Still Climbing Booker T. Washington’s Ladder

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Martin Puryear. Ladder for Booker T. Washington, detail, 1996. Installation view at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas. Production still from the “Art in the Twenty-First Century” Season 2 episode, “Time,” 2003. Photo © Art21, Inc. 2003.

One of Martin Puryear’s most iconic artworks is titled Ladder for Booker T. Washington (1996), which is a reference to the influential 19th century activist and educator, Booker T. Washington.

Puryear is known for creating large scale sculptures out of wood and other materials that challenge our modes of perception. In Ladder for Booker T. Washington, Puryear represents forced perspective, which is an illusion that makes something look farther away than it actually is. The thirty-six foot sculpture ascends up to the very high ceiling in the gallery where it is displayed (at the Modern Art Museum of Forth Worth, Texas). The sculpture is a stylized ladder, which curves and gets narrower at the top. While the bottom rungs are similar in size to conventional ladders, they narrow to a surreal 1 1/4 inches at the top. The ladder is lifted several inches off the ground, which gives it the feeling of being suspended in air. Its organic form (the naturally curved side rails were created from a golden ash sapling) and ethereal installation portray a spiritual essence. 

Puryear acknowledges that the title of the artwork was realized after the sculpture was finished (Art21, 2011). The conceptual nature of Puryear’s sculpture and the title leave ample room for interpretation. Although Puryear considers the work to be abstract (meaning that there is no intended narrative element), the sculpture’s physical form and perspective might allude to Booker T. Washington’s point of view and influence on African American culture during Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era.

Washington was highly successful in facilitating the development and success of black businesses and educational institutes in an era where African Americans were denied equal and equitable access to many economic, social and cultural opportunities. However, Washington was also viewed in a controversial manner by some of his activist peers, such as W.E.B. Du Bois, because of his reluctance to advocate for immediate nationwide equality and equity for African Americans. While Washington’s activism provided black individuals with black-centered institutional and business benefits (such as Tuskegee University and the National Negro Business League), he struck deals with prominent white politicians to gain support for these organizations. One particular deal, known as the Atlanta compromise, was made in exchange for the political submission to white policies, such as segregation. Although Washington’s contributions made significant headway for African Americans, his reliance and advocacy for blacks assimilating to white policies upheld the status quo.

Puryear describes Washington as “someone who made enormous contacts with people in power and had enormous influence, but he was what you would call a gradualist” (Art21, 2011). While the sculpture is asserted to largely confront aesthetic issues, it also addresses ongoing social conditions. The idea of initiating, maintaining and eventually achieving a goal is symbolically represented via the use of forced perspective. The essential question Ladder for Booker T. Washington asks is: where are we in the progression of equality, equity and social justice? The abstracted organic form, asymmetry and scale of the artwork suggests that the path to obtaining these goals is uncertain and difficult. The floating nature of the sculpture might also allude to the spiritual motif of the ladder (i.e. Jacob’s Ladder/God’s promise of the promised land) and its symbolism during slavery as a means to resist oppression and gain freedom and salvation. We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder is a spiritual hymn slaves sang to express the hope that they will one day climb to God and defeat their slave-owners. Each rung of the ladder (Ev’ry round goes higher higher) signifies tests of spiritual strength that will get them closer to God and deliverance from slavery.

The exquisite handmade craftsmanship of Puryear’s sculpture reflects Washington’s educational philosophy regarding the importance of work to be viewed as dignified and beautiful. In his 1901 autobiography, Up From Slavery, Washington favors a form of education that teaches students to see “not only utility in labour, but beauty and dignity.”

Washington advised African Americans to value industrial labor in an intellectual and personal manner. He supported this ideology by writing: “when the student is through with his course of training he goes out feeling that it is just as honorable to labor with the hand as with the head” (Washington, 1900). This tenet was a major component of the curriculum at Tuskegee University, because Washington believed that developing professional labor skills and industrious knowledge would lead to self-preservation. The idea of building self-worth through one’s work and the need for industrial and mechanical knowledge is fundamentally sound. The argument that schools are not preparing students for the ‘real-world,’ is a common critique in educational discourse. It would behoove all schools to provide pragmatic skills and knowledge such as agricultural management and other forms of highly skilled technical labor.

By urging his contemporaries to temporarily accept systemic discrimination in order to concentrate on elevating themselves economically through hard work, Washington’s policies somewhat eschewed the affect that trauma and oppression have on educational, social and economic development. Despite Washington’s aspirations that systemic conditions would gradually change, unequal and inequitable situations still persist. Some educational environments remain segregated (Meatto, 2019) and there are less opportunities for black and brown individuals to advance economically than their white counterparts.

Puryear contributes to the contextual analysis of his sculpture as “the kind of gradual, illusory notion of upward progress that Washington encouraged blacks to adopt in the nineteenth century against an overwhelming set of obstacles to our advancement” (Powell, 2007).

Over a century later, society is still attempting to climb Booker T. Washington’s ladder…


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Art21 and Puryear, Martin. “Abstraction and ‘Ladder for Booker T. Washington,'” Art21, Nov. 2011. https://art21.org/read/martin-puryear-abstraction-and-ladder-for-booker-t-washington/

Meatto, Keith. “Still Separate, Still Unequal:Teaching about School Segregation and Educational Inequality,” New York Times, 2 May 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/02/learning/lesson-plans/still-separate-still-unequal-teaching-about-school-segregation-and-educational-inequality.html

Powell, Richard J. “A Conversation with Martin Puryear,” in the exhibition catalogue Martin Puryear by John Elderfield, Richard J. Powell, et al, Fort Worth: The Museum of Modern Art, 2007.

Washington, Booker T. “Signs of Progress Among the Negroes,” Century Magazine, 59 (1900), pps 472-478. http://xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/washington/signs-of-progress.txt

Washington, Booker T. Up from Slavery: An Autobiography, Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1901.

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