When the new MoMA building opened in 2004, one of its many peculiar features was a sixty-foot-tall atrium space rising from its second floor. It was thought of as an “indoor sculpture garden,” but it really served two functions: to be a piazza where those who survived the ticket lines could gather and gab, and to be a display space for some of MoMA’s largest pieces, including Barnett Newman’s Broken Obelisk and, against its east wall, one of Monet’s Water Lilies paintings. The space was designed so that visitors could look down on these works at sharper and sharper angles from each of the five gallery levels and, vertiginously, from an opening in the floor of the sixth level–a grand view to a space disposed only to demoralize whatever art was placed there.

At the new building’s opening, the atrium’s height–a mere eight inches lower than the Sistine Chapel–famously reduced Monet’s canvas to a shriveled painted rag. Since then, the atrium has given temporary residence to works by various artists that, while strong enough to hold the wall in most other spaces, are here somehow dwarfed by the weight of all that emptiness above them. One cannot but recall the dread with which the thought of infinite spaces filled Blaise Pascal. Quite the most exciting feature of the current MoMA retrospective exhibition of American sculptor Martin Puryear (on view through January 14) is the way he has used the unprecedented opportunity of having the entire atrium to himself to infuse bare height with meaningfulness and to turn this shaft of hostile emptiness into something aesthetically breathtaking.

The bulk of the show consists of about fifty works, from the mid-1970s to the present, artfully distributed to give each piece the room it needs. The main components of the atrium installation are built to a scale substantially larger than Puryear’s typical pieces and in a way that does not diminish but rather glorifies their virtues–craft, beauty, intelligence, invention, wit, depth, meaning and a spirit of lightness. Much of what Puryear made before the ’70s was destroyed in a studio fire, and everything he has made since fuses an unmistakably modernist vision with anthropological references to what one might call the aesthetics of everyday life in black Africa. Puryear, an African-American, spent time in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone in the ’60s. His materials, in the works on the sixth floor and in the atrium, are characteristically wood and fiber; but more than that, he makes a sophisticated use of what Claude Lévi-Strauss calls bricolage (“improvisation”) in his masterpiece, La Pensée sauvage. Like Robinson Crusoe, Puryear appropriates whatever objects come to hand.

The whole second floor of MoMA, including the atrium, was planned for and built in a misled effort to anticipate the future history of modern art, which MoMA’s curators believed was bent on the creation of ever larger works. That view was widely shared, though it has not exactly been borne out in the radical pluralism of twenty-first-century art, which comes in all sizes, including no size at all. It was also the justification for converting a complex of vacated factory buildings in North Adams, Massachusetts, into the huge gallery spaces of MASS MoCA, which had the benign consequence of turning a decaying mill town into the home of “America’s largest contemporary art center” (as the museum’s website puts it) in 1999. It had been the vision of curator Thomas Krens too, and it earned him the directorship of the Guggenheim Foundation in New York, which he has held since 1988. Krens found even greater success with essentially the same vision in Bilbao, where, with help from architect Frank Gehry, he transformed the drab industrial Basque city into a site of global aesthetic pilgrimage. Guggenheim Bilbao came equipped with an interior as capacious as a hangar and fulfilled its destiny with an exhibition of Richard Serra’s Torqued Ellipses in 2005–“Surely one of the most wonderful exhibitions of [Serra’s] work,” according to MoMA curator Kynaston McShine. So electrifying was Krens’s formula that I once heard a poignant lecture by an Ecuadorean curator asking whether a “Bilbao effect” was possible for Quito. The difference between the Guggenheim Bilbao and New York’s Museum of Modern Art is not just the difference between New York and Bilbao, however. It is that Bilbao has no collection to speak of, whereas MoMA’s collection has been traditionally committed to a philosophy of art history that presupposes an evolving canon, and hence an obligation that its architecture be able to hold the gigantesque works that the unfolding spirit of modernism was believed to promise.

In terms of MoMA’s collection, this more or less meant Richard Serra. The augmented galleries of the second floor seemed to have been created just for him. During his recent retrospective at the museum, three of his giant, multi-ton sculptures were raised to the second floor, which had been massively reinforced to keep them from crashing through. And yet no one asked what the aesthetic payoff was of lifting them from ground level–which seems, in Aristotelian terms, to be their natural entelechy–and transporting them one story up, in defiance of gravity, to the second-floor spaces surrounding the atrium. (They weren’t put in the atrium. Even Serra’s Band and Sequence would have been stunted by the immensity of the space, though in fairness, there are works of his that might have risen to the occasion.)

The result of the second-floor installation was a feeling of claustrophobia. “The space has no side entrances or exits,” Serra said in an interview. “If you want to experience the entire installation you have to walk the length of the space and back, but there is no prescribed way of seeing those pieces.” They all but touched the ceiling. Here is how Serra conceived the installation:

I decided to work out a coherent installation that would be representative of the body of work I’d done in the past seven or eight years. To bring that work together in one place would enable anyone going there to understand its evolution. Without knowing anything about sculpture you understand that the single and double ellipse, the spirals and the piece made up of torus and sphere sections share a language and a syntax. You become the reader of that language in your bodily movement. You can go anywhere you want, but…you are within the volume not only of the encapsulating architecture but of the field that unfolds as sculpture. The entire field becomes one of sculpture as you’re spun into and out of the different pieces.

Critics celebrated the shift from the visual to the bodily in experiencing Serra’s art, but what in fact was dramatic was the way he incorporated the compressed space of those galleries into his work, making space and sculpture a seamless totality. Now Puryear has achieved the same effect in the atrium, joining the architecture of the room with the objects within it.

There are three main pieces in Puryear’s installation, two of which particularly account for its success. One of them, nobly titled Ad Astra (2006) and made for this exhibition, consists of a sixty-three-foot-long sapling held in a base on caisson wheels. Exceeding the atrium’s height, the sapling is tilted, augmenting the impression that the ceiling is too low to hold it. The other vertical piece is Ladder for Booker T. Washington (1996), a thirty-five-foot ladder hung high against the west wall, so that its bottom rung is about ten feet above the floor. In contrast with Serra’s installation, meant to force upon the viewer a heightened bodily consciousness, here the body–stationary, gazing upward–is only involved in terms of scale. When I saw the show, the upper part of the atrium was in shadow, which engulfed the top parts of the ladder and the sapling, making it difficult to determine, by eyesight alone, whether the latter’s length has been added to or not. (It has.)

Ladder for Booker T. Washington, on loan from the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, is one of Puryear’s iconic pieces. The bottom rung is about two feet wide, while the top is, at most, a few inches wide. There are about a hundred rungs in all, set at roughly graduated intervals and designed to create the illusion of a vanishing point at the top. There is something organic about the work, an effect enhanced by the fact that the ladder’s uprights are wavy lengths of a single split ash trunk. It wiggles upward, like a runged serpent, against the wall. There is also something vaguely ghostly about the ladder as a whole, which seems to have been bleached or given a coat of whitish paint. Ladders are, of course, natural metaphors for human or spiritual ascent–or in the case of Booker T. Washington, of the ascent of African-Americans in society–step by step up narrower and narrower rungs. Puryear’s piece is like an abstract biography of Washington–whose journey, as described in his actual biography, grew more and more difficult–made vivid by the imagined ordeal of placing a foot on rungs that grow ever tinier and more precarious as one approaches the top. Suspended as it is from high on the wall, the ladder suggests how difficult it would be to put a foot on even the lowest rung.

Ad Astra plays a similar game; in its case, the irony is located in its heroic Latin title. The two pieces together express desire and hope. David Levi Strauss, a Brooklyn Rail editor, suggested in conversation with Puryear that the caisson gives Ad Astra a military aura, indicating that its role is to carry artillery shells. But for me, it brought to mind a phrase from a book by the physicist Erwin Schrödinger, What Is Life?–a question he answers by saying, somewhat cryptically, that life is an aperiodic crystal. In fact, the base has just that form–its facets have different shapes, though they are composed of beautifully joined lengths of wood, screwed together with the authority of a master carpenter. That made it difficult for me to think of Ad Astra as associated with field artillery. Its wheels, in any case, are like those from the wagons of the Franco-Prussian War. But Puryear’s works do not dictate meaning; his titles, rarely as specific as Ladder, merely prompt the imagination. For me, Ad Astra is not so much a military installation as either a crude movable monument to life, wheeled into ceremonies by a tribe that practices phallus worship, or a push toy for a baby giant.

It is more than monumental–it is a monument. It reaches for the stars, expresses desire and–formalistically speaking–collaborates with Ladder to measure the height of the atrium, subduing the architectural oppressiveness of space upon art. The idea of a movable monument is also supported by a marvelous piece in the main exhibition called C.F.A.O. (2006-7), which consists of a cast of a giant African mask placed in an arbor fashioned from kindling perched, perilously, in or on an old-fashioned wooden wheelbarrow. C.F.A.O., which takes its name from the initials of a French trading company in Africa (Compagnie Française de l’Afrique Occidentale), could be a protest against the appropriation of cultural properties that also has the last laugh. At least moving what looks like an immense African mask on a primitive French wheelbarrow strikes me as pretty funny.

The title of the remaining large atrium sculpture is Desire (1981), licensing the thought that the three pieces are, in the aggregate, a tribute to yearning. A gift from Count Panza di Biumo, whose collection of Minimalist art is widely acknowledged as unparalleled, Desire was installed until recently in an eighteenth-century villa in the Italian province of Varese. Measuring thirty-two feet across, it consists of a single wheel of much larger circumference than those in Ad Astra, joined to an inverted conical basketlike object with a long horizontal pole. Weaving and basketry are signature Puryear features, perhaps inspired by the tools used by the people Puryear lived with in Sierra Leone–nets, cages, coops and traps. (On the back wall of the atrium hangs a work from the mid-’70s, when Puryear’s art took on the look of African tools and utensils, called Some Tales [1975-78]: yellow pine, ash and hickory carved into a long saw blade and what look like curvy sticks.) Desire has the appearance of one of those primitive grinding devices in which an ox or a horse is tied to a pole and walks in a circle around a rotating upright. What the object of desire might be is not obvious. Perhaps the wheel makes it easier for a person to apply energy to the device–not as easy as an ox would make it! But that is just an uninspired guess. The word “desire,” like the titles Ad Astra and Ladder for Booker T. Washington, slows the viewer down, causing us to play with plausible theories of any given work.

The allusions throughout this great show are too numerous, too arch, too knowing and too smart for me to spoil the fun. Once in a while, an artist appears whose work has high meaning and great craft but, most important, embodies what Kant, in the dense, sparse pages in which he advances his theory of art, called Spirit. “We say of certain products of which we expect that they should at least in part appear as beautiful art, they are without spirit, though we find nothing to blame in them on the score of taste,” Kant wrote. I’d like to revive the term for critical discourse. Not a single piece here is without spirit, which is in part what makes this exhibition almost uniquely exhilarating.