Cover Art Commentary: Gregg Hertzlieb on Martin Puryear

Phrygian: An Etching by Martin Puryear


Phrygian, 2012

Martin Puryear (b. 1941)

Color softground etching with spitbite aquatint, aquatint, and drypoint on paper, 42/50, 24 x 18 inches (image), 35 x 28 inches (paper)

Byron Lee and Josephine Luecke Ferguson Museum Acquisition Fund

Brauer Museum of Art, 2016.12

Phrygian, a 2012 etching by the American artist Martin Puryear, is a fine new addition to the Brauer Museum of Art’s permanent collection. Puryear is one of the greatest living American sculptors, an abstract artist who is represented in major museums internationally, and who has received high profile public commissions.

Founding museum director Richard Brauer, museum donor Josephine Ferguson, and I traveled to the Art Institute of Chicago early this year to see the exhibition Martin Puryear: Multiple Dimensions, curated by Mark Pascale. The three of us admire Puryear’s work and enjoyed his 1991-1992 exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago. The earlier exhibition consisted of large-scale sculptures in a wide variety of media, whereas Multiple Dimensions focused on smaller scale pieces and works on paper, such as drawings and original prints that the artist created at various stages of his career. The exhibition gave us a new and fresh understanding of the artist’s work; I was especially impressed by his repeated treatments over the years of particular themes and subjects.

The most recent original prints in the Multiple Dimensions exhibition comprised a series published by Paulson Bott Press in 2012. The artist worked directly with master printmakers to realize his visions in the most effective way possible in the medium. In these works on paper, Puryear did not simply or merely illustrate or depict past works; rather, he used the two dimensional configuration of a chosen subject for pictorial improvisation, with classic qualities of the techniques yielding their own unique rewards.

As the three of us toured the exhibition, we recognized shapes and sections in the prints as referring to sculptures Puryear had created. In addition, we delighted in the richness of the prints, the way they reflected flawless handling of many challenging intaglio techniques. Seeing the drama of these etchings, appreciating the importance of the artist worldwide, and noting the sizes of the editions for the prints, we started to consider and discuss acquiring one of these etchings for the Brauer Museum collection, using a fund that Ferguson had established at the Brauer for purchasing contemporary works of art.

While all of the prints Puryear made in 2012 with Paulson Bott Press were beautiful, we kept coming back to one titled Phrygian. Curator Pascale’s label information beside the print, quoted on the Art Institute’s collection entry page for its own impression of the print (, inspired us with its explanation of Puryear’s use of the Phrygian cap subject: Puryear has used several works to explore the shape of the Phrygian cap, a symbol of liberty popularized by the French Revolution. While he was familiar with the numerous depictions of the cap, it was only after he began the sculpture Big Phrygian, in 2014, that he came across an early engraving of a black man wearing one. Dating to 1794, the year that slavery was abolished in France, the image depicts a freed slave with the caption Moi libre aussi (I am free too).

Brauer, Ferguson, and I saw powerful meaning in Puryear’s use of this particular subject. An African American man and a modern abstractionist, Puryear was drawn to the sculptural form and presence of a Phrygian cap and also saw it as a historical symbol of liberty. In addition, the engraving he discovered connected the cap potently to his own heritage.  While all Puryear works are full of reference and layered allusion, the Phrygian etching would enable us to share with viewers insights about intaglio technique; the history and significance, dating all the way back to antiquity, of the Phrygian cap; the use and evolution of themes in the artist’s work; and finally the artist’s closer embrace of the subject after seeing the engraving that Pascale mentions in the label copy.

After sharing news of our exciting and inspiring adventure in selecting a piece for a Ferguson Fund acquisition, we joined the other members of the Brauer’s collection committee in voting on our purchasing this piece. While our dream is to one day have a Puryear sculpture, we are thrilled to be able to offer to the public a piece that presents a deep and varied surface, that skillfully uses densities of line and tone to create illusions of volume. Puryear’s sensitivity in seeing three dimensionally informs his two-dimensional representations in ways that artists working pictorially can only admire.

Puryear’s approach to his chosen subjects is to simplify until the resulting form represents an ultimate distillation. It is then that the inspiration, the initial appeal, reveals itself fully, at which time the artist can interpret this basic or essential form through the use of any number of materials. His study and practice of African woodcarving techniques, as well as of other woodworking traditions across the globe, have equipped him with the technical skills for effectively realizing his abstract visions. Imagine Puryear’s Phrygian cap moving from the artist’s mind to a large and elegant wood sculpture to the surface of an etching plate, where the cap becomes further abstracted beyond materiality until it reaches a critical mass of meanings and associations and becomes cosmic in its impact. Brauer, Ferguson, and I found ourselves dazzled by Puryear’s visual journey and are pleased to share this piece that to us symbolizes the freedom to imagine and invent.

Gregg Hertzlieb is Curator and Director of the Brauer Museum of Art at Valparaiso University. Hertzlieb is the editor of the books The Calumet Region: An American Place (Photographs by Gary Cialdella), published in 2009, and Domestic Vision: Twenty-Five Years of the Art of Joel Sheesley (2008), as well as a contributor to The Indiana Dunes Revealed: The Art of Frank V. Dudley (2006). He has been awarded the Edward L. Ryerson Traveling Fellowship by the School of the Art Institute in Chicago and a Conant Writing Award for Poetry from Millikin University.  His artwork has been exhibited widely, including at the Aron Packer Gallery, August House Studio, the Central School of Art and Design in London, Columbia College, Elgin Community College, the Goodman Theater, Struve Gallery, and the Ellen Firme Gallery.

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