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Who Is Martin Puryear? A Primer on America’s Next Representative at the Venice Biennale

The 77-year-old sculptor has a history of talking back to the government, but we will see if his streak continues on the world stage.

Martin Puryear, “Big Bling” (2016), installation view in Madison Square Park, New York, pressure-treated laminated timbers, plywood, chain-link fencing, fiberglass, and gold leaf, 40 x 10 x 38 feet, collection of the artist (© Martin Puryear, courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery, photo by Hunter Canning)

After a months-long delay, news broke earlier this week that Martin Puryear will represent the United States at the 2019 Venice Biennale. The 77-year-old sculptor’s exhibition at what people commonly refer to as the art world’s Olympics is commissioned and will be curated by Brooke Kamin Rapaport, deputy director and senior curator at the Madison Square Park Conservancy.

Puryear is the second African American artist in a row chosen to represent the US at the Venice Biennale. He follows artist Mark Bradford’s impressive 2017 showcase, which featured garbage-addled collages and bruised canvases that nodded to the precarious state of American democracy under Trump.

Hinting at what we might expected from the artist, Rapaport responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment:

Martin Puryear has always imbued his work with cross-cultural currents and has spent a lifetime assessing global, cultural, social and political dynamics. Lately, Martin has been thinking a great deal about history and how it defines the present. He will create new work for the United States Pavilion and we will share additional details about the project across the coming months.

Writing about the sculptor in 2016, Hyperallergic weekend editor John Yau praised Puryear’s ability to transform monumental sculpture into an interlocutor of democracy. In his article, Yau quoted the artist speaking about his 1997 public sculpture, “Bearing Witness,” which stood outside the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC: “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.”

Martin Puryear, “Big Phrygian” (2010–14), painted red cedar 58 x 40 x 76 inches (image © Martin Puryear, courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery)

Puryear emphasizes craft in his larger-than-life sculptures, and often, he adopts symbols of freedom and enslavement, visually reworking them into objects evoking the under-explored chapters of black history. Back in 2015, for example, the sculptor debuted “Big Phrygian” (2010–14) at Matthew Marks Gallery in Chelsea. A massive cedar recreation of a 17th-century symbol of liberty in early modern Europe, Puryear gravitated toward the red cap after seeing an engraved image of a black man wearing it. This was a revelation, a sartorial clue that the narrative of black emancipation is much longer than most realize.

One of Puryear’s most effective works, in my opinion, is his “Ladder for Booker T. Washington” (1996). A kafkaesque creation, the sculpture earmarks the ceaseless verticality of Constantin Brancusi’s “Endless Column” (1918) through its blunt rendition of America’s faulty ladder of success. A renowned educator and champion of civil rights in the 19th century, Booker T. Washington famously once said, “There is no escape — man drags man down, or man lifts man up.” Like Puryear, Washington knew that the ladder of success was a human machine, faulty if only because it depended on the goodwill of others.

There’s no telling what Puryear will bring with him to the Venice Biennale. Although every representative at the Venice Biennale has received funding from the State Department, one can imagine that taking $250,000 from President Donald Trump’s government might compel an artist to pause before making explicitly political work. Then again, University of Chicago art history professor Darby English will serve as the project exhibition’s scholar. English is an academic who has frequently resisted notions that we can fundamentally reduce black art to narratives of injustice and strife. Back in 2014, English was named a consulting curator at the Museum of Modern Art, which asked the scholar to broaden its holdings of African American art and provide “deep contextualization” to its collection. There’s definitely a sense that the team Rapaport has assembled for the Venice Biennale will not hold any of its punches.

It’s worth noting that Madison Square Park Conservancy is the first organizing institution in the American Pavilion’s history to be specifically devoted to the presentation of public art. In recent years, the park’s profile has risen dramatically for its installations by Diana Al-Hadid, Erwin Redl, Teresita Fernández, Paula Hayes, and Tony Cragg, to name just a few.

Martin Puryear, “Big Bling” (2016), installation view in Madison Square Park, New York, pressure-treated laminated timbers, plywood, chain-link fencing, fiberglass, and gold leaf, 40 x 10 x 38 feet, collection of the artist (© Martin Puryear, courtesy Matthew Marks Galler, photo by Jordan Tinker)

In May 2016, the conservancy exhibited Martin Puryear’s “Big Bling” on the park grounds. A multi-tiered wooden structured wrapped with chainlink fences and topped with a gold-leafed shackle, “Big Bling” functions as a narrative catch-all for the artist by referencing slavery, labor, urbanism, fashion, and ownership. The work just barely avoids figuration, somewhat resembling a high heel, a startled cat, a skyscraper scaffolding, an ear, an amoeba, or a strange pigeon. An artist who rarely demands narrow readings of his work, Puryear’s sculptures are up for interpretation.

In her statement to Hyperallergic, Rapaport stressed the importance of seeing Puryear’s selection within the context of the conservancy’s mission:

Public art is viewed in the context of full democracy: no admission fees, complete accessibility, open to all. Madison Square Park Conservancy’s art program and many of our colleagues in the public art field work with the most distinguished contemporary artists who want to realize work in the public realm.

Only time will tell if Puryear will take the Venice Biennale as a chance to envision what this “full democracy” looks like.

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