American Art

Martin Puryear is Perfect for The Venice Biennale

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.

Brown University Slavery Memorial , Photo via Brown Univeristy by Warren Jagger

Brown University Slavery Memorial, Photo via Brown Univeristy by Warren Jagger

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.

Ladder for Booker T. Washington,  wood (ash and maple), 1996,  The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth

Ladder for Booker T. Washington, wood (ash and maple), 1996, The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth

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.

Big Phrygian , painted red cedar, 2010-2014,  Glenstone Museum, Potomac, MD

Big Phrygian, painted red cedar, 2010-2014, Glenstone Museum, Potomac, MD

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:

Looking at George Wesley Bellows' Pennsylvania Excavation

In 1907, the construction of Pennsylvania Station was well underway in the heart of Manhattan. A vast swath of Midtown was razed to make way for a huge Beaux-Arts rail hub that would connect New York to the rest of the United States and cement the city’s place as the most significant metropolis in the country. George Wesley Bellows was in his mid-twenties in 1907 and, having studied under Robert Henri at the New York School of Art, was a member of the contemporary art movement known as the Ashcan School. Along with artists like Henri, John Sloan, George Luks, Williams Glackens, and others, Bellows explored the urban life of New York City in a raw realist style. The construction of Pennsylvania Station, as an exemplar of the continued, complicated ascent of New York, was a source of inspiration for Bellows and other Ashcan painters. In his 1907 painting Pennsylvania Excavation (gifted to the Smith College Museum of Art in 2010 by 1960 Smith graduate Mary Gordon Roberts), Bellows paints the scene with incisive honesty and, in doing so, expresses the urban condition at the turn of the century.

George Wesley Bellows,   Pennsylvania Excavation  , oil on canvas, 1907,  Smith College Museum of Art

George Wesley Bellows, Pennsylvania Excavation, oil on canvas, 1907, Smith College Museum of Art

In Bellows' image, the void that will make way for the great Station is all-consuming; its enormity accentuated by the minuteness of two figures and a steam shovel in the foreground. The figures are workmen, laborers whose toil will bring about one of the technological and architectural marvels of the twentieth century. But in the face of the project they are dwarfed by empty space seemingly at the fringe of civilization. In the distance the skyscrapers of lower Manhattan stand, not as glittering idols but as a lifeless wall of gray. Progress is not always pretty. And here, progress comes in the form of a barren canyon buried under snow and soot. The promise of modern life is reduced to a bleak and colorless wasteland.

Detail of the Manhattan Skyline in Bellows'  Excavation

Detail of the Manhattan Skyline in Bellows' Excavation

The composition of the scene is a stone's throw from Bruegel's Harvesters. In both images the land and the work associated with it are visually insurmountable, outscaling the humans tasked to them. In Bellows' New York, Breugel's peasantry is replaced by the proletariat. For Bellows, urban life was not a subject to be idealized, but one to be shared in order to express truth. Realism would elucidate reality, and in doing so share a new verity: the lived experience city dwellers in the United States at the tail end of the Gilded Age. As cities became the center of American culture, they also became flashpoints for the massive inequality that afflicted American society.

Formally, the painting mirrors its Renaissance antecedent while at the same time pushing the boundaries of representational painting. Bellows borrows the atmospherics of Turner and the central chasm becomes a rugged abstraction, an expression of the chaos of the place and time depicted. Paint is dashed on and carved out in a grisaille of destruction and construction. As changes come to the extensive work site, the city is also transformed. The station that would rise from the rubble of a vibrant neighborhood would become a landmark of elegant modernity. Bellows depicts this decisive moment with gritty realness and thereby shares the truth of progress: that it is messy and comes with great difficulty.

Detail of workers and steam shovel from the foreground of Bellows'  Excavation

Detail of workers and steam shovel from the foreground of Bellows' Excavation

Pennsylvania Excavation is a fine example of Bellows' work and an insightful piece from the Ashcan School, a movement that was uniquely New York in its founding and uniquely American in its scope. In paintings like Bellows', he and his contemporaries explored the truth of the American scene in the early part of the twentieth century and the innumerable ways in which average people would shape the national identity. Through images of urban development and redevelopment with zealous actuality, Bellows and his peers created a movement that expressed the experience of a nation increasingly centered around its cities and their growth.

More than one hundred years on from Pennsylvania Excavation, the original Penn Station has long been demolished and replaced. The life of the city and the country has gone on. But in the early part of the twenty first century, as American populations shift back to city centers and metropolitan life, there is still much to be learned from the urban realism of Bellows and the Ashcan School.

John French Sloan's Ashcan Nudes

John French Sloan (1871-1951) is likely best known as one of the key members of the Ashcan School, the rough association of realist artists working primarily in New York at the turn of the century. Sloan's oeuvre is full of the gritty streetscapes typical of his movement. Some of his most well-known paintings like Dust Storm, Fifth Avenue, of 1906, Six O'Clock, Winter, of 1912, or The City from Greenwich Village, of 1922, convey a sense of the complex relationships between New Yorkers and their urban environment. From the beginning of the twentieth century into the depths of the roaring twenties, such images shape an understanding of what it meant to be a New Yorker and, more broadly, an American. Like his peer Edward Hopper, Sloan had a keen sense of the isolation and loneliness that often accompany life in a vast and impersonal metropolis. Upon closer inspection though, Sloan's body of work contains some unexpected images, including a series of nudes produced throughout his career. These images, often executed as etchings, capture solitary moments of female models in the artist's studio. They are artworks full of disparate qualities. At once sensitive and personal, they are also incredibly retrograde. They express, perhaps accidentally, the uniquely precarious relationship between artist and model, while also exhibiting the patent objectification of women which makes female nudes so problematic.

John Sloan (1871–1951),  Prone Nude , etching, 1913, 3 1/4" × 6 7/16" (plate), Gift of Mrs. Harry Payne Whitney, 1926, Metropolitan Museum of Art

John Sloan (1871–1951), Prone Nude, etching, 1913, 3 1/4" × 6 7/16" (plate), Gift of Mrs. Harry Payne Whitney, 1926, Metropolitan Museum of Art

In an early work, Prone Nude, of 1913, Sloan references the canonical nude prototype. His model copies, with a few alterations, the infamous pose from Paul Gauguin's Spirit of The Dead Watching (Manao tupapau), a painting created twenty years earlier in Tahiti, which depicts Gauguin's terrified native wife Teha'amana laying prone on their bed. Sloan's use of the etching process flips the pose, mirroring his own subject to Gauguin's. While Teha'amana spreads her hands slightly in the earlier painting, the model in Sloan's etching half buries her face in folded arms. Both figures tightly cross their ankles and stare out chillingly at the viewer.

The gesture in Sloan's Prone Nude in the final etching also coincidentally recalls that of Francois Boucher's scandalous la Jeune Fille allongée, a portrait of Marie-Louise O'Murphy, the petite maîtresse of Louis XV. Both Gaguin's and Boucher's subjects were underage girls, bound by overtly patriarchal societies to take part in relationships that are unthinkable today. Even without the contextual baggage of Gaguin and Boucher, neither of these associations is a particularly positive one, as both are images of women presented exclusively for objectification. Sloan does not seek to correct the issues with the earlier exemplars, and instead presents a woman along the same lines as Gauguin and Boucher, devoid of agency or power in the face of the presumably male gaze. This continuity remains in Sloan's later depictions of women.

John Sloan (1871-1951),  Nude Reading , 1928, etching, 5" x 7" (plate), Gift of Bernard F. Walker, Detroit Institute of Art

John Sloan (1871-1951), Nude Reading, 1928, etching, 5" x 7" (plate), Gift of Bernard F. Walker, Detroit Institute of Art

In another etching, Nude Reading, completed fifteen years after his Prone Nude, Sloan makes an image more his own. A nude model, presumably resting between poses, lounges on a bed while leisurely perusing a thick book. In the background, the artist's press is littered with materials. The scene is outwardly beautiful and meditative, but shares the same issues with Sloan's earlier Gauguin-inspired print. The woman is depicted in a one-to-one relationship with an object: the press. As the press has "a bed", the model lays on a bed. The insinuations of model as a tool of the artist, no different than a press, are obvious. The work is also a meditation on the process of creating the etching. The subject is present and so is the press on which this very print was likely created. In addition to revealing aspects of the artist's creative process though, it also presents a decidedly traditional view of the model's role in the creation of such work, as a passive object.

John Sloan (1871-1951),  Nude and Etching Press , etching, 1931, plate: 4 15/16" × 3 15/16" sheet: 12 11/16" × 9 5/8", Gift of Ernest Shapiro and Family 1995, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

John Sloan (1871-1951), Nude and Etching Press, etching, 1931, plate: 4 15/16" × 3 15/16" sheet: 12 11/16" × 9 5/8", Gift of Ernest Shapiro and Family 1995, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

In 1931, Sloan revisits the model and press motif in Nude and Etching Press. This time the figure stands with some discernible confidence next to the artist's press. The lithe arms of the anonymous woman replicate the outstretched "arms" of the press. The curvilinear qualities of the press's legs mirror the shapely legs of the model. Again, Sloan presents a woman one-to-one with an object. Neither this figure, nor the Nude Reading, interact with the press at all. Both merely pose in front of the it, and are nearly as still as Sloan's early Prone Nude. Both images elevate and personify the press, while simultaneously diminishing the humanity of the model. This piece, like the earlier nude paired with the press, is an apparent study of the artist's process. Tacked up haphazardly on the wall above the press are nearly a dozen nudes. Perhaps the model here is stretching between more formal poses, with the knowledge that her image too will be added to this collection.

John Sloan (1871-1951),  Nude and Arch , etching and engraving, 1933, 7" x 5", on offer at Swann Auction Galleries March 13, 2018 19th Century Prints and Drawings Auction (Est. $1,500-$2,500)  This work was Unsold.

John Sloan (1871-1951), Nude and Arch, etching and engraving, 1933, 7" x 5", on offer at Swann Auction Galleries March 13, 2018 19th Century Prints and Drawings Auction (Est. $1,500-$2,500) This work was Unsold.

Another Sloan nude appeared in Swann Auction Galleries' recent Prints and Drawings sale on March 13. The work, which went unsold, comes two years after the Nude and Etching Press, and features a  model seated uncomfortably on a cushion in front of a window overlooking Greenwich Village. Stanford White's Beaux Art Washington Square Arch stands in bright sunlight in the eponymously named park, framed in the window behind the model. Scenes of city life are also evident, as cars can be seen through and around the arch. Windows of the apartment blocks abutting Washington Square Park form a further backdrop, and an added urbanity. The wrought iron railing and arch give the scene a vaguely Parisian air, imbued with the distinctly Bohemian feeling of the Village in the twenties and thirties. The model here is much more engaged with the viewer than her predecessors, staring out at us wanly. Still though, she is presented one-to-one with an object: the arch. The classical associations of arch and nude are quickly evident. Here though they are updated to New York in 1933, the Città Eterna of the New World.

In all of these pieces the aesthetic values of the Ashcan School are laid out in the medium of the etching. Richly and darkly inked, each plate is thick with crosshatching. Even the smooth-skinned model is criss crossed with descriptive lines. Sloan clearly revels in the textural and linear qualities inherent to the printmaking process and tends to fill the whole field of the plate with lines, independent of their necessity to express value or space. This technique results in prints that are as course as his paintings of metropolitan life. In terms of execution, these images hold together with a stylistic coherence that spans much of Sloan's career.

The problems present in Sloan's portrayals of his models are rather obvious to contemporary onlookers, if not unusual in his own day. The use of models to hone hand-eye coordination and express supposedly universal or eternal artistic values was a time honored tradition and would have been a key point in Sloan's education at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. It is difficult, though, to reconcile the avant-garde nature of so much of Sloan's oeuvre with the way in which he envisaged nude women. He was a leader of a liberal art movement, an avowed communist, and a rebellious spirit, yet his depictions of women are ensnared by many of the trappings shared by more conservative artists.

While they do offer access to usually unseen moments in the artist's studio and creative practice, these nudes also engage in typically misogynistic portrayals of female bodies. They can and should be appreciated for their craftsmanship, for their ability to show Sloan's process, and for their storytelling capability. But they are surprisingly out of step with the values evident in Sloan's life and in his broader body of work.

Exploring American Art in the Nineteenth Century

On October 22 I gave a talk at the Bristol Art Museum on the Providence Art Club, and in the course of preparing for this presentation I revisited my art history and my history to get a better look at the year of the Art Club's founding: 1880. Something that came to mind immediately was the proximity of the Club's beginning to the end of the American Civil War, which concluded just fifteen years prior. For comparison, 2017 is of course just sixteen years after the events of September 11, 2001. This correlation made me curious to explore the War's enormous impact on the cultural life of the United States.

It is difficult, or maybe even impossible, for contemporary Americans to imagine what life in the mid and late nineteenth century might have been like in the same country where they now reside. The culture of nineteenth century America was quite different, the nation still so unshaped, that it is as if the Civil War took place in an entirely other country than our own. But the after affects of the conflict shaped the country that we know today. Just one aspect of the changing and coalescing of American society that took place during the Reconstruction Period was in the area of art and culture.

Before the War, and for decades after, the United States was viewed as a cultural backwater. Bereft of their own art institutions, most American artists traveled abroad to study. In ateliers in Paris, hundreds of Americans worked under the tutelage of French artists who themselves were trained in proper academies using well-worn and respected techniques espoused by the art establishment. This temporary diaspora created a class of cultural ex-patriots the likes of which would not be seen again until The Lost Generation of the 1920's.

Scores of these art pilgrims returned to their country to create art with European skill and American vision. And in doing so, these artists realized that the United States would require cultural infrastructure if their momentum was to continue. Artists along with patrons and the growing mercantile and economic elite drew together to create the necessary institutions that would underpin a burgeoning American art scene. Many of the organizations founded to serve the cultural needs of the nineteenth century found a staying power that continues into the twenty first.

An early exhibition at the Providence Art Club, about 1890, founded in 1880 to stimulate "art culture" in Providence, RI. The Club utilizes the same gallery space for exhibitions today.

An early exhibition at the Providence Art Club, about 1890, founded in 1880 to stimulate "art culture" in Providence, RI. The Club utilizes the same gallery space for exhibitions today.

In the period between 1865 and 1900, an astounding number of cultural organizations were formed in the United States. Primarily in the wealthy North; philharmonics, libraries, literary societies, social clubs, private studios, art schools, associations, and museums sprung into existence. Many of these were funded by the wealth being piled up in a country whose rapid industrialization was sparked by the disastrous internal conflict of the Civil War. The vast irony of the creative output in the post-bellum era is that the industrial complex that abetted the War was also, at least indirectly, responsible for the cultural flowering that occurred in its aftermath.

The types of organizations that grew up after the War were myriad. They were professional associations, museums, and institutions of higher learning. The Yale School of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, the Pratt Institute, and the Corcoran College of Art and Design all came into existence in this period. Along with other art schools and private ateliers, they made it possible for the first time to educate American artists at home. This broadened the base of art makers and expanded, democratized, and Americanized points of view presented in the art created in the United States.

In the decade and a half after the War, a slew of art museums were founded, too. These institutions, and their wealthy patrons, would bring the treasures of the world to the United States. Many of the nation's preeminent encyclopedic museums were established in the frenzied nineteenth century, including the Detroit Institute of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Smaller museums like the Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts and the Museum of Art at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence also came into being. Together, the establishment of such institutions is indicative of the widening audience for culture. As the middle class grew, more Americans were interested in the entertainment possibilities inherent in an art museum.

In the middle of this period, another organization was founded. Not a school, or a museum, but a professional association and social club meant to bring artists and collectors together for the pursuit and patronage of art. In 1880, in Providence, Rhode Island, sixteen men and women came together to found the Providence Art Club. Dedicated to stimulating "art culture" in the City of Providence and beyond, the Club would provide a collective impulse for exhibition and networking.

Some early members of the Providence Art Club, circa 1890.

Some early members of the Providence Art Club, circa 1890.

The Club was the first such organization to be co-founded by men and women, forty years before the female founders of the Club would be eligible to vote. The second individual to sign the Club's constitution was the great African-American landscape painter Edward Mitchell Bannister. This community, diverse and potentially radical in its day, made it possible for artists and patrons to meet, and for artists to exhibit their work outside the constraints of traditional commercial galleries.

Over the course of the last 137 years, many of the aforementioned organizations have thrived and grown. The Art Club is no exception. Since 1880, the Club has ballooned from 16 members to over 600, and it organizes more exhibitions now than ever. On November 12, the Club opened The 113th Annual Little Pictures Show & Sale, the largest and oldest exhibition of its kind in the United States. The endurance of the Art Club is indicative of the quality inherent in many other organizations established in the same period. Though established for decidedly nineteenth century needs, the Club continues to serve today's artists and patrons in the same tradition, albeit with expanded and modernized services.

In revisiting the period of the Art Club's founding, I came to appreciate the Club more for its historical role in bringing artists and patrons together. While art schools and museums provided much needed venues to education and inspiration, the Art Club was a practical necessity for mid career artists eager to court new patrons. The fact that six women, and an African-American were so integral to the founding of the Club adds to the organization's particular uniqueness within its milieu.

The broader story of American culture at the end of the nineteenth century is one of a country returning to normalcy after an internal calamity. Economic progress partially sparked by the Civil War resulted in an environment where burgeoning art organizations were able to thrive. The Robber Barons of the Gilded Age underwrote institutions which eventually came to serve diverse audiences all over the United States. Contemporary Americans ultimately owe a debt of gratitude to the artists and connoisseurs of the nineteenth century. Their enormous investment in a cultural infrastructure for a cultureless nation continues to pay dividends today.