Every two years, the art world descends on Venice for the International Art Exhibition, one of the oldest and most respected art fairs in the world. An interesting aspect of the Venice Biennale is its nationalistic structure: a vestige of mid-twentieth century political chauvinism, participating countries each have their own pavilion* (a gallery), and select one artist (or on occasion, a few artists) to represent the cultural excellence of the nation. It is a major honor to be selected, and for the 58th Biennale di Venezia, the crowning laurel is going to the sculptor Martin Puryear. Puryear is the second African-American artist to represent the US at the Biennale (following 2017’s honoree, Mark Bradford).
Puryear was born in 1941 in Washington D.C., and from a young age, he enjoyed DIY and crafts projects. After college he traveled to Sierre Leone with the Peace Corps—a formative experience that would further his interest in indigenous crafts and working with traditional materials. He studied for a few years at the Swedish Academy of Arts, and graduated from the prestigious Yale University MFA program in 1971.
Puryear’s work resists easy categorization: rendered in natural materials such as wood, stone and metal, his shapes are reminiscent of nature forms as well as everyday objects. “I think there are a number of levels at which my work can be dealt with and appreciated,” Puryear has said. “It gives me pleasure to feel there’s a level that doesn’t require knowledge of or immersion in the aesthetic of a given time or place.” For the U.S. Pavilion, Puryear will create a completely new body of work, including a site-specific installation for the courtyard. The Pavilion will be curated by Brooke Kamin Rapaport, Deputy Director and Martin Friedman Senior Curator of the Madison Square Park Conservancy (and with whom I had the pleasure of working on her Houdini: Art and Magic exhibition that she curated at The Jewish Museum in 2010! Congrats to Brooke). It is the first time that an institution devoted exclusively to public art is organizing the Biennale Pavilion show. To read more about the project, click here.
*Thirty countries have permanent pavilion buildings, including the United States. Newer members to the Biennale exhibit in other locations around the city. The number of participating countries is growing each year.
Images, left to right: Brunhilde, 1998-2000; Bearing Witness, 1994-98; images courtesy of Matthew Marks Gallery website.