Sculpture Like It Oughta Be

Hardly anybody knows what sculpture is anymore. Unlike painting, which can be pushed only so far before it simply turns into something else, sculpture can be almost anything: a piece of industrial detritus, a fugue of TV monitors, a glorified ditch. These days, it's the exception when sculpture consists of cohesive, crafted objects whose primary purpose is esthetic. It's very rare indeed when the sculpture is as good as Martin Puryear's. And ordinarily, only 17 years' worth of work (1974-90) wouldn't make much of a retrospective exhibition. But Puryear, 50, is such a poetically consistent artist that a survey of his work (at the Art Institute of Chicago through Jan. 5 before traveling to Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and Philadelphia) is not only sculpture at its most edifying, but also at its most satisfying.

Puryear didn't take the short road. After graduating from Catholic University, he went to Sierra Leone (teaching biology, French and English) with the Peace Corps from 1964 to 1966. Then he went off to Sweden for a couple of years and added furniture making to his studies. Finally he landed on the launching pad for so many contemporary artists' careers, graduate school at Yale, only to find a deep division between "white collar" (conceptual) and "blue collar" (object-oriented) aspiring artists. The rift was a reflection of an art world in which, as curator Neal Benezra's plain-spoken catalog essay points out, "the level of discourse on sculpture ... particularly in the pages of Art forum, was often deafening."

Puryear took his own stance . . . with a foot firmly in both camps. But instead of coming up with some flaccid MOR art, he arrived--sooner with pieces like the sea-lionish "Bask" (1976) and later with ones like "Endgame" (1985)--at solid abstract sculpture whose scale, materials, beauty and wit are in almost perfect balance. In "Endgame," for instance, the play between the colored male and female termini doesn't distract too much from the intriguing irregularities in its overall curve. And in "Sanctuary" (1982), the allusions to a birdhouse and a unicycle actually enhance the cross-legged twist of its two long tree branches. Puryear lets you see the ideas behind his sculptural decisions (a square hole here, an impossible twist there) and he lets you feel his workmanship. But he doesn't parade either. This isn't showoff sculpture, as is so much object art that struggles to be noticed in a world of violence and video. It's just old-fashioned lyricism whose tires you can kick.

No artist, however, is born fully formed in a university art department, and Puryear has his artistic debts. An obvious one is to Brancusi. Another is to the native craftsmen of the west coast of Africa, and still another is to the hard-core minimalism of Donald Judd and Sol LeWitt. But just as Puryear has blended carving, modeling and assembling into simply making, he's also condensed his many influences into a single personal style that takes surprisingly varied individual forms.

Which is not to say this show is perfect. Puryear's shaping and smoothing is best taken in small doses, and 40 mostly people-height pieces in the boxy space of Regenstein Hall can start to look a little like tractors at a trade show. A certain oomph is missing from this exhibition. Jasper Johns once said that the secret of making art was to take an object, do something to it, then do something else to it. In his affection for finish, Puryear sometimes forgets the "else" part. The catalog mentions " a latent Duchampian component" in an unexhibited gigantic outdoor work (a curved walkway too long ever to be seen whole). If a few of the pieces in the show similarly flirted with absurdity, the exhibition might be punchier.

But in a time of one-moment-brassy and one-moment-baleful postmodernism, Puryear is a lovingly unrepentant modernist. Perhaps (to indulge in some art-politics speculation) that's why the exhibition isn't coming to where it's needed most: one of New York's major museums. What! A contemporary show that keeps the faith that art has its own essence, that it's more than a filing cabinet for social theories, that its job is more just to be than to proclaim? Fuhgedaboudit!