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.
Installation view, “Martin Puryear: Liberty/Libertà,” La Biennale di Venezia, U.S. Pavilion, Venice, Italy, 2019. Photo: Joshua White—JWPictures.com.
“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. Read More