Martin Puryear to design slavery memorial

February 11, 2013

Acclaimed American artist Martin Puryear has been commissioned to design and create a memorial on the Front Campus commemorating the University’s historic ties to the slave trade. At its February meeting, the Corporation of Brown University selected acclaimed American artist Martin Puryear to create a slavery memorial on the University campus. Recommended by the Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice, which issued its report in 2006, the memorial will recognize the University’s relationship to the transatlantic slave trade and the importance of this traffic in the history of Rhode Island. The memorial is conceived as a site for discussion, education, and contemplation.

The memorial will be placed on the Front Campus, between Hope College and Carrie Tower, and near University Hall. This site was recommended by Brown’s Public Art Committee for its prominence, especially during Convocation and Commencement, and its historic significance as the site of the University’s earliest building. Construction ledgers from the 18th century name four enslaved Africans among those who worked on the construction of University Hall.

“The selection of Martin Puryear and the choice of the Front Green — the ‘Quiet Green’ — as the site for his work is a promising and satisfying step forward,” said Brown University President Ruth J. Simmons. “This memorial will invite thoughtful inquiry about the world we have inherited and contemplation of the values we embrace and intend to pass on.” 

Members of the Public Art Committee unanimously chose Puryear from a slate of more than 65 artists, architects, and landscape architects and from five finalists, who visited campus to discuss their potential approaches to the project. Puryear’s thoughtful discussion and commitment to the significance of the memorial impressed the committee

Martin Puryear is widely recognized for finely crafted abstract sculpture. He has said, “I value the referential quality of art, the fact that a work can allude to things or states of being without ... representing them. ... The most interesting art for me retains a flickering quality, where opposed ideas can be held in tense coexistence.” Puryear’s evocative explorations in abstract forms retain vestigial elements of utility from everyday objects found in the world, according to Jo-Ann Conklin, director of the University’s David Winton Bell Art Gallery. This approach is demonstrated in Puryear’s well-known Ladder for Booker T. Washington. The spindly, meandering, 35-foot tall ladder narrows toward the top, creating a distorted sense of perspective that evokes an unattainable or illusory goal. The memorial is expected to be installed in time for Brown’s 250th anniversary celebration in 2014.

Martin Puryear was born in Washington, D.C., in 1941. After earning his B.A. from Catholic University in Washington, D.C., he joined the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone and later attended the Swedish Royal Academy of Art. He received an M.F.A. in sculpture from Yale University in 1971. Puryear’s work has been shown in important international institutions since the late 1970s, and a major traveling retrospective of his work was organized by the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2007. He represented the United States at the Bienal de São Paulo in 1989, where his exhibition won the grand prize.

He is the recipient of numerous awards, including the prestigious John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Award, a Louis Comfort Tiffany Grant, and the Skowhegan Medal for Sculpture. Puryear was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1992 and received an honorary doctorate from Yale University in 1994. He lives and works in the Hudson Valley region of New York.