African Inspiration

June 2, 2009

As I prepare to depart for two years of service with the Peace Corps in Mali, West Africa, I can’t help but daydream of what this new experience will bring as I walk the LACMA grounds during my last days here. One of my favorite places is the sculpture garden that lies between the LACMA café and Hancock Park which features the abstract works of artists including Donald Judd, Alexander Calder, and Martin Puryear.

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Martin Puryear, Decoy, 1990, cast iron, purchased with funds provided by the Art Museum Council and the Flintridge Foundation

Puryear’s sculpture Decoy sits along a path that is almost within an arm's reach of the largest La Brea Tar Pit. With replica mammoths mistaking the pit for a watering hole (and consequently getting stuck), the tar pit nearly resembles a scene one might find in National Geographic of African elephants quenching their thirst at a desert oasis. Fittingly, this scene, as well as my own upcoming endeavor, reminded me of Puryear’s time abroad in Africa.

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In the fall of 1961, John F. Kennedy paved the way for the creation of the U.S. Peace Corps, and his words on international peace and friendship during a speech at the University of Michigan resonated with many young people throughout America, including the young artist and sculptor Martin Puryear. Puryear enlisted in the U.S. Peace Corps in 1963 and headed to Sierra Leone, West Africa, in search of adventure and new experiences. While he was there, he occasionally taught art at a local school and produced many drawings, some that were intensely realistic and others that flirted with abstraction.

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Martin Puryear, Untitled (Joseph Momoh), 1965, ink on tan woven paper, collection of the artist

He also met local craftsmen and carpenters and learned their techniques. Later, Puryear would write, “When I left the country and went to Africa I think that was when I really earnestly in two-dimensional terms at least…found a way to deal with what I had recently discovered about abstraction.”

Although Puryear’s Decoy was produced decades after he lived in Africa, it is interesting that these first discoveries and inclinations towards abstraction occurred during his time there, and would consequently inform his work throughout his life. Decoy, though cast in iron, certainly displays a level of craftsmanship with the material that Puryear so admired about the craftsmen in Sierra Leone. As our parents and grandparents remind us time and again, we are the sum of our experiences and Puryear’s work is certainly a testament to that. Cheers to Africa!

Jenna Turner, Curatorial Administrator, Art of the Middle East