If you were to climb on Martin Puryears “Ladder for Booker T Washington”, the immediate challenge would be to take the first step as it is not placed squarely on the floor. The first question would be “Why is it not on the ground like a ladder used around the house?” Puryear is symbolizing that the first step is often the hardest. It represents how difficult after awareness of a challenge and starting the placement of the first foot up can be the be the most daunting. You could make the argument that Puryear is saying once Booker T Washington saw that his belief to not being politically active but to advocated self-advancement which called for hard work and discipline. Washington advocated for vocational training to achieve equality and education was the vehicle to better one’s life. By advancing up each rung it conveys accomplishment and to never take your eyes of the one just ahead. It’s not an easy path with crooked spots along the way.
“In Washington’s autobiography “Up from Slavery” is a direct reference to an ascent to a richer existence, both materially and psychologically. The spiritual “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder” was one of Washington’s favorites.”
“Puryear’s finely crafted ladder resonates with Washington’s belief in the dignity of manual labor expertly accomplished. But the artist leaves the final explanation of his construction open. As critic Michael Brenson has stated, “Puryear has the ability to make sculpture that is known by the body before it is articulated by the mind.”
Interestingly enough Puryear did not create the piece with Booker T Washington.
In an interview with Art21 Puryear was asked “if there was something about this piece that amuses him”.
“Well, I enjoyed doing it. And I certainly enjoy the way it looks at the Modern in Fort Worth. It’s interesting to me—and this is new for me—but the work does contain a history lesson. Because people who see it want to know what it’s about. It’s a curiosity when they see a title as specific as that. It’s been written about a couple of times. In fact, there’s a wall label in the museum that talks about Booker T. Washington more than it talks about the work, which I find interesting. I think there’s a lot going on in the work as a sculpture. But I think the urgency of the historical information about Booker T. Washington is in terms of what the museum thinks the public would want to know, or should know about it and, I think, in this case eclipses what’s going on within the object. I found that kind of interesting”.