Weight and Balance
The work of Mark di Suvero explores the edges of space
By Gretchen Giles
Long slabs of rusty steel lie mute on the ground, some piled one atop the other, some bent and cut with sinuous, curved lines. Iron oxide has altered the metal so that its harsh surface now has the soft warm quality of leather or strips of clay. Amid the mud and new grass, the forge, and two idle cranes, an enormous unsettled sculpture stands smack, reaching up to a central knot and then exploding in a radii of invisible energy up to the sky. Stand under the work and the unused kinetic force of its six-some tons pulses like an oxide aura.
"I think that some people see it, others don't," Lowell McKegney offers briefly. A tall, strong man, McKegney has been working with renowned sculptor Mark di Suvero for the last 20 years. Standing amid the muck of di Suvero's Petaluma studio site, McKegney gestures to the piece looming over our heads. "There's a strength to them, there's a grace, for the size and the scale and the material."
Whether or not one feels the metal mantra that emanates from his work, it's hard to miss a piece by Mark di Suvero. As the foremost living sculptor of steel in the United States (and the world), di Suvero creates pieces that indoors could push the ceiling of an airplane hangar, while outdoors they redefine the seeming limitlessness of space, causing air to cling and cut out around them. While he has worked on the smaller scale of the tabletop, most notably on a series of hands terribly gripping nails or an awful nothing as they spring up from their bases, di Suvero is best known for his freestanding outdoor sculptures, such as the new installation recently planted below the torn-out ruckus of San Francisco's Embarcadero freeway. What's more, for all of their weighty dignity, di Suvero's sculptures often do a surprising thing. They move.
Balanced on the fine point of a rod or hanging down from the stiff arm off an H-beam, these structures are meant to examine the delicacies of balance, to let the wind define caprice, and to swing with a determined gravity around their partners, letting loose the pent-up ions of hundreds of pounds of steel.
With his work in the permanent collections of New York's Whitney Museum (which hosted an unprecedented one-man retrospective of his, placing his massive works in each New York City borough) and the Museum of Modern Art, di Suvero's steely vision can be found in most major cities in the United States. He has had the honor of being given the only one-man show by a living artist at the Jardin de Tuileries--the gardens that front Paris' Louvre--and has used his influence and funds to begin the Socrates Sculpture Park, sprawling adjacent to his New York studio, an outdoor exhibition space for those international artists whom di Suvero cultivates and assists.
And with most residents none the wiser, di Suvero has been changing the nature and expectations of the art world right from Sonoma County. While maintaining his county-based site, di Suvero now works primarily now from his East Coast studio, which lies flat against the gray glint of New York's East River. When not in the states, di Suvero plies his heavy metal in Chalon-sur-Saône, France, in whose river he swam to recover from an injury that confined him to a wheelchair for several years.
At age 63, di Suvero walks without a cane, and one senses that the lingering problems from his former paraplegia are small compared to what this man can do when he sets his mind to it.
But what he wants to do now is to take orders for cappuccinos as he stands happily--his blonde-gray beard evenly clipped, his welding helmet discarded--before the coffee machine of his chaotically neat New York studio.
He dismisses the idea that his work, which unbolts and travels hugely around the world, encompasses both the memorial and the transient. "It certainly is not just taking bolts out," he retorts. "And next to a mountain, it's really nothing. We're used to all kinds of motion, and it seems that the kind of sculpture that I take part in is really about a kind of knowledge about the material. Simply to treat steel as if it were a lumpen rock that can't be moved, well, that's their vision of it. I think that it is a really protean material. There is no single shape. When you look at Brancusi, you see that he was searching for the essential form of stone. I tried that, but the steel doesn't have one essential form. He ended up with an essential form that is very spiritual and very moving. I tried and I found that there is one of those shapes in this H-beam that I work with that allows all of these skyscrapers to be built."
Di Suvero bends his steel and prefers to use the strength of a crane to master the curves of his finished pieces rather than chance the hot unevening of metal. "You have to kind of go with it," he says affably. "You listen to the form, and you deal with the dream that you have, the inner vision, the mind's eye aspect of it, and then you have to see what it wants to be when you go and do that. I don't think of it as a combat, you know, man over material, though the sounds are terrible--the grinding, the running of the diesel. But it takes a certain kind of willingness to accept the way that [the material] wants to go.
"And then it gives you a kind of, I don't want to say power, but it gives you a kind of a freedom of form that seems not normal, but is really very Taoist. You understand that in Sonoma," he laughs.
Part of di Suvero's power comes from the free swing of his giants, as they turn in the breeze. "You're dealing with what isn't seen," he explains. "Ballerinas do it. Surfers do it. It has to do with the center of gravity. As any good dancer knows, you can pull the center of gravity outside of yourself. Then you're able to handle something else."
Having stated in past interviews that he doesn't believe that art should be a struggle, di Suvero nonetheless has struggled all his life against his very materials, the politics of war (he was jailed for protesting Vietnam and chose to live in exile until the conflict ended), and physical disability. Does he think that these struggles have had a positive effect on his art? "No, I don't think that struggle makes it flourish," he answers definitively. "I think that when you have the right forms and you come into tune with those forms that that is what can develop your spirit."
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From the Mar. 21-27, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent
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