In 1989, after a protracted litigation, a jury of five voted four to one in favor of removing Richard Serra’s “Tilted Arc” (1981) from Federal Plaza in Manhattan, where it had stood for nearly a decade. In March of that year, the piece was dismantled and carted away one night by federal workers. During this contentious period the artist said:
I don’t think it is the function of art to be pleasing. Art is not democratic. It is not for the people.
In 1998, talking about his public sculpture, “Bearing Witness” (1997), which stands in the courtyard of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC, Martin Puryear said:
This is one of the more challenging pieces I’ve done, because it’s in such an official public place […] Its context is weighted. For myself, I wanted my work to be directed toward people rather than toward the government. In a democracy, the people talk back to the government.
The positions taken by these two well-known sculptors have as much to do with aesthetics as they have to do with talking back. Puryear wanted “Bearing Witness” directed toward people, who he believes talk back to the government, while Serra maintains that art is neither democratic nor for the people. One issue, as Puryear acknowledges and, no doubt, Serra does too, is that the “context is weighted.” In public sculpture there is no such thing as a clean white box in which the work is exhibited. Rather, its public nature requires a different kind of negotiation. It is open to a different kind of examination. Do you tell viewers what to see? Or do you invite them to discover what is embedded within its form, material, and shape? What kinds of information do you bring into a sculpture? How do you do it?
I thought about this on my way to Madison Square Park to see Martin Puryear’s “Big Bling” (2016), a 40-foot-high, multitier temporary structure — the park’s 33rd public art exhibition. I was familiar with a similarly shaped piece that Puryear had made out of iron and pointedly titled, “Shackled” (2014), which was shown in his first exhibition at Matthew Marks (November 8, 2014–January 10, 2015). Through material, form, and process, Puryear imprinted the piece with a variety of narratives alluding to slavery, labor, service animals, and ownership. Puryear’s use of iron evokes its utilization by farriers to shoe horses. His work isn’t about craft but about its long, complex history. Yet none of this is spelled out.
“Shackled,” which is 27 inches high and made of solid black iron, and “Big Bling,” which is 40 feet high and made of tiered wood planks wrapped in fine chain-link fencing, with a gold-leaf shackle near the top, share the same bodily structure, but otherwise come across very differently. “Shackled” was such a powerful piece, it was hard to imagine what Puryear could do to make it something else entirely, rather than simply a scaled-up version, but that is exactly what he did. For one thing, the wood tiers, which act as the floors of a gridded structure enclosed by the chain-link fencing, also become vertebrae. We can see into and through the body, but the interior is physically inaccessible. The fencing and wood planks are likely to remind the viewer that New York has become a city of myriad scaffolds, of demolition and construction sites, while gold-leaf shackle resonates with the pyramidal gilded roof of the nearby New York Life Insurance Building designed by Cass Gilbert in 1926.
The contours of the sculpture recall various creatures, from a cat sitting on its haunches to the Egyptian female demon, Ammit, devourer of the dead, as well as infuse the tiered structure with nobility and dignity. “Big Bling” bumps right up against the figurative, but never crosses over, never becomes a form that viewers can identify with any assurance, much less give a name to it. At the same time, between what might be called — for convenience only — the front legs and haunches, which are joined at ground level, the sculpture contains an open interior shape (or hole) that resembles an abstract head, an ear, or an amoeba. Finally, the large gold-plated shackle at the top adds another possibility into our experience. It is hard not to think of the gold shackle as a gleaming, oversized nose ring.
Although it may be regarded as a sign of rebellion or a fashion statement in contemporary America, the history of nose rings is long and non-Western. Nose piercing, which has a variety of symbolic meanings, dates back to ancient times, originating in the Middle East. In India, the nose is associated with fertility and sexual desire. In Berber and Beja cultures, the size of a nose ring is equated with family wealth. The Fulani — who settled much of Sierra Leone, where Puryear was a teacher in the Peace Corps from 1964 to 1968 — also wore nose rings.
Just as I am convinced that Puryear is deeply knowledgeable of the history of the Phyrgian cap — the Roman symbol of an emancipated slave, which can be seen as a precursor to the hoodie, and which has been the source of a number of his sculptures, including “Big Phyrigian” (2010–14) — I am sure that he knows a lot about the history of nose rings and the significance they possess in different cultures. By bringing this knowledge into his work, Puryear opens sculpture to a history that has been appropriated by many Western artists — starting with Pablo Picasso. He is not just interested in adapting the form; he also wants the back story in his work, even if he never converts it into a narrative. This is his genius.
You walk to the park, look at his sculpture up close, with its structure tightly wrapped in chain-link fencing, and realize that your mind is traveling in many directions at once: urban renewal (or is it destruction?); high-rises for the rich and poor; construction sites; and Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon. The city never does sleep, does it? It is always going through upheavals of one kind or another. And that’s just the start of where your mind goes. Step back far enough so that you can see the entire structure, and you will likely be flooded with images of the menagerie of animals it resembles, most of them wild, many having to do — in my mind at least — with Ancient Egypt.
What about the long history of the nose ring and how it is now part of contemporary fashion? What about the shape of the hole and its resemblance to an ear? If we are being invited to speak to “Big Bling,” what are we going to say?
I love the fact that Puryear connects a non-Western history to a current faddish love of nose rings. With that link alone, he reminds us of the complexity of American history and the range of cultures and people that have fed it. I also love sitting on a bench and watching the light of late summer playing off the gold, this huge ring that seems for a moment to be floating in the air. What about the dialogue with gold pyramid atop the New York Life Insurance Building? I look forward to seeing “Big Bling” as the seasons and light change. It is a sentinel in our midst. The structure is open and closed; you can see through it, but it is holding something more than the city air. The gold ring is gaudy and excessive against the plainness of the wood planks and fencing. Is it too big or just right? Isn’t the discrepancy between the gold ring and the wood planks and fencing part of the work’s meaning? The questions it raises, and many more, embody the contradictions of being alive in New York at this epochal moment.
Martin Puryear’s “Big Bling” (2016) remains on view at Madison Square Park through January 8, 2017.