Martin Puryear was born in Washington, D.C., in 1941. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree from The Catholic University of America in 1963, and then entered the Peace Corps, serving in Sierra Leone from 1964 to 1966. After leaving the Peace Corps, he was admitted to the Swedish Royal Academy of Art in Stockholm. In Sweden, he also served as an assistant to the master cabinet and furniture maker James Krenov, who influenced Puryear's perspective on materials.

After returning from Sweden, Puryear entered the graduate sculpture program at Yale University, where he earned a Masters of Fine Arts degree in 1971. Yale also awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1994.

Puryear represented the United States in the Sao Paolo Biennial in 1989, where his exhibit won the Grand Prize. He is also the recipient of numerous awards, including the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Award, a Louis Comfort Tiffany Grant, and the Skowhegan Medal for Sculpture. His works are in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York City; the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; and the Art Institute of Chicago.