Big Bling” and as the commissioner of the U.S. Pavilion at the Venice Biennale.
“He’s been extremely hands-on,” said Nora Lawrence, Storm King’s artistic director and chief curator. “For Martin, the craft and the intellectual pursuit are inextricable from each other.”
To put the latest sculpture in context, the art center will also have an indoor show from Sept. 23 to Dec. 17. that will feature models for Puryear’s previous public and outdoor pieces, with related works on paper.
For the artist, “Lookout” is most engaging as an exercise in pure form. “It’s about the transition between the tunnel and the dome, and how to realize that,” Puryear said. “That was the challenge.”
He pointed to the bottom of the piece, where the form curves outward as it ascends, creating an overhang. “You see this?” Puryear asked. “Bricks don’t want to do that.”
Lara Davis, an architect who was acting as lead mason on the project, said the dome features “the most unique curves I’ve ever worked with in vaulted brick masonry.”
Puryear’s openness to what a material can do with a little coaxing is one of the reasons that the artist Sarah Sze — who also has a permanent piece at Storm King, “Fallen Sky” — called him “an incredible influence.”
“He doesn’t force the material to be something it doesn’t have the potential to become,” said Sze, who represented the United States at the Venice Biennale in 2013. “But you’ve also never seen it that way.”
Puryear said that “Lookout” marked a shift in tone from his own Venice presentation, which featured pointed works like “A Column for Sally Hemmings,” a shackled iron stake driven into a fluted column — the shackle of enslavement being one of his recurring motifs.
“Venice was done during the previous presidential administration, and it had the mark of that period on my brain all over it,” he said of the Trump years. “It was the most engaged I have ever been. I was profoundly affected, and remain profoundly affected, by what I saw happen to this country.”
In particular, he cited his response to “religious fanaticism and gun violence” as drivers of those works.
In contrast, Puryear said his latest work “feels like a breath of fresh air.”
His goal with “Lookout,” he added, was “to make something for its own sake. I’m embracing the pure possibilities of delight and pleasure, of making and experiencing form and shape and light — all the things that art gives humanity.”