Madge McKeithen

Center of Attention

I still work with my hands, in the belief that touch, or the way the material is manipulated, can influence the work, and that the physical making process itself can generate ideas, as well as bring them to fruition.
Martin Puryear

I was slow to realize the creative heritage and institutional vision that make the Vera List Courtyard connecting the 65 West 11th and 66 West 12th Street buildings such a suitable space. My experience was one of self-offense: how could I not recognize the hand of Martin Puryear in the wall surfaces, in the trio of round bench forms in granite, steel, and maple (the latter continuing the design into the 12th street building lobby), the glass canopy and curving side ramp offering protection and wheelchair access?

It took a museum to awaken me to what I passed through regularly, sat in frequently, and socialized in occasionally. The 2007-08 Martin Puryear exhibit in the atrium of the Museum of Modern Art and the experience of his soaring works in that massive space, brought the Vera List Courtyard alive for me with echoes of Ad Astra, Desire, Some Tales, Greed’s Trophy, and most especially, Ladder for Booker T. Washington.

The sculptor along with the landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh designed and installed the courtyard in the 1990s, and understandably, Puryear does not expect his design projects to be interpreted as sculpture, but the hand of the maker is so much a part of all of his work. What might happen to the experience of the courtyard if students and faculty could be made aware of Puryear’s sculpture while in that space? In that busy, connecting thoroughfare, an acknowledgement of the artist’s commitment to craft, ideas, process, history, social change, poetry, and creative endeavor might bring the place to life.

The ladder did in fact start with an idea that was visual, and the title, despite its specificity, was a complete afterthought. But it seemed so apt, given the contorted, precarious ascent presented by the ladder and its distorted perspective, that I couldn’t resist it. Booker T. Washington believed that freed slaves and their descendants should prove they were deserving of equal rights when they were granted them….[Our] knowledge of each other’s history in this country is so spotty that if I can put something out there, and people get curious, they might learn a little bit about the whole history, and that’s not a bad thing. – Martin Puryear

Michael Auping… writes, “The poetics of Puryear’s image suggest what Robert Duncan called ‘access to the world mystery,’ in which ‘the immediacy of what I can grasp and form with my hands is as big as any idea I can imagine.” That’s why I’ve kept coming back to your sculptures over and over, all these years: because they have that access, and are thereby inexhaustible to me. They are dealing with very big ideas, but these big ideas are always grounded back into the body, through the hands…. much of poetics is about joinery. The place where things are cut and joined together, or where they touch, is really where meaning is made. And that holds true for poetry or writing as well as for sculptural objects. It’s all about the edges, this cutting and joining. – David Levi-Strauss, Brooklyn Rail, 2007.


What aspects of this courtyard suggest balance and calm? Which struggle against confinement?

How would images of Puryear’s work delivered to your mobile device through links displayed inside the courtyard change your experience of the space?

Do the sculpture of Martin Puryear and the design of the Vera List Courtyard connect with things you value in learning, creating, and working at New School?

**links to: Madge McKeithen Assistant Professor, School of Writing The New School for Public Engagement 917-270-4075