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Martin Puryear Big Bling

  • Exhibition

  • On view now
  • MASS MoCA

Martin Puryear’s monumental sculpture Big Bling has landed for at least the next five years at MASS MoCA. Sited at the museum’s extreme southern perimeter in the heart of the downtown North Adams, Massachusetts business district, the sculpture creates a dramatic new connection between MASS MoCA’s 16-acre, 28-building factory campus and the city’s Main Street business district.

The spectacular forty-foot-tall work — the largest temporary installation Puryear has created — is built of wood, Puryear’s signature material, and chain-link fence. Through abstract means, the artist has crafted an ongoing dialogue with history, art history, identity, and politics. Here, “bling,” a slang term for flashy jewelry and accessories, is rooted in the urban youth, hip-hop, and rap culture of the 1990s. Originally commissioned for New York City’s Madison Square Park, the title of the artwork and its initial placement in the heart of Manhattan demonstrate Puryear’s recognition that Big Bling was a reflection of the character and the inhabitants of dense urban environments. Restored and transposed to MASS MoCA’s campus, the significant scale of the piece in relation the lower-scale and density of a New England factory town changes viewers’ perspective while amplifying the work’s monumental impact.

In the studio, Puryear’s sculpture applies methods gleaned from traditional crafts, carpentry, boat building, and other trades with spare, exacting stylistic dignity and formal clarity. Unlike his sculptures made from bronze, iron, stone, or carefully assembled from solid wood, Big Bling is constructed industrially from curved laminated wooden beams and exterior grade plywood, materials suitable for outdoor building. Instead of the wire mesh and tar that he has sometimes used for the surface of his sculptures, here Puryear has chosen a quintessentially urban material, stout chain-link fencing, to wrap the plywood construction. Metal fences function as makeshift boundaries around empty lots, construction sites, and playgrounds, concurrently protecting property and excluding people. Puryear has posed a similar dilemma in Big Bling: the multi-tiered work suggests an edifice that might be ascended level by level, but whose entry is blocked by a barrier fence.

A sleek golden shackle is stationed near the pinnacle of the colossal sculpture. It is anchored near the top of the structure — a shimmering beacon, a harness that both adorns and restrains the sculptural form. Big Bling is part animal form, part abstract sculpture, and part intellectual meditation.

About the Artist
Puryear earned his BA from Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C. in 1963 and his MFA from Yale University in 1971. After serving in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone (1964–1966), he attended the Swedish Royal Academy of Fine Arts (1966–1968). The Museum of Modern Art in New York organized a retrospective of his work in 2007. Puryear has received, among others, the Skowhegan Medal for Sculpture (1980), a Louis Comfort Tiffany and a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (1989). He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1992) and was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from Yale University (1994). Puryear represented the United States in the 2019 Venice Biennale. The artist lives and works in the Hudson Valley region of New York.

Big Bling was commissioned by Madison Square Park Conservancy, New York, and was exhibited in 2016-17 by Mad. Sq. Art, the contemporary art program of Madison Square Park Conservancy.

Further Reading
Martin Puryear Big Bling, Brooklyn Rail

Martin Puryear
Big Bling, 2016
Pressure-treated laminated timbers, plywood, chain-link fencing, fiberglass, and gold leaf
Courtesy of the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery, New York

Photo: Kaelan Burkett

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