Whitehot Magazine

Martin Puryear: Lookout at Storm King

Martin Puryear, Lookout at Storm King. Credit: Jeffrey Jenkins.

By BOB CLYATT November 28, 2023 

Martin Puryear’s sculptures always grab me, visual poems, rhyming forms that I want to experience again and again.  A Martin Puryear work will feel resolved, settled, lived with.  There’s a feeling that everything about the piece just had to be exactly that way.  Perhaps this is why certain of the sculptor’s forms will get re-visited, re-worked; a perfect swell is re-cycled a decade or two later in a new piece.  The feeling of seeing a new Martin Puryear piece is at once freshness and familiarity.  Materials may change, or scale, and each piece will respond site-specifically to its context, but we will almost always recognize the sculptor’s mind and hand in the work. 

So it is with Lookout, a new brick sculptural structure at Storm King.  With the help of Process and Scale, the excellent survey of maquettes and drawings for 22 Puryear public art projects, we can appreciate some of the decades of back burner simmering that brought us Lookout.  Its development visibly calls on, for instance, Sentinel, installed in 1982 at Gettysburg College, Untitled, Oliver Ranch 1994,  Meditation in a Beech Wood 1996, in Knislinge Sweden or Guardian Stone 2003, in Tokyo.  Viewers familiar with Puryear’s work may recognize in Lookout a nod to Phrygian caps or even the primary negative space in Big Bling, 2014.  To see the small-scale maquettes brought close together in this way is to compress a lifetime of Puryear’s sculptural evolution into just a few rooms.  Curated by Artistic Director and Chief Curator Nora Lawrence working closely with the artist, this exhibition alone would be worth the trek to Storm King.    

Leaving the Museum Building and walking through the Hudson Valley landscape of Storm King we see perhaps the world’s finest gathering of 1960s-80s rectilinear, tubular monumental works by such artists as Mark di Suvero, Richard Serra, Alexander Liberman, Joel Shapiro or Sol LeWitt.  In this environment Calders or von Rydingsvards stand out simply for their curves or knobbiness.  Clearly Storm King curators are thinking about this and one sees a range of works added during recent years- Sarah Sze, Zhang Huan, Andy Goldsworthy and rotating temporary installations-that bring a more diverse sculptural language to the park.   

This new cohort is where Puryear’s Lookout clearly belongs.  Its arresting brick structure swells and swoops up away and tumbles back home again- a cap or casque, a hut, refuge, igloo, a big thumb or even, as one visitor bashfully offered, a pizza oven.  Puryear suggests that the work draws on organic, even indigenous construction models- a traditional Nubian hut or oven, self-supporting, without internal formwork.  Or 200-year-old English brick “bottle” kilns, Roman domes, local Hudson Valley settlers’ homes and outbuildings.  The piece bulges above an already steep rounded hill, and approached from different angles rewards the eye with its dance of curves on curves.  

Martin Puryear, Lookout at Storm King. Courtesy of the author.

Yet I think the piece gets even more interesting when we engage it with our bodies, experiencing the spaces themselves, and for Lookout, inside is where the action is.   Although a contemporaneous piece Tabernacle (shown in the US Pavilion during the 2019 Venice Biennale) had a space viewers could peer into, Lookout is the first sculpture in Puryear’s 60 years of creating where one can literally go inside and experience an interior space directly. Walk around and peer out any of the 90 holes that perforate the double-walled piece, or stand on a circular cobblestone and rotate your head to look through every one of them simultaneously.  Lean against the inward-sloped back wall and feel its supporting camber.  Look out the front opening at the perfectly framed Hudson Valley scene, with Schunemunk Mountain in the background.  The sculpture rests in one of the most scenic spots on the 500-acre property and its view is one that any of those 19th century painters might have chosen.  Turn back and look up at the firmament of starry holes and the inside swirls of this beautiful chapel, this oblong swelling dome. 

What one might feel, or at least this viewer did, is a growing interior space, a feeling that the space inside Lookout has become the space inside your own head, bigger, not vastly so, but bigger than the breadbox we normally peer out from as we navigate our days.  Puryear, long the creator of forms is now also a creator of spaces, stretching the bounds of our minds in the process.

What might we be looking out to, or for, from the safety of this elegant brick redoubt?  Puryear offers, in his cryptic open-ended way, that the piece is “a physical place, an invitation to observe and engage with the natural world and a warning”.  What warning, we may wonder?  What threads of meaning might this poet of form have spun for us (and Puryear is always leaving allusive threads for viewers.) The panopticon of surveillance?  The oven of environmental warming in the Anthropocene?  Attackers of all types who try to storm our hill?  Perhaps just the daily distractions that might draw us away from the joyful contemplation of this beautiful setting on a Fall afternoon.

Martin Puryear, Lookout at Storm King. Credit: Jeffrey Jenkins.

Nothing Puryear ever does is by accident – materials are chosen, settings, scale, orientation, shape, form, color- everything is thought about, resolved, then masterfully built, controlled.  Puryear speaks of the importance of “tone” for a sculpture, the tone of a material, which I take to mean the things we experience in the back of our awareness, that are not explicit but arise from a combination of interacting elements in a piece.  In this context it is worth noting that the tone of Lookout can strike one as just a little ‘off’. The piece sits on its hill a little bit like a new brick home sits in an established residential neighborhood. This is not because of the form itself but rather, I believe, the material- the brick mortared with Rosendale cement for its strong, fast-drying properties, which appears to have been spread, perhaps even wiped, over much of the sculpture’s surface.   The piece just looks too new right now.  It needs time to grow into itself.   Time for natural lichens and algae to take hold, moisture to give bloom to a living habitat.  Left alone, I suspect over the next few years this tone issue will evaporate.  Grass will grow between the cracked cobblestones and the whole piece will appear to arise, a natural evolutionary next step, from the hilltop.

There is a reason, I think, that sculptors especially seem to love Martin Puryear’s work: it’s a flair for the actual making process.  While most viewers will understandably focus on what the finished work looks like and emotes, sculptors recognize also the many steps and the craftsmanship needed to turn material into form and in this Puryear almost always gives us a flourish, a masterstroke, the thing no one else has ever been audacious enough to try to coax a material into becoming.

So it is with Lookout.  What does it take to get brick to stand up this way, without internal braces, nothing more than rebar and through-holes and precision cuts, stresses analyzed and engineered to support their loads in a freestanding structure supported by its elemental pieces? It’s a catenary arch on steroids, Brunelleschi’s dome with an extra bulge and a tucked under back wall.  Because why would we just make a dome when we can make something so much more fun? 

Puryear’s Lookout is not the only new construction at Storm King.  A new Welcome Sequence with pavilions and 580-space parking area is under construction to the west of Old Pleasant Hill Road upon entering the property.  Current visitor parking will be reclaimed as park and sculpture sites, while a much-needed hangar-like conservation and maintenance building will be added to the southwest.  Though the park closes December 17 for the season, (I still want to see Lookout in the snow!) significant improvements are in store for us during 2024-25.

At age 82, Puryear has gathered nearly every accolade possible for a sculptor.  He is in robust form so we can expect that the coming years, supported by his able team and by visionary patrons and institutions, will bring even more masterworks into realization.  Yet sculpture of this caliber takes a long time, his permanent piece at Storm King was a decade or so from initial discussions to final unveiling.  Let’s waste no time green-lighting more projects while we still have this luminary among us. WM

Bob Clyatt

Bob Clyatt is a sculptor and writer living on Hen Island, New York.

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