Martin Puryear

There's a lot to surprise - and refresh - the eye in this Puryear retrospective
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REVIEW It's exhilarating to see, upon entering the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art's atrium, one of Martin Puryear's most renowned works, Ladder for Booker T. Washington (1996), installed with such noiseless bravura: the 36-foot sapling grows slender and seems to disappear even faster into space as it floats above the elevators. Puryear's eloquent exercise in perspective and comment on Washington — and his philosophy of slow progress and steady struggle in the fight for racial equality — gathers even more resonance today, thinking of 2008's lengthy political campaigns and the calls for sacrifice in the recessionary year ahead.

After the conceptual games of SFMOMA's "The Art of Participation: 1950 to Now" and the almost-fetishized objects of "246 and Counting: Recent Architecture and Design Acquisitions," there's a lot to surprise — and refresh — the eye in this Puryear retrospective. If "246" startles with its museum recontextualization of almost mundane gadgets like the iPhone, this survey accomplishes the opposite: it quietly brings a primal sense of wonder to the act of walking 360 degrees around sculpture that seems both familiar and alien, bearing all the humble hallmarks of functionality but amplified to the level of fine art. Engineers and architects, woodworkers and basket-weavers, Sea Ranch aficionados and even Olafur Eliasson buffs will find much to ponder at Puryear's elegant intersection of the raw and the handmade, the organic and the geometric. What comes across clearly in this gradually, gently elucidating exhibit — in which Puryear's works are displayed thematically rather than chronologically, culminating with an effect akin to a camera aperture slowly swiveling its nautilus eye wide open — is the respect the artist so clearly has for those who study and perfect a craft or trade. It's as if Puryear has writ large the notion of making: lionizing the utilitarian (Some Tales [1975-78], Lever #3 [1989]) and making it big and beautiful, even witty (Pride's Cross [1988], Sharp and Flat [1987]), almost Dada-esque in its cerebral and political provocations (Le Prix [2005], C.F.A.O. [2006-07]), and as ovoidally opaque and as fascinated with the negative space within as the surrounding space it so handsomely cuts, without (Maroon [1987-88], The Charm of Subsistence [1989]).

MARTIN PURYEAR Through Jan. 25. Mon–Tues, Fri.–Sun., 11 a.m.–5:45 p.m.; Thurs., 10 a.m.–8:45 p.m. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third St., SF. $12.50, $8 seniors, $7 students, free for members and 12 and under (free first Tues.; half price Thurs., 6–8:45 p.m.). (415) 357-4000, www.sfmoma.org

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