Martin Puryear’s “Liberty/Libertà,” an exhibition featuring significant new sculptures in the artist’s oeuvre, is the United States’ official contribution to the ongoing 2019 Venice Biennale. The following essay appears in the catalogue accompanying Puryear’s presentation.
“I like a little rebellion now and then,” wrote Thomas Jefferson, then U.S. minister to France, to Abigail Adams. She’d sent him a letter denouncing Shays’s Rebellion, a movement of Massachusetts insurgents, many of whom had served in the Revolutionary War but were now militating openly against the state they’d fought to form. Farmers, unable to pay their debts, had been imprisoned and dispossessed; four thousand rebels blocked the courts and sprang their comrades out of jail.
Jefferson’s words seem to smile at the events, expressing a kind of princely titillation at the sound and the fury, the thrill of the clash. But the Jefferson of 1787 believed that a regular challenge to government was vital to the exercise of public freedom: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” This was republicanism, this was popular will, this was liberty—the abstraction that fluttered prettily over all his writing and thought. Jefferson was a white, debt-free slave owner who, as he composed his letter to Adams, felt sure of Daniel Shays’s demise. So he wrote from the luxurious position of a philosopher and former revolutionary, flushed with a sense of fabulous drama. He, unlike Adams, was sitting safely in France.
Two years passed before the events of 1789: the Tennis Court Oath, the formation of the Assemblée nationale, the storming of the Bastille, and the drafting of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen by the abbé Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès and the Marquis de Lafayette, with help from Jefferson himself. So he stands at the origin of two declarations, two revolutions, two republics. He is a fantastically inflated icon, a gleaming national fetish. We live with his myth, his legacy, his image, and his contradictions. The contradictions are violent. He was a thinker of revolt and constitution, movement and stasis—and a humanist who owned humans he refused to see as such.
Martin Puryear’s Big Phrygian (2010–14) stands nearly five feet tall and transmits multiple, overlapping messages—about form, materiality, force, craft. It is both representational and abstract—or, rather, it reminds us of the sometimes abstract nature of representation, how the eye shuttles between textures and vast gestalt blocks. Big Phrygian is a silhouette. From a distance, it’s punched into space—an almost comic squiggled glyph. But approach the piece and you see the flexion of a stippled surface: the grain of strips of cedar that have been passed over with a paintbrush. The sculpture’s crisp arc is enlivened and perturbed by the marks of hands and tools, the work of a mind chained to a body that breathes and moves through air.
The Phrygian cap was an emblem of the French Revolution, worn by the rebels who toppled the monarchy and strove to establish a secular state. Liberté, égalité, fraternité: the trio of ideals that were draped over a process of uprising, transition, and brutal retrenchment. How does the rugged persistence of the physical world—the land and bread to be split among a populace—relate to freedom? What is the link between the vaporous principle and the material fact? Can you touch the state? Can you eat it?
Jefferson believed, however briefly and hypocritically, that liberty had to be seized and refreshed through force. It was a way of overcoming alienation and shredding the stagnancy of collective life. That Big Phrygian stands in Venice in the United States Pavilion, an architectural echo of Jefferson’s plantation house at Monticello, forces a link between the two bourgeois revolutions—revolution being, in the words of Hannah Arendt, “among the most recent of political data,” something that “did not exist prior to the modern age.” Puryear enters this modernity and erects monuments to its carnage. With the jollity of Big Phrygian, the Nigerian cap that is Aso Oke (2019), and the tilt and brim of Tabernacle’s Confederate hat (2019), we are given the tradition of insurrection, a gesture across the black Atlantic, and a token of the economic order that was built on black backs.
Representation: a political mechanism, yes, and a way to speak of forms. It should be said that Puryear can be an elliptical artist, and one of the pleasures of his sculptures is how they stand tall, oblique, coyly mute. That the work of this black American sculptor is now “representing” America invites pricking little questions—about, for instance, what was gained and foreclosed by modern revolutions. About what remains unfinished. About the appeal and limits of “freedom” in a world that is failing and full of the poor. About the place of black expression within the metallic structure of the state.
A scene floats to mind from The Black Jacobins (1938), C. L. R. James’s account of the Haitian Revolution and how it exploited and was inspired by the French one. In 1794, during a period of plebeian fervor, France’s Convention nationale responds to a speech by the black statesman Jean-Baptiste Belley by voting to abolish slavery. The vote is unanimous; the hall bursts into cheers. But another statesman, Pierre-Joseph Cambon, announces that “a female citizen of color” has experienced such an acute ecstasy at the thought of her people’s freedom that she’s fainted on the convention floor. The hall applauds, the event is recorded for posterity—and the woman, who has been revived, is called up to the front of the hall to be seated, like a trophy, beside the president.
Tobi Haslett has written about art, film, and literature for n+1, The New Yorker, Artforum, and other publications. He contributed the introduction to the 2018 reissue of Horse Crazy, a 1989 novel by Gary Indiana, and recently wrote an essay for the exhibition catalogue of the MoMA PS1 and KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin retrospective of the Iranian American theater director Reza Abdoh.
Originally published in Martin Puryear: Liberty/Libertà, Gregory R. Miller & Co. and Madison Square Park Conservancy, New York (2019).