MARK DI SUVERO at Governor’s Island

MAY 27 – SEPTEMBER 25, 2011

If you actually want to feel the earth spin on its axis, stand underneath a monumental sculpture by Mark di Suvero. His sculptures, 11 of which are now installed on Governor’s Island, are steel mammoths that completely reorient the way the eye perceives space. In each work industrial beams—some painted and others left to rust in the elements—tower towards the sky.

Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

The show, Mark di Suvero at Governor’s Island (May 27 – September 25, 2011) was curated by David Collins, director of  Storm King Art Center. It is the largest outdoor display of di Suvero’s work in New York City since the 1970s. Standing at the base of these constructions renders one speechless. As di Suvero himself says, “You have to be inside it to understand it.”

The sea—long cast as a landscape of scattered fantasies and uncharted possibilities—seems an appropriate backdrop for the work of a self-described “dreamer” such as di Suvero. This may be why his work fits so beautifully into the Island’s resuscitated grounds. At the south end, where three sculptures stand against the lower Manhattan skyline, the upward thrust of “Mahatma’s” (1975) weather-charred I-beam is mirrored, ever so faintly, in the intrepid reach of Lady Liberty’s outstretched arm. Other works are nestled next to abandoned colonial homes of Coast Guard officers, or placed atop grassy fields like totems to Pythagoras.

Mark di Suvero installing “Figolu,” 2005–2011 (detail). Steel. 47’ 1” × 55’ × 23’. Private collection Photograph. by Jerry L. Thompson

Take “Figolu” (2011), one of the new works included in the exhibition. From afar, it looks to be a drafting compass fit for the gods. Its red extension beams ignite in the afternoon sunlight. At close range, the dimensions shift perceptually. The sculpture’s backbone extends outward as joints become gracefully visible, angles more acute. The sky seems closer than ever, as meandering clouds seem to collapse into the slats between the beams. A bench invites you to stretch out and stay awhile.

In The Lives of the Artists, Vasari praised “the divine” Michelangelo for his ability to take a solid block of marble and turn it into a body that was not only alive with “finely wrought pulses and veins,” but a body that was perfect “completely in the round.” No matter where you looked, every detail is intentional, every fold, curl of hair or rippling muscle contributing to the whole. Di Suvero’s sculptures are nothing if not a manifestation of art “in the round.” Not only do his constructions invite looking, but their detail reshape the way the entire structure is perceived.

“Po-um (Lyric),” 2003 (detail). Steel, stainless steel. 16’ × 16’ 3” × 8’ 5”. Private collection. Photograph by Jerry L. Thompson

When kids climb to the top of a jungle gym, stopping to gaze at the world below is part of the incentive. As adults, such opportunities are reserved for airplane windows and rooftop cocktail parties, but di Suvero insists that we remember what its like to feel the landscape from a different plane. His art reminds us to keep our eyes open, to forever chase a new vantage point from which to see our world.

This invitation to touch is a point of pride in his work. During his 1975 retrospective at the Whitney, he instructed museum guards to encourage the visitors to touch his sculptures; a concept so foreign, veteran guards still remember him to this day. As we walked through his studio a few weeks ago, his well-worn fingertips gracefully tapped the tabletop sculptures that adorn much of his indoor working space. Many of these pieces are created from scraps of the larger works—when cold bending tons of steel produces a snap instead of a curve. They came alive with his touch, a loose arc of steel spinning or rocking with a free-floating balance echoing Calder’s mobiles.

"Figulo," 2005. 2011. Steel. 47' × 55'. Private collection. Photograph by Jerry L. Thompson

When recalling my recent trip to Governor’s Island, I told di Suvero how exuberantly children were scaling the spider-like legs of “She,” (1978), which includes a swinging bed and a hanging oil drum (that once upon a time, used to spin). A smile began to form on his face, the kind that starts as a glow behind the eyes and slowly stretches to fill the entire complexion. “So many adults have forgotten how to be good children,” he said.

Di Suvero’s sculptures are guided by intuition and an unyielding drive for life. These qualities also underlie his writing, as evident in his recent publication, Dreambook (University of California Press, 2008). It is filled with photographs of his sculptures in situ from Paris to San Francisco to Venice. Each image is accompanied either by his own philosophical rumination or, alternatively, a poem. At once artist book and artist monograph, the book is a pleasure to flip through, revealing itself as a chronicle of di Suvero’s fifty-plus years as an artist, writer and part-time mathematician.

“Will,” 1994. Steel. 42’ 8” × 36’ × 29’ 6”. The Doris and Donald Fisher Collection. Photo by Jerry L. Thompson.

His writing is much like his sculpture—reductive, balanced and highly selective. He likes to describe each entry as a “kōan,” a compressed, paragraph-sized treatise that must be mined for illumination. Each entry is built around a key term—communication, information and freedom are examples—and attempts to unravel the preconceived notions surrounding it. Many entries are laced with hints of Marx or Adorno, affording a glimpse into di Suvero’s rather revolutionary politics. Yet ultimately, the book makes the case for the kernels of optimism that can, with enough digging, be found in our world.

Di Suvero writes, “In the mutual sharing of understanding that is the meaning of words we find the symbolic basis of the cooperative acts and thoughts called society.” Beside this entry is a photograph of “Arikidea” (1982), a massive structure in which three spokes form a triangle surrounding a low-hanging wooden bench, which is occupied by a father and his toddler. Presumably, he is helping his son find the right words to describe how it feels as they float through the air.

“She,” 1977–1978. Steel and wood swinging bed. 17’ × 52’ × 28’. Photograph by Jerry L. Thompson

The poems, on the other hand, are intended to fill in a void—a void left when three-dimensional sculpture is compressed into a two-dimensional photograph. Di Suvero explains,

Space has been the most important element in sculpture for me…To replace this lost dimension, I have thought to add poems I love and that have changed my life so that the bridge between the poem and the photo image becomes the true reality, a voyage of the imagination in your mind’s eye.

The image next to this entry is a tightly cropped, black and white detail of “Bunyon’s Chess,” a salvaged wood and chain-link construction from 1965. A dissected log threatens to pierce the page, which, when turned, reveals the words of Goethe: “What you can do, or dream you can, begin it / Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”

“Mahatma,” 1978–1979. Steel. 22’ × 30’ × 13’. Storm King Art Center. Gift of the Edward R. Broida Trust. Photograph by Jerry L. Thompson.

Di Suvero is an avid reader of poetry.  He has dedicated sculptures to Baudelaire, Rumi and Yeats, just to name a few. Although his bookshelves are overflowing with collections in various languages, he tells me that he feels as if he could never possibly read enough. In fact, this insatiable appetite for knowledge is something that pervades all of his pursuits. It’s behind the prime number proof, currently scattered across his desk, that he has been methodically calculating for years, and it’s behind the numerous pink post-its that flag his copy of Dreambook, marking theorems, paradoxes or conclusions with which he is no longer satisfied.

A few of the photos in Dreambook capture people interacting with the sculptures: four adults cascade through the air in the tractor-tire swing of “Spokenfer” (1984), and various parts of “Motu Viget” (1997) are used as a sunny perch for a row of youngsters. For di Suvero, the human scale is an essential part of what makes his sculptures tick. It goes back to his belief in life as cooperative, and how, as he writes in the introduction, “If we can think and act together, we can change the world.”

So do your part, hop on the ferry, and frolic the grounds of Governor’s Island. You might want to bring a book of poetry, and pack a pair of climbing shoes.