The Disappearance of Martin Puryear

His artwork lasted almost four decades before leaving a void that has yet to be refilled. This is the story of “Untitled 2.” Written by Joseph Beyer, Executive Director

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Detail from “Untitled 2” by Martin Puryear. Date and Photographer Unknown.

Michigan Legacy Art Park, a nonprofit public space located at Crystal Mountain Resort in Thompsonville, has been in existence for over 25 years. During that time, its mission has always been to combine Art, Nature, and History together into unique experiences. It hosts 2 miles of hiking trails across thirty acres of wooded preserve, featuring over fifty large sculptures along the way. It’s open every day of the year, from dawn to dusk.

Remarkably for such a small organization in a largely rural area, it boasted a sculpture for over a decade from the internationally acclaimed artist Martin Puryear (awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Barack Obama in 2011 and represented the U.S. in the 2019 Venice Biennale).

When I joined the staff, the “Puryear-Piece” would come up sporadically but often … as support of the park’s artistic excellence and quality, and as representation of precious diversity within our history. “We should talk about it more,” and “no one knows it was here” were common refrains from many people directly involved in this saga.

This work was known as “Untitled 2” — and there are only thirteen photos of it in existence we can find (4 photos showing the piece itself and 9 photos of the deaccessioning). I’ve never seen it in real life, and no one reading this will either.

How this super-star sculptor’s work ended up in Benzie County, Michigan is a story of youth, opportunism, and time.

I was not directly involved in these events, but I’ve tried to research and share them as faithfully as I could. I aspire it’s a true representation of the very real struggles conservators and cultural organizations face, the role of artists in their work after it’s created, and the power of stubborn hope.

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In an online biography, we find the earliest clue about the origins of “Untitled 2” — showing that Puryear’s “Box and Pole” was on display as a temporary exhibit first at Artpark in Lewiston, New York — and then later shown at Macomb County Community College in Warren, Michigan in 1978.

Macomb became the venue where Puryear and Art Park founder David Barr met. Barr was a professor while Puryear a visiting artist. They shared a primary medium and passion: sculpture.

Puryear was 37 years old and Barr was 38 — both interested in the history of craftsmanship and the constructivism of art presented democratically, with laborer materials and in a way that was understood as a common language.

Barr had been teaching at Macomb since 1965 as Associate Professor of Sculpture (a post he eventually held thirty-seven years). At some point during their crossed paths, Puryear and Barr’s students started work together on “Untitled 2,” based on designs Puryear experimented with earlier, and with him demonstrating and leading techniques.

Since referenced in a numerical series, we might deduce the class created multiple works, as they explored the origins of craftsmanship and techniques that fascinated their talented young teacher.

“The maker (and the proof of the making)” is always infused into Puryear’s projects, so “Untitled 2” became both an object of abstract beauty and a record of all the students who touched it at the same time.

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Puryear in Chicago in 1984. He began teaching art in 1978 at the University of Illinois, a post he would keep for nearly a decade. Credit: Steve Kagan for The New York Times.

The commitment completed, Puryear departed Michigan to return to Chicago where he was living, and here we lose some of the trail for the next twenty-two years, presuming that “Untitled 2” was on display or stored at Macomb. It’s unlikely that Puryear ever saw it again in person after he left.

Detroit artist John Sauvé (a close friend of Barr), filled in some of the blanks. According to him “Untitled 2” was actually a fixture on campus at Macomb, and he saw it often in the 1980’s — remembering it was tucked away in the northwest corner of the courtyard at Center Campus.

Sauvé had worked for the Art in Public Places initiative, which was documenting public art across Michigan in 1987 — and although Puryear had yet to be a household name, his career was on the rise and Sauvé specifically recalls them discussing “Untitled 2” in a staff meeting, noting that Macomb didn’t seem to have much of a plan for preserving the work.

Sauvé shared Barr told him he was worried it would completely fall apart — “I’m going to take that Puryear up to the park and save it. We’d be so lucky to have a piece from Martin.”

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“Old Mole” 1985 by Martin Puryear

Barr had an obvious affection and wrote admiringly “Puryear still employs the materials and crafts of the pre-industrialized artisans that inspired him … and he has a deep regard for these anonymous artisans’ skills, innovations, and imaginative creations. His own work is never an appropriation of the art of the past, but a translation of historical aesthetics and integrity into a 21st-century celebration.

This sincere connection to those unknown artists of history is the subtext of most of his work, and one reason this piece would fit so comfortably in Michigan Legacy Art Park’s natural environment.”

Jim Ristine, a founding member of the Art Park and a close friend of Barr, remembers it a little differently, saying: at some point in the nineties Macomb decided to move “Untitled 2” from the courtyard on campus. He told me “they knew it would be a hassle to restore, and they just wanted to get rid of it. I think it sort of came to David.”

What is known for certain is that sometime in early 2000, Barr received permission from the college to transport “Untitled 2” north to Thompsonville, Michigan — which he did using a rusty but trusty truck — destined to be installed at the outdoor sculpture experience he was creating, then heading into the fifth year since opening.

The route would have required a three-hour drive to Benzie County, followed by a narrow cut along the nearby golf cart path, until reaching a primitive dirt service road leading into the back of the park.

Ristine got a call from Barr asking him to help, and when they met at the Art Park entrance, there were two artworks tied down together in a large flat bed truck: one of Barr’s latest pieces and the Puryear. “It was really beat up,” Ristine remembered, “I honestly didn’t know why he took it.”

With “Untitled 2” strapped into the truck bed, Barr and Ristine rode the brakes heavily, navigating the trail’s potholes until Barr reached the spot he thought best. The site was hand graded, and the art installed, measuring approximately 10' x 10' x 12'.

Ristine and Sauvé both confirmed it was the original “Untitled 2” Puryear and the students created that Barr removed from Macomb’s campus in 2000 and installed 237 miles away in Thompsonville … population 457 when it arrived.

Both also remember Barr caring for the sculpture often. “David repaired the woven slats, and he worked on the rotting wood at the bottom. I was there a few weekends helping him. He really wanted to bring it back to life,” recalled Ristine.

It settled and sat among the basswood and elm trees — for tens of thousands of visitors each year who found it along the trail near the final bend — with a long story to tell of how it got there.

The official signage, installed later off to the left as you faced it, read:

“Untitled. 1976, Wood. Martin Puryear. American, Born 1941. The inspiration for this piece can be traced back to the artist’s experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in Sierra Leone. While serving in West Africa, he saw many examples of useful items skillfully crafted from available materials. The artist honored this tradition by creating the piece without use of power tools. In Michigan, the Ojibwa were similarly skilled at creating useful items such as baskets, made of black ash splints. This artwork was a gift from Macomb Community College.”

When Barr launched his unlikely outdoor project in 1995, his immediate goal was to fill the park with works quickly — and he did so primarily through friends and associates willing to donate time and weekend trips to get it done. If a sculpture was available and worthy, Barr would place it in the park first and worry about maintaining it later.

Many of the early pieces were ephemeral by design and made with natural materials intended to eventually decay — a process that would take years. But those years actually did pass, and as the park and the artworks aged, many conservation challenges were emerging all at once … just one of them was the condition of Puryear’s work.

Ristine added, “With the early days, there was this kind of romantic notion that everything would be created from natural materials, and they would weather slowly in the woods and be beautiful forever. No one was thinking ahead that far.”

In 2008 the first maintenance notes appear in the Art Park archives, citing wet-rot, buckling, and fading. Log entries continue over the next few years from staff and volunteers, documenting damage.

“Untitled 2” was constructed entirely of wood, the most vulnerable of materials against the four seasons of Michigan weather. As feared— it began to decay quickly. At first where the bottom touched the raw ground, and then higher where the splints had separated from the trim. Lichen and moss covered the surfaces in a natural patina.

When an artwork is beyond saving or becomes a safety hazard, it’s typically removed through a series of steps known as deaccessioning.

The Art Park’s formal Collection Committee oversees this process, and is always extremely reluctant to let an artwork go— but many times in our history these outdoor works (battered by wind, rain, snow, falling trees, and tormented by local porcupines and woodpeckers who don’t follow the rules on the park’s signs to “Please don’t touch the sculptures”) are damaged.

In the event of major repairs, unwritten protocol is the artist should always be contacted first — so that’s what the park did when the Committee wrote to Puryear through his gallerist, formally seeking blessings to restore or recreate the artwork.

Through proxies, then Executive Director Renee Hintz received a reply dated January 14, 2015:

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“In answer to the Letter of Understanding to Martin Puryear regarding the work referred to as “Untitled 2” that Mr. Puryear made while a visiting artist at Macomb Community College in 1978. The work in question was made as a collaborative exercise with students, and was never intended as permanent. As such, the work was expected to deteriorate naturally without maintenance. As the work is made of wood and is in the process of inevitable decay, it is surprising it has lasted this long.”

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It seemed that Art, Nature and History were fully combining in the outcome of an experimental classroom sculpture that had now been in existence for an astonishing thirty-seven years.

The decision was clear and the staff and Collection Committee faced the inevitable — it would be removed before it eroded further, and at the expressed wishes of the creator.

The relationship between art and destruction is long and complex, but best summed up in the truism … all things decay.

Many other artists in the park’s collection shared a desire for works always considered temporal to fade away — and many rightly don’t want work that is deteriorating to be a representation of their talent and capabilities.

It was on July 15th of 2015, that the Art Park’s Conservator Dewey Blocksma (himself a working artist), dismantled what was left of Puryear’s piece.

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Hintz stood on as documentarian and witness and the leftover material was taken around the corner to “Function-Junction,” the center of maintenance operations for Crystal Mountain. There was, and is, no ceremony for these things. The photos taken only to close out the file.

The park’s most famous artwork in the collection, then and now, was gone.

Within the course of just one hour across fifteen years, the collection had suddenly lost a piece from an enormously significant artist. Through no fault but the passage of time.

“Untitled 2” was a living and breathing cultural exchange of backgrounds, histories, and age — and the final sculpture was simply an expression caught in time and space, of people coming together. Even the decision to remove it was a final collaboration and an expression of kinship within the Art World.

Having never met Barr (who died just one month after Puryear’s work was removed at the age of 75), I’m only guessing that’s what he liked so much Martin and this project. And it might have ultimately compelled him to protect it so it could be appreciated. Or in this case now, talked about. Thought about. Remembered.

When I spoke to Ristine, the only living connection to the day “Untitled 2” arrived at the Art Park, he told me, “You know, I thought it was still there. I never knew what the end was … but now I do. That’s remarkable it lasted that long.”

It truly is.

I’ll let a quote from Puryear himself close out this unlikely and fascinating journey:

“Although idea and form are ultimately paramount in my work — so too are chance, accident, and rawness.”

Post-Script — after decades of stewardship and with continued support from the community, the artworks in the park’s collection today are managed by a committee of dedicated volunteers, full-time staff, and a Conservator identifying problems before they arise. The great delight is the surprise of seeing a monumental sculpture hidden in the woods, where it never would have been. But it’s also one of the biggest challenges of this wild idea that Barr created, and this story stands as testament to how precious it is and how worthy of being preserved for decades to come.

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“Cloister-Redoubt or Cloistered Doubt,” 2019 by Martin Puryear. American hemlock, Eastern white pine, tulip poplar, red cedar. Credit: Martin Puryear, Matthew Marks Gallery and Madison Square Park Conservancy; Ron Amstutz.

Have any stories or photos about this story? We’d love to hear from you and we’ll update this post here with any additional tidbits or corrections: info@michlegacyartpark.org (like this contribution below, which came to us from Ashlea Walter of Traverse City and makes fourteen known photos now of “Untitled 2”)

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About the Artist (from Art21.org)

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Martin Puryear was born in Washington, DC, in 1941. In his youth, he studied crafts and learned how to build guitars, furniture, and canoes through practical training and instruction. After earning his BA from Catholic University in Washington DC, Puryear joined the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone, and later attended the Swedish Royal Academy of Art. He received an MFA in sculpture from Yale University in 1971. Puryear’s objects and public installations — in wood, stone, tar, wire, and various metals — are a marriage of minimalist logic with traditional ways of making. Puryear’s evocative, dreamlike explorations in abstract forms retain vestigial elements of utility from everyday objects found in the world.

In Ladder for Booker T. Washington, Puryear built a spindly, meandering ladder out of jointed ash wood. More than thirty-five-feet tall, the ladder narrows toward the top, creating a distorted sense of perspective that evokes an unattainable or illusionary goal. In the massive stone piece, Untitled, Puryear enlisted a local stonemason to help him construct a building-like structure on a ranch in northern California. On one side of the work is an eighteen-foot-high wall — on the other side, an inexplicable stone bulge. A favorite form that occurs in Puryear’s work, the thick-looking stone bulge is surprisingly hollow, coloring the otherwise sturdy shape with qualities of uncertainty, emptiness, and loss.

Martin Puryear represented the United States at the Bienal de São Paulo in 1989, where his exhibition won the Grand Prize. Puryear is the recipient of numerous awards, including a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Award, a Louis Comfort Tiffany Grant, and the Skowhegan Medal for Sculpture. Puryear was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1992 and received an honorary doctorate from Yale University in 1994. Martin Puryear lives and works in the Hudson Valley region of New York.

Where Art, Nature and History Meet

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