Martin Puryear’s Selection for the U.S.’s Venice Pavilion Could Boost His Under-The-Radar Market
At 77, American sculptor Martin Puryear has achieved most major milestones to which a contemporary artist can aspire. He’s been in the Whitney Biennial (three times); in 2007, he had a major traveling retrospective that began at the Museum of Modern Art, which also owns more than two dozen of his works. In 2015, he created Big Bling, a major outdoor commission for Manhattan’s Madison Square Park. Earlier this year, a new monumental work of his was permanently installed at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. And last month—rather belatedly—the U.S. State Department revealed that Puryear will represent the U.S. at next year’s Venice Biennale.
The only mark of success Puryear hasn’t achieved, it seems, is a healthy presence on the secondary market.
“The Puryear market overall has not been a runaway market,” said Barrett White, the executive deputy chairman and head of post-war and contemporary art for the Americas at Christie’s. “He’s not a market artist—he’s much more of an artist’s artist and an institutional artist, somebody who makes these incredibly poetic, incredibly beautiful objects that are so intricate in how they’re made, that are truly handcrafted, and are really his own unique vision of what he wants to put out into the world.”
Could the international visibility that comes from having a major solo pavilion in Venice be the catalyst that launches Puryear into the salerooms? In April 2016, when Mark Bradford was selected to represent the U.S. at the 2017 Venice Biennale, his auction record was £3.7 million ($5.8 million), for a large-scale painting that sold at Phillips in the fall of 2015. That record has been surpassed four times since; in fact, of Bradford’s 10 highest auction results, only two predate his selection as the U.S. artist in Venice, which added momentum to a career that, admittedly, was already taking off. This spring, again at Phillips in London, Bradford joined the eight-digit club when his Helter Skelter I (2007) surpassed its high estimate to sell for £8.6 million ($11.9 million).
Though Puryear has been making work for much longer—he is 77 years old to Bradford’s 56—he is comparatively under-represented on the secondary market. Bradford’s work has come to auction 110 times as of this writing, while Puryear’s has only hit the auction block 72 times, according to Artnet’s auction result database. Of those 72 sales, only one of Puryear’s works surpassed the million-dollar mark: a delicate and untitled 1989 sculpture in the shape of an inverted teardrop over 10 feet tall, made of red cedar and pine, which more than doubled its pre-sale high estimate to bring $1.8 million at Christie’s in 2014. By contrast, works by Bradford have sold for over $1 million at auction on 27 occasions.
“The market is a pragmatic beast at the end of the day, and it’s easier to have something that can go on your wall than something that takes up half of your living room,” White said. “When you look at the top five results for Puryear, four of the five have been the wall pieces, which are ultimately much more houseable.” Indeed, the only floor-based work among Puryear’s top five auction results—Bower (1980), an elegant latticework of Sitka spruce and pine in a wave-like shape that measures more than 5 feet tall and nearly 8 feet wide—now belongs to the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Martin Puryear, Sharp and Flat, 1987. Courtesy of Christie’s.
Beyond interior decoration compatibility, some of the discrepancy between the Puryear and Bradford markets could be chalked up to longstanding hierarchies between art materials and forms. Bradford’s bravura type of large-scale and primarily abstract works on canvas are very much in line with dominant market tastes. Puryear’s comparatively ascetic abstract sculptures often make passing allusions to Minimalism, while drawing on forms and practices traditionally looked down upon as the purview of craft rather than fine art.
“For as long as he’s been making sculpture, Martin Puryear has been engaged with craft traditions: forms of making that have been passed down through the ages in many cultures, all of which carry with them distinct histories,” art historian and critic Michael Brenson told the New York Times last year on the occasion of a retrospective of Puryear’s work at the Parasol Unit Foundation for Contemporary Art in London. “Puryear has studied, embraced and rethought various craft traditions, and in his sculpture has enabled the histories embedded in them to become part of artistic culture.”
This fall, one of Puryear’s large wooden sculptures will test the effect of his Venice Biennale appointment on the market. Sharp and Flat (1987)—an elegant and deceptively simple construction of pine planks and nails whose shape vaguely evokes a horse or some other large, four-legged animal with its head raised—will be offered during Christie’s evening sale of post-war and contemporary art on November 15th. As with most of his freestanding sculptures, it may present some interior decoration challenges for collectors: It’s more than 5 feet tall, and over 6.5 feet wide. In addition to Puryear’s new Venetian clout, the work has the added appeal of stellar provenance: It comes from the coveted collection of Harry “Hunk” Anderson and Mary “Moo” Anderson. The auction house has given the work a pre-sale estimate of $250,000.
“It’s extremely attractive in the marketplace at that price, and I think with the announcement about Venice, you’re going to see a lot of interest in this piece in particular,” White added. “The Venice inclusion is going to be a great moment for a greater part of the art market to think about and look at Puryear’s work, but it will always be limited by its own insistence on being what it is—and that’s one of the most interesting things about the art.”