MARK DI SUVEROby Thomas Micchelli
PAULA COOPER GALLERY | MAY 1 – JULY 30, 2010
There are five pieces in the Mark di Suvero exhibition at Paula Cooper: three elegant, welded-steel sculptures from the artist’s recent “Totems” series (1998, 2005, and 2006); a large (7’10 1/2” high, 16’ wide), joyfully colored acrylic abstraction from 1978 – 82; and the enormous “Nova Albion,” a work originally built on a northern California beach in 1964 – 65.
“Nova Albion” resembles the artist’s hulking “Mother Peace” (1969 – 70) at Storm King, a work I’ve never warmed up to. Both sculptures are essentially tripods with protrusions attached. “Mother Peace” is made entirely of steel and lords over the landscape, a bright orange Constructivist behemoth. “Nova Albion”—24 feet at its highest point—is about half the size of the later sculpture, which renders it paradoxically more approachable and more threatening, a three-legged Gulliver shackled by steel cables and beams.
Redwood trunks as thick and tall as telephone poles, studded with knots and the stumps of amputated limbs, make up the two most prominent struts of the tripod; the third is a steel pole painted battleship gray. Another steel pole, the same color and nearly the same length, tilts phallically skyward between the two wooden legs, suspended from their apex by a rusted chain. This pole holds aloft two more trunks of uneven lengths that intersect each other diagonally, resembling the lowest crossbeam of a Russian Orthodox crucifix. I am reminded of the phrase that an urban arborist used to describe the dangerously diseased bifurcated trunk of an ancient, towering ash tree: “tonnage in the air.” A fifth tree trunk, the size of a rain barrel, juts off the base of the steel tripod leg.
There are no right angles anywhere; not even the chain holding the pole is plumb. As a structure, it is aggressively unstable: alienating, ungainly, and deeply sculptural. Circle it, and every step reveals a new alignment of formal configurations and subjective associations. It collapses and ascends, expands and contracts, advances and retreats; depending on where you stand, it can evoke the Trojan Horse, the remnants of a Viking ship, a pyre bursting into flame, a ruined city attacked by dive bombers, or a depth charge flying off a World War II destroyer. When the ambient natural light begins to fade, it seems enveloped in sadness. When the light returns, it feels defiant, even triumphant.
It might take a moment for it to register, but the tree trunks, which are stained a dark, almost colorless walnut, are all stripped of their bark, flayed like Marsyas. I think of Titian’s masterpiece in the Archbishop’s Palace in Kroměří, painted when the artist was in his nineties; di Suvero is in his seventies, and seeing it now, in New York, “Nova Albion” feels like a late work, a culmination of skill, wisdom, world weariness, and fractiousness. It’s as if its previous incarnation on a California beach were a disconnected entity, perhaps a youthful embrace of sensuality and repose, or perhaps something darker—who knows—that moment is gone, lost to time with the sculpture’s original timbers.
No matter how precisely the logs, cables, and beams have been placed, what we see in front of us now has been inexorably changed—like di Suvero, like us—by the useless wars, cascading scandals, and endlessly unfurling corruption of the intervening decades. “Nova Albion” hasn’t been recreated; its cavernous, abrasive ambiguity has been replanted in our consciousness to take fresh stock of the immensity of our bewilderment.