The Man of Mysteries

Martin Puryear, one of America's greatest artists, makes powerful enigmas--by hand

Richard Barnes / MoMA

Desire, 1981.

I had a funny misunderstanding with Martin Puryear a few weeks ago. We were talking about a work of his from the late 1980s and the problem of beauty in art. You might not know that beauty is a problem, but for a long time it has been suspect as a virtue. If Picasso and Braque had worried about beauty, the thinking goes, they would never have ventured into Cubism. And in due time they found their way to--what else?--another kind of beauty.

I had been talking to Puryear about Maroon, a large, dark, bulbous form made mostly from wood and...

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