Theaster Gates and Martin Puryear at The Art Institute of Chicago

Theaster Gates on the artist representing the US at Venice 2019

Watch Gates interview the acclaimed abstract sculptor Martin Puryear, due to represent the US at the next Biennale

The announcement that the 77-year-old American artist Martin Puryear would represent the United States at the 2019 Venice Art Biennale, has received plenty of coverage, but little comment from the artist himself.

Puryear, an abstract sculptor, doesn’t give a huge number of interviews. However, those wanting to get to know him a bit better could do worse than turn to this video interview, conducted by one of Puryear’s long-time champions, Theaster Gates.

Gates spoke to Puryear as part of Puryear’s show at the Art Institute of Chicago in 2016, and, during the course of the discussion, both acknowledged that, though a generation or so apart, they both had a great deal in common.

For example, they were both raised in “families that were handy” as Puryear puts it; Gates’s dad was a roofer, while Puryear’s had trained as an electrician who taught himself many other branches of DIY.

Both spent formative years in newly liberalised African countries; Puryear travelled to Sierra Leone in the mid-1960s, shortly after it gained independence from the UK, while Gates studied in South Africa in the early 1990s, two and a half years after Nelson Mandela’s release.


Gates Puryear

Both have travelled in Japan, and have drawn on the incredible craftsmanship of that country. Indeed, Puryear, who often works in wood and bronze, is sometimes said to combine folk techniques with loftier, mid-century styles such as minimalism.

Though the two artists share a great deal, they haven’t always seen eye-to-eye. As Gates explains in the video interview, Puryear declined his request to reinterpret an old piece of public artwork in Chicago, when the younger artist was commissioned to create a site-specific piece for the city.

Nevertheless, Puryear admires the way Gates combines town planning with urban redevelopment and fine art to, as Puryear puts it “shape such a huge swath of humanity.”

“I have no problem saying it’s art,” says Puryear. “I just don’t know how you do it.”

Indeed, Puryear suspects Gates influence might be spreading. “Have you heard of Assemble in Liverpool?” says Puryear, rereferring to the Turner Prize winning architectural collective. “I wonder if they saw you and started to do what they're doing?”

“Let’s say so,” laughs Gates. 


Theaster Gates
Theaster Gates

For more on Gates’ influential practice order a copy of his monograph; for more on Puryear’s chosen form, get Sculpture Today.