Martin Puryear (American, b. 1941) was born in Washington, DC. In his youth, he learned to build furniture, canoes, and guitars; his interests also included falconry and archery. Puryear served in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone in the 1960s, and in 1971, he received an MFA from Yale University. Incorporating influences from West African sculpture, Scandinavian design, Minimalist sculpture, and woodcraft such as boatbuilding and cooperage, Puryear’s work has garnered numerous honors, including a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Award and the National Medal of Arts.
Michael Van Valkenburgh (American, b. 1951) founded his architectural landscaping firm, MVVA, in 1982, with offices in Brooklyn and Cambridge, Massachusetts. From early commissions for gardens, plazas, and other smaller institutional spaces, MVVA’s projects have expanded in scale to urban interventions making use of existing landforms, as in the design for the eighty-five-acre Brooklyn Bridge Park (begun in 2003 and ongoing).
Puryear and Van Valkenburgh had occasion to join forces in 1989, nearly thirty years after the expansion that established Alvin Johnson/J.M. Kaplan Hall and Eugene Lang College (now Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts) on West 12th and West 11th Streets, respectively. Puryear signed on at the invitation of Kathleen Goncharov, curator of the New School Art Collection from 1987 to 2000, to refurbish the midblock courtyard; Van Valkenburgh was the artist’s choice as collaborator. The outdoor space as it existed was a conventional paved sculpture court, with limited greenery and restricted seating, overhung by the double-height skybridge connecting 66 West 12th and 65 West 11th Streets. The courtyard’s centerpiece was Garden Elements (1959), a two-part stone sculpture by Isamu Noguchi. Other works were rotated in and out as temporary placements, among them Chaim Gross’ Family of Five Acrobats (1951), now installed in the interior atrium.
Puryear and Van Valkenburgh’s interventions reconceptualized the space entirely, integrating it into a simple yet multifaceted indoor/outdoor program. The indoor portion of the commission responded in part to the stipulations of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (1990), which mandated accommodations such as access ramps. Unfortunately, in the limited space of the Joseph Urban Lobby, the interior ramp partially obscures the mosaic by Gonzalo Fonseca. Such compromises notwithstanding, in 1989, Vera List Courtyard won a Design Award from the American Society for Landscape Architects. The work was also the occasion for an historic lawsuit arguing for freedom of expression in public art practice and protesting anti-obscenity restrictions on federal arts funding, which was initiated by New School President Jonathan Fanton and brought by The New School against the National Endowment for the Arts and its chairman, John E. Frohnmayer in The New School v. Frohnmayer, No. 90-3510 (S.D.N.Y. 1990).