The Trump Administration's tardiness in announcing which American artist would represent the United States at the forthcoming 2019 Venice Biennale was incredibly unusual. And it lead some to speculate that partisan officials were plotting to push the selection of an artist who would exhibit work that represented Trump at the expense of artistic quality. Thankfully, that was not the case and a few days ago it was announced that Martin Puryear would create new pieces for the United States Pavilion at one of the most important events in the international art world. Puryear is in many ways the perfect choice to represent the United States in 2019, with a decades-long body of work that is an effective foil to the Trumpian zeitgeist.
The 77-year-old Puryear, a native of Washington DC, earned his undergraduate degree in Fine Art from the Catholic University of America in 1963 and holds an MFA from Yale. He served in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone and studied at the Royal Swedish Academy of Arts as well. He has been featured in the Whitney Biennial three times. MoMA, SFMoMA, MoMA Fort Worth, and the National Gallery collaborated on a traveling retrospective of his work. The recipient of both a MacArthur "Genius Grant" and a Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, Puryear received the Gold Medal in Sculpture from the National Academy of Arts in 2007. He was awarded the country's highest honor for artists, the National Medal of Arts, in 2011 by President Obama. In short, Martin Puryear has the pedigree of an artist who should be featured at the Venice Biennale.
Puryear is also multi-talented. He is primarily a sculptor, but has also created furniture, tools, and other non-art objects. His work is often large scale and regularly commissioned for the public sphere. In 2014 he unveiled his Slavery Memorial on the campus of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. The work takes the form of a half-buried ball and chain. The ball emerges from the ground as a bronze dome with a chain jutting towards the sky where it terminates in a broken link. At the breakage, the chain is polished to a mirror finish, reflecting the sky and trees above. On a granite plinth nearby, a plaque displays a text remarking on the ways in which Brown University profited from the international slave trade and the unpaid labor of Africans and African-Americans. It is an incisive and moving piece that calls to account for historic wrongs committed by the University that commissioned it.
Puryear is an artist who is not only concerned with the conceptual, but also with the craft involved in making objects. As a result, his work is often both formally and conceptually complex. His large scale sculptures have an inkling of abstraction but also reveal narratives that reflect the real world. One of his most notable works, Ladder for Booker T. Washington (1996), shows his dedication to craft and thoughtful construction as well as his interest in history, politics, and sociology. The piece is a dramatically foreshortened and abstracted ladder that appears to recede into the far distance. It was constructed utilizing a single ash sapling hewed from Puryear's own New York property. The sapling was split precisely down the center and connected with maple rungs. Although it is essentially an abstraction, Puryear's Ladder is also a highly familiar and recognizable object. And it tells a story, too.
Booker T. Washington was one of the most prominent thinkers of his generation. An advisor to Presidents Roosevelt and Taft, Washington advocated for African-Americans in a variety of ways but suggested that through industrious pursuits they could improve their own opportunities in the United States. This idea made him the intellectual counterbalance to other intellectuals like W.E.B. Dubois, who sought political routes and protested to broaden civil rights for African-Americans. Puryear's Ladder for Booker T. Washington suggests the winding road of progress that comes with proposed self-improvement. It also reflects the idea of the sometimes-apocryphal "American Dream" in which raising one's own status through labor and entrepreneurship would allow for a rise up the societal ladder.
In this piece, Puryear punctures Washington's arguments by suggesting the fraught nature of self-improvement for groups of people who are systematically disadvantaged by the political structures of their society. Puryear ironically utilizes his own skills and industriousness to undermine the idea that these qualities alone can change the course of an individual life. The work is quintessentially American and plays on many preconceptions about American life. It is a great expression, not only of an idea about African-American history, but also of the experience of a broad swath of the American public. It successfully combines craft and concept to educate and inform viewers.
In another large scultpure, Big Phrygian (2010 - 2014), exhibited at Matthew Marks Gallery in 2015, Puryear uses painted red cedar to created a monolithic version of the Phrygian Cap which was worn historically to denote liberation. During the French Revolution les sans-culottes often donned le bonnet rouge as an additional sartorial statement of their ardor for liberté. The use of such headgear to mark free men in the eighteenth century is likely a bastardization of the pileus, another type of hat, which in antiquity was the sign of a manumitted slave. Re-contextualized for the American scene, Puryear's Phrygian suggests the incomplete work towards emancipation, justice, and a liberal society. Through this comparison between American democracy, Revolutionary France, and their ancient antecedents, Puryear comments on the veracity of claims about American exceptionalism. His cap is impractically enormous, not meant to don a head, but to demarcate space.
For both his exceptional skill and his exquisite use of sculptural craft to evoke American historical and political realities, Puryear is not only a justly respected American artist, he is a fantastic choice to represent his fellow Americans in Venice. He will also be the second consecutive African-American artist to be featured in the Biennale's United States Pavilion. It is fitting, too, that his work in Venice will be commissioned by the Madison Square Park Conservancy, which recently collaborated with Puryear on his Big Bling installation. The Park's Deputy Director and Senior Curator Brooke Kamin Rapaport will spearhead the project, representing New York's cosmopolitan tastes on a global stage.
Madison Square Park was notably the site of the installation of the Statue of Liberty's flame bearing arm from 1876 - 1882 as fundraisers sought to publicize the donation of the sculpture from the French in order to pay for its base. It is appropriate that in our current political climate, a craftsman, an African-American, an artist who has commented on the American experience through his work, should show the world what Americans are thinking and making now. And it is interesting that the patron of this work will be New York City, one of our nation's most open, most liberal, most international metropolises.
Whatever Puryear creates for the 2019 Venice Biennale will bear the mark of his singular sculptural acumen, and it will also certainly share the very best of American culture with our neighbors around the world.
Additional Resources to Learn about Martin Puryear:
- Puryear's Interview with Art21 Regarding Ladder for Booker T. Washinton (2003)
- National Endowment for the Humanities Essay on Ladder for Booker T. Washington
- Matthew Marks Gallery Martin Puryear Exhibition (2015) Online Catalogue
- Announcement on Puryear's Biennale work via the Madison Square Park Conservancy
- Hyperalleric's Overview of Puryear's Career