Martin Puryear, installation view of “Martin Puryear: Liberty/Libertà,” with (left to right): A Column for Sally Hemings, 2019, cast iron and painted tulip poplar, 80 x 15.75 x 15.75 in.; and Cloister-Redoubt or Cloistered Doubt?, 2019, American hemlock, Eastern white pine, tulip poplar, and red cedar, 99.5 x 96 x 53 in. Photo: Joshua White –, Courtesy Madison Square Park Conservancy

Martin Puryear


U.S. Pavilion, 58th Venice Biennale

“Liberty/Libertà,” Martin Puryear’s U.S. pavilion exhibition (on view through November 24, 2019), uses subtle, disarming, and purposeful juxtapositions to create a mindful meditation on what it means to be an American artist and citizen today. He begins with a site-specific exterior installation, Swallowed Sun (Monstrance and Volute) (2019), which completely obscures the pavilion’s façade and plaza. Designed in collaboration with the architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, the two-part structure consists of a pine latticework screen that traces a dome and oculus in flat, elliptical perspective supported by a black, tubular buttress that resembles the curled body of a snake whose mouth transforms the oculus into a black hole. As suggested by the title (which also alludes to the vessel that displays the consecrated host in the Roman Catholic mass), a metaphorical devouring is under way, with order disappearing into a dark, irrational void, even as glimpses of light remain visible through the screen.

Puryear’s faux façade, which forces visitors to enter from the side, both veils and emphasizes the pavilion’s portico and dome. Based on Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, the Depression-era structure (built in 1930) purposefully deployed Colonial Revival classicism to promote American concepts of democracy and freedom. If Swallowed Sun offers an abstracted challenge to these myths, in A Column for Sally Hemings (2019), Puryear provides a more direct corrective and an alternative perspective on liberty. Installed in the rotunda, directly beneath the dome (and directly behind the black Volute on the terrace), this central work pays homage to the African American woman who was mother to six of Jefferson’s children, his first lady in all but name, and his slave. The sculpture, carved from tulip poplar, begins as a rendering of a classical column, its pure white form then destabilized by a cast iron stake and shackle driven into the top: the fluted column transforms into a skirt, the stake into an elongated neck, and the shackle into a head ornament. The centerpiece of Puryear’s layered and nuanced meditation, this symbolic portrait powerfully undermines the link between classicism and American democracy by inserting unacknowledged and erased narratives into the big house.

In the rest of the pavilion, six new and recent works expand the inquiries into “Liberty.” New Voortrekker (2018) returns to Puryear’s familiar wagon motif. Sporting an open weave canopy and towed up a plank by a wooden tractor, this beautifully crafted model alludes to America’s frontier days as well as to the colonization of South Africa, in addition to countless other hopeful journeys (driven by immigration, economic and social displacement) into potentially hostile, unknown futures, all in the quest for freedom. Hung high up on an opposite wall as if it were an altarpiece, Hibernian Testosterone (2018), a cast aluminum sculpture of a skull and antlers from the extinct Irish elk mounted on an upside-down cross, offers a mordant critique of hyper-masculinity. Cloister-Redoubt or Cloistered Doubt? (2019) combines an arched canopy with what looks like a nun’s wimple. Placed atop a spoked wheel and square base made of stacked timber, this ensemble uses the tense dynamic between open and closed forms to suggest the contradictory impulses of religion, which can force insularity or offer refuge and spiritual ecstasy.

Caps and hats deepen the pavilion’s multiple narratives, testifying to Puryear’s longstanding engagement with these politically salient symbols. The nearly five-foot-tall Big Phrygian (2010–14), a cold mold sculpture in painted red cedar, forms an abstracted version of the cap historically allied with the struggle for freedom—from ancient Rome to Revolutionary France, to post-colonial Latin America and the Caribbean. On the other side of the pavilion, two additional types of headwear face off. Aso Oke (2019), an enlarged version of the hat with flipped-over crown worn by men throughout Africa, echoes the Phrygian cap. Nearly seven feet tall, the cast bronze replicates the open weave of this high-status textile, or “top cloth,” associated with national identity, thus enunciating the pride, nobility, and independence of today’s African countries. Tabernacle (2019), a human-scale version of the forage cap used by Union and Confederate soldiers in the Civil War, conflates sacred space with domesticity, commerce, guns, and violence. A window at the top of the cap reveals an interior lined with floral-patterned French cloth; inside, the mirrored cannonball of a wooden Civil War–type siege mortar catches the viewer’s gaze.

Inserting a contrary and at times ambivalent perspective into the messaging of this national pavilion, Puryear reminds us that the U.S. is a nation of many voices—not just the official one. He invites us to contemplate the complex discourse of “Liberty,” both in the past and in the present, in America and around the world; to think carefully about the meaning of individual freedom, national identity, democracy, justice, and social responsibility; and to realize that the struggle is ongoing.