Culture

The American Pavilion in the Venice Biennale: Safe and Sorry

Swallowed Sun (Monstrance and Volute), 2019, by Martin Puryear. Southern yellow pine, steel, polyester, canvas, rope (Joshua White/JWPictures.com)
Is this how we want to present the country?

Well, there’s one good thing I’d say about this year’s American Pavilion at the Biennale in Venice. Martin Puryear isn’t going to withdraw in protest. He’s a seriously accomplished artist. He appreciates how important the American Pavilion is and what an honor it is to represent the country at the Biennale. It’s a well-deserved honor in his case.

The Biennale, occurring in Venice every two years since 1895, is the world’s most distinguished international art show. It’s carefully curated by art leaders in dozens of countries, with each country getting a pavilion to show some of its best art. This year, Puryear’s work represents the United States.

And unlike the brats at the Whitney Biennial, he’s not likely to leave in a huff because the Italians won’t pay reparations to the Etruscans, or some other silly grouse.

Still, in walking through Liberty/Libertà, Puryear’s work show, I couldn’t help asking, “How did this happen?” It’s not a bad show. Puryear is a very good artist. His retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art a few years ago was divine. He’s a minimalist, working mostly in wood, a medium I love, but also with iron and bronze. Wood’s the ubiquitous American material. His sculptures are graceful and warm, intricate and clearly handmade. They’re abstract, though recently he’s been doing representational work. He’s 78.

The show is safe, tepid, nearly antiseptic, installed on white walls with barebones labels. It looks like a show in a ritzy New York commercial gallery, which it basically is. It’s a small show, with one or two objects in every gallery.

It’s vague, too, maddeningly so. The only interpretation is a single wall panel. It’s a rumination on the meaning of liberty. It promises “visual language of great originality and certitude” dealing with “liberty, withholding liberty, or exploiting liberty — and entanglements with freedom, moral justice, and responsibility.” This is big stuff but it’s muddy stuff. His art, like every journey toward liberty, “sets out from an idealistic philosophy to a declaration to lived experience to a social contract.”

For the hell of it, I read it aloud in Italian. I look like a bedraggled, WASPy, nerdy academic, so I expect people didn’t think I was a lunatic. It sounded lovely. That didn’t make it less squishy. I felt like I was reading a term paper written by a brilliant English major. It’s beautifully written but doesn’t mean anything. Simply saying something doesn’t make it so. I like an art show that starts with some solid, clear specifics. These include “This is the point of the show,” “This is why these objects are here and together,” and “Here are some things to think about.”

Now, I’m among the narrowest sliver of people who read the catalogue. It’s good, but a show needs to reach people who haven’t and won’t read it. Otherwise, it’s bewildering, even more so when the art isn’t the best.

The show touches ever so lightly many of the current pieties among the people involved in organizing it — race, immigration, the problems of masculinity, gun violence — but the brew’s flavorless. It’s a dignified, polite, unmemorable assembly of work that’s not his strongest and not his most original. Nobody will be offended, and no one will be moved.

The State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs is responsible for this snooze of a show. That’s the State Department’s big arts-and-culture slush fund. It programs the American Pavilion every two years.

The show seems like it was pulled together fast. Was someone asleep at the switch? Puryear’s selection was announced by the State Department much later than usual. After making a couple of phone calls, I detected a growing corps of pointing fingers. I’m not interested in getting to the bottom of it. I don’t want to know.

It feels corporate. Puryear is a blue-chip artist. The show is funded by big New York foundations. Bloomberg Philanthropies is the anchor donor. It’s organized by the Madison Square Park Conservancy, a posh and distinguished Manhattan charity. Matthew Marks is Puryear’s dealer. He’s a Manhattan mega-dealer, and his name is everywhere in the show, so much so that it feels like an ad for his business. The art is almost all Puryear’s, and now his dealer will probably sell it, with the nice, fresh, shiny Biennale imprimatur burnishing it and its price.

Is this a problem? Personally, I would have hit the brakes on the Lamborghini before it headed down this road.

So, it’s a big-name artist, a big-business dealer, big-donor-backed, organized by a Manhattan arts group, and approved by a big-government bureaucracy. No pushing envelopes allowed. This cast explains why it has a privileged, institutional look. I don’t fault the Madison Square Park Conservancy, which does great work. It just did a beautiful, big Puryear outdoor installation in the Manhattan park. This worthy organization is just one piece in a very odd puzzle.

Does this show tell people that American art is dynamic? No. It says it’s tired and insular. There’s a big-money clique in charge. Is this the best we could do?

There’s A Column for Sally Hemings, the show’s centerpiece and made for the Pavilion’s Monticello-inspired rotunda. The sculpture is a cast-iron stake driven into an art-deco-style column. Aesthetically, and that’s the first way we have to see it, it’s good. We can read the base as a stylized column like Palladio’s or as a woman’s figure. It’s sleek and attractive.

Detail of A Column for Sally Hemings, 2019, by Martin Puryear. Cast iron, painted tulip poplar (Joshua White/JWPictures.com)

Why is it there? Does this story matter? What does it say about America that’s new? The Sally Hemings story surfaced in 1804, so it’s hardly fresh, and it resurfaced about 30 years ago. It’s clear that Hemings, a mixed-race slave, was Thomas Jefferson’s mistress after his wife died. Her father might have been Jefferson’s father-in-law. Her children were probably Jefferson’s, possibly not. She had a privileged place as a house servant in the kinky, feudal, self-contained world that was Jefferson’s big plantation. Hemings is, literally, made a stick figure, which takes the nuance from what must have been a complicated situation.

Puryear’s best work is reductive, striving to reach an essence. That works with abstract concepts and with form, color, and texture. People, though, come with stories. Too much reduction, and the flesh and blood turn into billboards and are trivialized. Being in Italy, I asked myself, “Would Anna Magnani want to play Sally Hemings?” Not the version in the Biennale. It’s simplistic. It’s boring. It’s good to remember that about half the visitors to the Biennale are Italian. Yes, during the summer, there are Italians in Italy. Italians have been ruled by Caligula, Mussolini, Berlusconi, and all sorts of princes, popes, and doges. They’ve seen everything.

And why would someone who’s young care?

Puryear is a safe, easy, convenient choice for people who don’t want to push themselves beyond a comfort level. Does America want to move the needle in the arts? Do a group show of 30 American artists under age 30. Or a Stonewall show. Or a graffiti-art show. Or enlist the Met’s Costume Institute to do a show. Or MASS MoCA or the Kohler Foundation. Do a show on contemporary Native American art. Chris Bedford’s great show on Mark Bradford, which filled the American Pavilion in 2017, started at the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University. Imagination, risk, surprise, and energy are the features in American art that you’d think we’d want to project.

Hibernian Testosterone/New Voortrekker by Martin Puryear (Joshua White/JWPictures.com)

Hibernian Testosterone is a full-scale replica of the skull and twelve-foot wide antlers of the extinct great Irish elk. The press release for the show calls it “a defunct signifier of masculine physical prowess.” Here’s another problem. At his best, Puryear’s work is bewitching because it’s so elusive and allusive. Even his most abstract, asymmetrical, unpredictable shapes have balance and harmony. His representational work, like this, flirts with kitsch, and that drains the mystery and wonder from it.

New Voortrekker is a wagon. It refers, at least according to the catalogue, to the Boers whose journey across South Africa meant liberty for them but apartheid and misery for others. Yes, immigration is in the news, but the piece raises a question it doesn’t even begin to tackle: Can’t one man’s woeful, unjust conquest easily be another’s exodus? Still, the topic makes some sense and is one of the few things in the show that has some direct connection to how we construe liberty. The aesthetic problem is that the object itself is toy-like, too precious to be taken seriously. If it were smaller, it would belong in a dollhouse. The topic is too weighty, and the art too trite. Realism, or we can call it representation, just isn’t Puryear’s strength.

Tabernacle meditates on gun violence, “so often enabled,” the catalogue says, “through something resembling religious zealotry.” What in the world does this mean? Neither the book nor the object gives us the tiniest hint. I thought about President Obama’s condescending and snarky comment about people who cling to their guns and religion. Does this show come from the same bubble? This isn’t about liberty. It’s about conventional, comfortable bourgeois platitudes in 2019.

I have no problem exploring any of these issues but, as Darby English writes in his very good essay in the show’s catalogue, “honesty begets difficulty.” Difficulty, in turn, demands focus and detail, which the show doesn’t have. Puryear’s Big Phrygian from 2010–14 is the best thing in the show. Visually, it’s stunning. I loved it when I saw it at the Glenstone Museum last year. It combines elegance, simplicity, and command.

Big Phrygian, 2010-14, by Martin Puryear. Painted red cedar. Glenstone Museum, Potomac, Md. (Joshua White/JWPictures.com)

“I value the referential qualities of art,” Puryear said years ago, “the fact that a work can allude to things or states of being without in any way representing them.” He hits his target in Big Phrygian. It’s the go-to freedom fighter’s cap from antiquity to the French Revolution, but it’s also an intriguing, gripping shape, full of volume and weight but movement, too, in its bull neck with an insistent and muscular curve.

It’s the anchor piece in the show, along with Swallowed Sun (Monstrance and Volute), the massive wood screen in front of the American Pavilion topped by a simulated dome and propped in back by a writhing, black volute. There, Puryear explores Jefferson’s architectural theory, giving his love of domes a new, unusual, and provocative spin. You’d never know it by looking at the object, though, unless you were an architect or an art historian. The show’s interpretation of the sculpture, which covers most of the building’s façade, is non-existent, leaving the visitor in the dark.

This raises more awkward questions. The bulk of the catalogue, and almost all of Darby English’s essay, concerns this single object. Should this show really be a one-object show? If that’s the case, is it right for the American Pavilion, which is very much an indoor space? It was built as a traditional art gallery, and it’s surrounded by other pavilions. And as with any show with a small number of objects, I always ask, “Is this an art show or a book?” Sometimes the scholarship is so focused on history or theory that the object, by necessity, becomes not so much a casual bystander — that happens when the scholarship is lousy — but a launching point or an illustration. English’s essay is faithful to the object as a material thing people see and experience, so I don’t think that’s an issue here.

Each of the catalogue essays returns to Big Phrygian again and again. English’s own long essay focuses on the big screen sculpture but links its treatment of the dome to the hat as both a symbol and a metaphor for the thinking head. An exhibition of those objects alone, with a couple of others, with deeper interpretation, might have had more fizz and also left people with more to think about.

A show on Puryear’s Jefferson would actually have been new and engaging. Tobi Haslett’s succinct, stylish, and intelligent essay on Puryear, Jefferson, and revolution at the end of the catalogue suggests a thematic focus the show needs. It’s very good. When I read it, I thought, “This should have been the show’s introduction,” not lots of blather about liberty.

As it is, the show’s so uninspiring that the first thing I did afterward was head to the Biennale cafe. “Espresso, per favore,” I said, “and make it a doppio.” Then I went to see a lovely Gorky show at Ca’ Pesaro. Arshile Gorky was one of the stars of the American Pavilion in 1950, one of the shows that introduced American Action Painting to war-flattened, post-Fascist Europe. His big, sprawling paintings and drawings still have magic. They’re labyrinths of line, color, and paint. You want to be there, with them and in them. You’re not thinking, “When is this banal little homily going to end?”

I’ve seen some thrilling, consequential art in the American Pavilion. The Mark Bradford show two years ago was rich. It had bite. Ann Hamilton and Sarah Sze had great one-woman shows. Historically, the most transformative American Pavilions have been group shows. This might be a good direction, but it takes time, vision, and commitment. These have to come from the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. My impression is that too much caution and too much carelessness there served us this big bowl of pablum.

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