Martin Puryear, Sanctum, 1985. Wood, wire mesh, and tar, 76 × 109 × 87 in. (193 × 276.9 × 221 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase with funds from the Painting and Sculpture Committee 85.72
NARRATOR: How do we make sense of a work like Sanctum, Martin Puryear’s sculpture from 1985? We can walk around it and look inside its walls. They are a patchwork of wire mesh brushed with tar. The piece looks massive, but then light enough to be lifting up on one side. The work’s title, Sanctum, implies a kind of a sacred space. And while we can see inside it, Puryear offers us no way to enter.
In Sanctum, Puryear’s highly original ideas about form and his mastery of craft converge in a kind of balance. He calls such a balance an ‘equivalence’. We see this particularly in Puryear’s use of the tar-covered mesh. The artist has said: “I’m interested in mediating between a feeling of massiveness and fragility—to reach a point of extreme vulnerability. Wire mesh allows for all of this. It can appear massive and opaque, but is actually a thin veil.”
Here, as in all of Puryear’s sculpture, he draws on his knowledge and appreciation of many cultures to invent forms we’ve never seen before—even if they feel familiar—like a hut, a vessel, a basket or even a hoop skirt.