The veteran sculptor Martin Puryear does not raise his voice or sermonize but his work delivers an eloquent message about history, race, and the struggle for freedom.
“Liberty/Libertà” is the title of Martin Puryear’s exhibition for the US Pavilion at the Venice Biennale this year, which officially opens today. The name anticipates the political reading that is inevitable in this show about national representation at a time when that subject is particularly fraught, and it contains many charged historical references, particularly to Black political history. But just what exactly the show says is not so clear, or rather very carefully unclear.
In fact, you could take “Liberty” to mean liberty from blunt-force meaning—a sensibility characteristic of the 77-year-old sculptor, known above all for his eloquent use of materials and elliptical gravitas. Despite the scale of a few of the works here, “Liberty” is a stately and understated show, speaking riddles in an even voice rather than shouting its opinion at full festival volume.
Even Puryear’s biggest work, Swallowed Sun (Monstrance and Volute), has a strangely obtuse quality. Consisting partly of a large wooden screen sited in front of the pavilion’s courtyard, it is architectural in scale (it is in fact a collaboration with Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects), rising above the building. But its muted sandy color and flat plane make it seem almost, on first brush, more like a privacy curtain sheltering the pavilion than a sculptural statement in its own right.
Stepping around it into the courtyard, you encounter a black spiral form blooming up from the earth to join into the screen—as if Puryear were stating right at the front that you have to penetrate the surface to get to the dynamic guts of the show
The spiral is an old symbol of the movement of history, and uneasy, unsettled historical references abound beneath the thoughtful surfaces of “Liberty.” The show is centered on A Column for Sally Hemings, named after Thomas Jefferson’s slave-turned-mistress. Since the pavilion itself is inspired by the architecture of Jefferson’s Monticello, the symbolism of the vaguely anthropomorphic column—it resembles a woman in a dress if you squint—seems clear enough: a tribute to a forgotten protagonist manifesting out of the background of history, a ghost haunting the architecture of US representation here in Venice.
But there’s not really one history or story in “Liberty,” just riffs and echoes and loose thoughts (most of the works were already in production when the Madison Park Conservancy successfully .
Kind regards Pierre