Apollo Magazine

Martin Puryear may prove the ideal choice to represent the US at Venice

The sculptor has made quietly effective political work in the past. Will he do so again next year?

Installation view of 'Big Bling' (2016) by Martin Puryear, Madison Square Park, New York. Collection of the artist. Photo: Jordan Tinker; © Martin Puryear, courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery

On 15 August, after months of delay and speculation, the United States announced its representative at the 58th Venice Biennale next year. Martin Puryear, the 77-year-old sculptor, was selected to create new works and an outdoor installation for the US Pavilion, under the curation of Brooke Kamin Rapaport, deputy director and senior curator of the Madison Square Park Conservancy – the first time the pavilion has been organised by a body focused purely on public art.

While representing one’s country in the prestigious international art exhibition has long been considered one of art’s greatest honours, this year’s selection of the US representative was fraught with controversy. Much speculation centred on the fact that the name of the artist who would create the US exhibition was delayed for several months past the typical springtime announcement. This delay was seen as evidence of both disarray within the US Department of State caused by the Trump administration’s inability to fill key roles, and of the administration’s hostility toward the arts, most apparent in its desire to eliminate or greatly reduce funding to the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities – a budget cut that was rejected by the US Congress in its 2018 spending bill, which slightly increased funding to both federal agencies.

With the announcement of Puryear as the US representative, spectators’ fears that the US Department of State did not plan to name an artist for the 2019 biennale have been allayed. Yet the long-awaited announcement brought its own set of questions. When Puryear’s selection was still a rumour, artist and writer Aruna D’Souza suggested on Twitter that ‘to accept would be to choose to collaborate with Trump’s fascist, authoritarian regime.’ Are artists who represent their countries at exhibitions like the Venice Biennale knowingly endorsing their government’s actions on the global stage? Or does the selection to represent the country simply grant the artist a stage on which to exercise her own creative agency, aside and apart from the nation?

Debate over the relationship between artist and nation is nothing new for Venice. In 2013 and 2015 the Kenyan government courted controversy by allowing a rich Italian man to buy and organise its pavilion, which resulted in an exhibition primarily of Chinese artists. Yet countries ‘borrowing’ artists who hail from other countries is fairly common these days – the 2017 exhibition saw American artist Sharon Lockhart representing Poland, for instance – and with more and more countries funding their pavilions with private money, the idea that an artist is a collaborator with her nation’s government seems overly simplistic. In fact, while the US Department of State has final approval over the country’s selected representative, it is essentially handed a name nominated by the Federal Advisory Committee on International Exhibitions, an independent panel of scholars and artists overseen by NEA.

This year’s US Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale showed that curators and artists could work within the constraints of organising an exhibition largely funded by the US Department of State to challenge the state’s relation to personhood. Dimensions of Citizenship (2018) explored the permeations of citizenship in a post-Trump US and, included in its ‘Nation’ room, as Giovanna Dunmall describes it, was ‘a series of topographical maps, drawings, and documents to emphasise the artificiality of the Mexico-U.S. border.’ Meanwhile, the most recent US exhibitor at the art biennale, Mark Bradford, used his platform to turn the US pavilion into a ruin.

Will Puryear, who like his predecessor Bradford is African American, be equally willing to voice criticism of the current US government? His impressive body of work, which has been shown in career retrospectives at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., gives some answers. His work in wood and other materials found in nature is geometrically ordered and quietly graceful. When he touches on themes political and historical, he does so subtly; his Ladder for Booker T. Washington (1996), for example, is a beautiful and damning comment on the struggle for equality by African Americans, of ambition and outside forces that doom one to failure. If he follows the same path of quiet condemnation, Puryear may be the ideal choice to confront the American political climate in 2019.

The Venice Biennale will run from 11 May–24 November 2019.