By Philip Kennicott, Art and Architecture Critic
Everywhere else in the world, our country projects its blustery self, muscling aside old friends, embracing authoritarians and autocrats, braying “America first” and going it alone as the old transatlantic order frays into tatters. But here, in one small building set into a garden in Venice, the U.S. State Department is showing the world something else: the sculpture of Martin Puryear, an artist whose work has been a lifelong exercise in quiet integrity, diligent craftsmanship and serious, sober, intelligent reflection on the best and worst of America.
When Puryear was chosen last summer to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale, it was a relief to know that the selection process was apparently uncorrupted, even if the State Department was in shambles and the tenor of American foreign policy had grown capricious and bellicose. Every two years, the government works with the Guggenheim Foundation, which technically owns the U.S. Pavilion, and a nonprofit presenting organization (this year it’s the Madison Square Park Conservancy) to exhibit the work of an American artist at the world’s most prestigious art gathering. A panel run by the National Endowment for the Arts advises the State Department, which chose Puryear, an African American artist whose work has for decades touched gently but insistently on race, the legacy of slavery and the elusive ideal of freedom. It couldn’t have made a better choice.
Puryear was born in 1941 and spent two formative years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Sierra Leone. He often works with wood, bending and forming it, cutting and joining it, with the meticulous craftsmanship of a fine carpenter and the visionary powers of distillation. Puryear has evolved an evocative and idiosyncratic iconography, including the slouching form of a pointed Phrygian cap historically associated with the freeing of slaves, a biomorphic shackle that resembles an elephant or a mammoth, and various head-like and vessel forms. Among his most powerful works, and one that encapsulates the way his art takes on metaphorical power, is “Ladder for Booker T. Washington,” made of twisting rails and ever narrowing treads, a ladder that offers a vision of upward motion and escape while resisting any actual hope of climbing.
Puryear’s response to the U.S. Pavilion, an exhibition called simply “Liberty,” is exquisite. Curated by Brooke Kamin Rapaport, it includes just eight works, each one a perfect canto in what feels like a single, polished poem. The display responds to the architecture of the building, the history of the country it represents, and the prevailing cultural and environmental anxieties that are felt everywhere, more bluntly, in other national pavilions. Each work offers multiple meanings, intersects with the others and connects to concerns far beyond the rarefied realm of art.
On one wall, a giant pair of Irish elk antlers, fashioned from cast aluminum, recalls an extinct species of mega fauna yet also looks like a hunting trophy one might find in an old-school men’s club. It is attached to an upside-down cross, like the one on which Saint Peter was crucified. Nearby, a finely wrought model of a cart or wagon recalls old myths of this country’s pioneer past, as well as other national dislocations, including the ongoing trauma of migrants around the world, in search of new hope, new land, new opportunities.
No single narrative emerges, but multiple possible narratives converge in a single work that’s the centerpiece of the exhibition. In his 2019 “A Column for Sally Hemings,” Puryear has attached a cast-iron shackle and stake to a tapered column of painted wood. It recalls the life of America’s unacknowledged first lady, chattel of our third president, Thomas Jefferson, and mother of his children. It sits in the rotunda of the pavilion, and thus symbolically at the center of Puryear’s work. In a gallery to one side, the old cart and the elk antlers suggest the fraught mix of hope and destruction in America’s past, and on the other side, a work called “Cloister-Redoubt or Cloistered Doubt?” suggests ideas of intellectual evasion, insularity and skepticism that are fundamental to how a nation constructs a carefully manicured sense of its identity.
To experience all these works consecutively feels like an allegory, recalling centuries of human bondage, the depredations and promise of Manifest Destiny, and the lingering, inarticulate, angry trauma of not knowing how to integrate our history with our present, unable to go forward, or back.
That’s one reading, and it’s likely that Puryear would have none of it. His work feels precise, but not specific. It never offers the vague sense of being potentially meaningful that is common to lesser art, but rather it is resolutely meaningful without specifying which meaning was intended. It relates to the visitor rather like the large, site-specific sculptural piece with which the artist has transfigured the pavilion — “Swallowed Sun (Monstrance and Volute)” — relates to the building, screening it off and transforming its message. “Swallowed Sun” connects a wooden screen that mimics a two-dimensional map of our three-dimensional world to a black hole and a tubular, snakelike form, as if we might fall through the flat plane of a representation of the world into a cosmic tunnel of darkness.
One can get lost in this work, sucked into its strange geometry and curious games with inner and outer surfaces, enclosure and imprisonment. But it also functions as a genial affront to the pavilion itself, a denial of its architecture and a shadow over its front door. The U.S. Pavilion opened in 1930, at the height of the popularity of Colonial revival architecture, when Colonial Williamsburg was being preserved and presented to the public as a fantasy of American origins, and just before the United States set out to build a resolutely classical memorial to Jefferson.
It is a brick structure, with two symmetrical wings, and a simple classical portico with white columns. It recalls Jefferson’s Monticello, which was based on the work of Andrea Palladio, a Renaissance architect who built two of Venice’s greatest churches and filled the surrounding countryside with elegant villas that have inspired architects for nearly half a millennium.
Like so much of Puryear’s work, this evocative assemblage doesn’t touch its subject in any literal or physical way. It lays no hands on the building itself, but the building is undone by the addition. The front door, behind which Heming’s column is displayed, is closed off, and the classical details of the facade are now seen through the perforations in Puryear’s screen. Art is often likened to a screen, or veil, or filter, through which we see the world differently. Puryear has taken the idea literally, and somehow transformed the dark associations of the Colonial architecture into something almost whimsical.
There was a gala dinner for Puryear during the opening of the Biennale, and it was full of billionaires and lesser mortals. When Puryear spoke to the crowd, one could sense an underlying shyness, or reticence, mixed with perfect clarity about what he wanted to say. “I had huge doubts about the enormous expense and scale of the project,” he said, wondering aloud about whether the investment in his vision was worth the cost. “It is very moving to feel like it was worthwhile,” he concluded.
It was indeed worthwhile. The U.S. Pavilion is one of the sharpest and most moving in the biennale. But more than that, it will remind those who despair of America’s angry infantilism that we are a country of multiple voices, and a full range of temperaments. There are honest, clear-thinking artists who speak with insistent sincerity, who make work tempered and perfected in self-doubt and humility.
It is not uncommon for a national pavilion to be at odds with the country’s political leadership. In the pavilions of authoritarian countries one often finds paeans to dissent and individualism, acts of conscience and even direct rebukes to power. Authoritarians may be canny and have sharp instincts for self-preservation, but they are often stupid men, with closed minds and no capacity for thinking about art. The people who surround them are even worse, so no one in power notices that they have been shamed, publicly and explicitly, by art. It is curious and uncanny to see that the United States is now one of those countries.
Martin Puryear: Liberty is on view in the U.S. Pavilion of the Venice Biennale. For more information, martinpuryearvenice2019.org.