Martin Puryear’s “Confessional” (1996-2000), which was recently acquired by the Museum of Fine Arts and is on display in the museum’s Linde Family Wing, has a door. A wooden door. It’s a strange door, and perhaps not even a door at all, because it doesn’t open. What’s more, it has a sort of step in front of it. Perhaps the step is for entering. Or is it (thinking of the work’s title) for kneeling?
The door itself is wooden and very plain, but it suggests some kind of power. Is it supposed to evoke the ending of Kafka’s parable “Before the Law” in “The Trial”? “No one but you,” wrote Kafka, “could gain admittance through this door, since this door was intended for you. I am now going to shut it.”
It’s always possible, I suppose. But I doubt it, just because there is no “supposed to” about it in Puryear’s work. He was born in 1941 and grew up in Washington, D.C. He started out as a painter but later turned to sculpture, and has spent more than three decades inventing a lexicon of superbly crafted, original forms in an array of materials — especially wood. (He was given a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2007.)
Confessional, By Martin Puryear
Like Ellsworth Kelly, whose wood sculptures inaugurated the temporary exhibition program in the new Linde Family Wing two years ago, Puryear comes across as a virtuoso — almost a fetishist — of the properties and textures of different woods.
But unlike Kelly, Puryear — although he is deeply influenced by abstraction — is no minimalist. His forms are ambivalent and enigmatic, but they are charged with poetic meaning, haunted by history.
“Confessional” has a backward-blooming shape that Puryear, who is African-American, has used in other works. For me, it conjures the shape of a human head, particularly as abstracted in certain African sculpture. The door might be the face, the rest the mind’s container.
This container may be inaccessible, but it is also transparent. Over a frame of metal rods Puryear has placed overlapping squares of wire mesh, welded together and coated with tar.
“Confessional” is charismatic. It keeps you on your toes. The materials combine lightness and warmth with heaviness and darkness. The sculpture’s form suggests delicacy but also a daunting robustness. It evokes architecture (a hermit’s chapel?) and a human form (a head).
Nothing about it is settled or clear. Everything is in tension.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.