Venice Biennale 2019. America’s choice

[21 Aug 2018]

The artist Martin Puryear will represent the United States at Venice

After postponing the decision for several months, the name of the artist chosen to represent the United States at the 58th Venice Biennale (11 May to 24 November 2019) was revealed a few days ago. It will be the African-American sculptor Martin PURYEAR (aged 77) whose artistic career began well over 40 years ago. The artist was selected by Brooke Kamin Rapaport, Curator of the US Pavilion for the Biennale and Deputy Director of Madison Square Park Conservancy, an organisation in charge of artistic programming at Madison Square in New York, known for linking outdoor works to the natural environment of the park. Notably, this is the first time that an institution specialising in public art has been entrusted with the organization of the American pavilion of the Venice Biennale.

Martin Puryear is a priori a “classical” sculptor, in the sense that he works mainly wood, stone and metal, i.e. traditional materials, patiently carved according to what are also considered traditional techniques. On a formal level his works are elegant and have strong interplay with their environments. They are often described as Post-Minimalist, although they frequently suggest a sensitivity to biomorphic issues. At their roots, his sculptures evoke a multiplicity of references and essentially deal with issues related to identity and culture.

Martin Puryear’s work has been acclaimed in the United States for a long time. His works have been exhibited at three editions of the Whitney Biennial, in 1979, 1981, and 1989 when the artist received a grant from the MacArthur Foundation. More recently, in 2007-2008, Martin Puryear enjoyed a retrospective at the New York MoMA which showed around 45 of his sculptures. According to the announcement, Puryear will create all new work for the pavilion in line with the his policy of interacting with the environment. The artist also plans to “realize outreach programs with underserved youth through a collaboration between Studio in a School in New York and Istituto Santa Maria Della Pietà in Venice.”

After Mark Bradford in 2017, this is the second time that an African-American artist has been selected to represent the United States for the world’s most prestigious art meeting. And it is no coincidence, being yet another manifestation of a strong trend towards the development and valorisation of African-American artists in recent years, especially since the election of Barack Obama. The former US president and his wife have worked to showcase several African-American artists. At the time, the couple reselected the art on display at the White House to include works by Glenn Ligon, William Johnson and Alma Thomas. More recently, they have chosen two African-American artists, Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, to do their official portraits for the National Portrait Gallery in Washington. In 2011, Barack Obama awarded Martin Puryear the National Medal for the Arts and Humanities. Three years after this award, the sculptor was honoured with his first million-plus auction result for an untitled sculpture in cedar and pine (Untitled, 1989) which fetched $1.8 million at Christie’s NY (13 May 2014).

The artist therefore already has a superb price standing, although it is exclusively dependent on the American market. The spotlight of the Venice Biennale should expand his market to foreign collectors and the prices of his sculptures could well climb as a result.