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Martin Puryear: Liberty/Libertà at Venice Biennale, American Pavilion

Martin Puryear, Swallowed Sun (Monstrance and Volute), 2019. Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery

Martin Puryear: Liberty/Libertà

United States Pavilion, Giardini, Venice Biennale

Through November 24, 2019

By BOB CLYATT, June 2019 

Martin Puryear has done for Americans this year what every country at the Venice Biennale hopes from its national pavilion.  Here is a world class artist at the top of his game, probing difficult cultural issues, opening a window for foreign audiences into America’s history and internal conversations while creating visual delight for all of us.  It is a crowning for one of America’s best sculptors who at age 79 continues to grow and astonish. 

Puryear spent several formative years in the 1960s living and working in Sierra Leone and Sweden, learning craft methods and materials from those cultures which continue to live in his work 50 years later.  This ability to not only encode complex ideas and engage issues of social justice, but to do so with compelling hand-made forms sets him in a class apart and re-affirms the value of these long traditions of artmaking.   

Martin Puryear, A Column for Sally Hemings, 2019 Cast iron, painted tulip poplar. Ghisa, tulipifero dipinto, 80 × 15 3/4 × 15 3/4 in. Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery

Voices within the sculpture community where Puryear has been a hero for years generally concluded that despite being a Black American, Puryear’s work has not generally been ‘about’ race issues or the Black American experience, at least not in as direct a way as we might expect in the works of, say, Arthur Jafa or Theaster Gates or Glenn Ligon.  Rather Puryear’s work has been understood and received more for its formal qualities: a kind of organic fix to minimalism, powerful iconic forms which nonetheless welcome viewers, inviting them into feelings of encountering something powerful and unfamiliar.  This is a reasonable reading as far as it goes, but many older works such as Bearing Witness in the Woodrow Wilson Plaza in Washington D.C. and Le Prix, a rising chain with ring owned by the Yale Art Gallery show that issues of the Black American experience have been present in Puryear’s work right along. Certainly in recent years Puryear’s Big Bling and various Phrygian cap works have directly explored symbols of freedom and shackles, access, identity.

Martin Puryear, Hibernian Testosterone, 2018 (left) and New Voortrekker, 2018 (right). Installation image. Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery

So Liberty/Libertà at the American pavilion should clear away any doubt now about the arc of Puryear’s work since each of these late-career pieces is directly, persistently digging into these questions: de-colonization of the mind, the land, the people.  Grand ambitions run afoul. Freedom grasped, denied.  New works such as Hibernian Testosterone, a giant set of white extinct moose antlers mounted quirkily, faux trophy-style high on a wall need no explanation beyond the title, nor does New Voortrekker, a tragicomic toy-like Boer settler caravan, echoing our own Conestoga wagons, the granular unit of colonial conquest, plodding unsteadily uphill in it’s benighted quest.  A Column For Sally Hemings sits in the small central Jefferson-inspired rotunda, a fluted white dresslike column supporting a rusted iron bar topped by a downcast head-like shackle a moving if discomfiting tribute to Jefferson’s mixed-race slave mistress, with whom he had several children after the death of his wife Martha.

Martin Puryear, Cloister-Redoubt or Cloistered Doubt?, 2019 American hemlock, Eastern white pine, tulip poplar, red cedar. Tsuga americana, pino strobo, tulipifero, cedro rosso, 99 1/2 × 96 × 53 in. Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery

Every one of the eight works comes at these questions, in different ways and with different focus, yet each retains that same signature Puryear space and respect--inviting viewers to come linger with a piece and giving them the space to be transformed by it.  In this way the craft element shows its remarkable value again:  we are so un-used to seeing wood and material conceived to this degree of mastery that it draws us in where the conceptual seed can be planted that much deeper.  I continue to wrestle with Cloister-Redoubt or Cloistered Doubt? and Swallowed Sun (Monstrance and Volute), coming back again and again during my days in Venice to re-experience these works and let them give new form to my thinking.  The Cloister-Redoubt in the title got me reflecting on the smooth, latticed unpainted egg form held tight within the rough brown protective coating, all sheltered by an impossibly thin, strong wooden nun’s hat shape and laid atop a pyre of rough weather-checked railroad ties.
The Monstrance and Volute piece which screens the entire outdoor front of the pavilion draws geometric dome-like curves up to a central round sun, now blackened and ‘swallowed’ by a coiled, heinous looking black worm-like appendage behind the screen.  Visitors just kept walking around from front to back and staring, taking it all in.

Martin Puryear, Big Phrygian, 2010–14 Painted red cedar. Cedro rosso dipinto, 58 × 40 × 76 in. Courtesy Glenstone Museum, Potomac, Maryland

The three remaining pieces are all caps, hats, markers of identity, signifiers of one’s tribe perhaps or role.  The big, red, huggable Big Phrygian cap in the first room with its almost Smurf-like folded peak is a direct reference to this distinctive cap holding long historical associations with freedom, worn for instance by emancipated slaves in ancient Rome and rebelling peasants in pre-Revolutionary France.  Related ideas echo in Aso Oke which is a bronze version of a kind of macrame woven hair-net cap with one floppy side with roots in West Africa.  For me the challenging new hat piece is the final one in the exhibition, Tabernacle, in the shape of a Civil War soldier’s hat (from either north or south): steel rod structure on a solid curved steel visor, touchingly hand-quilted top (military blue on the outside, mom’s flowery curtains or nightgown on the inside) cloaking a stubby old cannon.  Peer in the front at this cutaway iron monstrosity and see yourself reflected in the shiny cannonball with cross-hairs on your head.   

Martin Puryear, Aso Oke, 2019 Bronze, Bronze. 84 × 102 × 74 1/2 in. Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery

This year’s exhibition is managed by the non-profit Madison Square Park Conservancy under the curatorial direction of Brooke Kamin Rapaport, seemingly given free curatorial rein by the good folks at the US State Department which has been more actively involved in managing these exhibitions in years past. Puryear and the curatorial team have pulled off a technical coup with this show, landing it much like a large boat gently and expertly brought into a narrow dock.  The sculptures work perfectly in this space, their scale, their color and texture activating the natural sky-lit white rooms.  This is no small feat since the 1920’s era building, managed by the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice on behalf of the United States was made for a different type of art from another era:  intimate modernist canvases and sculptures on pedestals or even large-ish and dramatic Ab-Ex paintings would be right at home here.  These days we are expecting big works in big spaces from our arts institutions, something that just isn’t possible in most of the Biennale pavilions.  

So kudos to all for making this work so effectively with Puryear, whose sculptures at full scale could comfortably fill a space ten times bigger.  Let’s hope we get a chance to see that exhibition stateside one day soon. 

Martin Puryear: Liberty/Libertà is on view at the United States Pavilion, Giardini, Venice Biennale through November 24, 2019. WM

Bob Clyatt

Bob Clyatt is a sculptor and writer living on Hen Island, New York.

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