Cranes, steel beams, and industrial rigging don’t easily evoke carnality, sensuality, and human connection, but after reading Mark di Suvero, it might be impossible to subtract these bodily qualities from the artist’s mighty steel sculpture. Despite his acclaim and influence, di Suvero has somehow managed to make it until now without a properly comprehensive publication dedicated to his work; this monograph, published by DelMonico Books in conjunction with Storm King Art Center, is a welcome corrective to that oversight.
(Munich: Delmonico Books, 2015)
This is due, in no small part, to its concise but thorough telling of di Suvero’s early life, which may remain an under-known complement to his work. His father was an Italian naval officer, and di Suvero was born in 1933 while his family was living in Shanghai. Even at that distance from Italy, the di Suveros were under constant duress from their government, which disdained both the family’s openly anti-Fascist tendencies and their Jewish ancestry. When the Italian authorities finally ordered the di Suveros’ repatriation, with the intent of dispatching them to a concentration camp, the family managed to secure passage to the United States in 1941. In San Francisco, the young di Suvero struck up a friendship with Richard Serra, a neighbor five years his junior with whom he shared a fascination with shipbuilding. Di Suvero exhibited an early predilection for scavenging jettisoned rubbish, especially wood, and using it for his own creations; this interest received new sustenance when di Suvero, who had decamped for New York in 1957, resumed his foraging among the abandoned and condemned buildings of the city’s waterfront.
The monograph highlights great examples of di Suvero’s early work in wood, which are not as well known as his later, industrial beam sculpture. Che Faró Senza Eurydice (1959), for example, is configured of planks of wood hammered together in a roughshod manner and looped with thick rope, its shape recalling that of a broken-down, old boat; another, Ladderpiece (1961 – 62), is composed of hunks of wood, metal poles, and a section of a broken ladder that are anchored by a rusty chain to two wood pilings of the sort commonly found in New York harbors. Reminiscent of a heap of flotsam washed up on a dirty shore, the work achieves a transcendent sublimity in its evident reverence for the forgotten objects that make up its configuration.
In 1959, di Suvero met the young art dealer Richard Bellamy, who was soon to open the short-lived but celebrated Green Gallery, and the two embarked on a lifelong professional and personal friendship. But seven months before the Green Gallery’s October 1960 exhibition of his sculpture was set to open, di Suvero suffered a grievous injury; in a gruesome and traumatic accident while working a day laborer’s job, his body was crushed between an elevator and its jamb. He spent a year in the hospital convalescing, and despite doctors’ predictions that he would never walk again was able to do so with the use of braces and crutches, which he continues to use to this day. When he resumed working, di Suvero largely abandoned wood in favor of steel. “When you work with wood, you need your body,” he said, according to the biographical essay by Storm King Curator Nora Lawrence. “All of the tools are made for the body. When you work with steel, the machine is so much more. The weights are so much heavier and what you end up with are tools that allow you to work in steel, more for the handicapped.”
That conflation of physical body with object is di Suvero’s paramount concern. Soon after resuming work following his accident, he purchased and restored a used crane, referring to the machine as his paintbrush. He performs as much of his own labor as possible, with minimal intervention by assistants and others. Archival photographs sprinkled throughout the texts show di Suvero in the decades after the accident brandishing a welding torch, lounging beneath an earth-moving truck, and sitting astride the steel beam of a sculpture high up in the air as he personally erects the large scale works for which he is most well known.
There is a somatic quality to di Suvero’s sculpture that becomes particularly evident as one examines the book’s essays and its accompanying plates. For example, Symbiosis (1987 – 88), a towering spider’s web of crisscrossing, unpainted steel beams, had initially provided its viewers with a gently swinging platform to sit on, so that they might experience a gentle rocking that so appealed to di Suvero. These swing structures, he is quoted as saying in Nancy Princenthal’s essay, “are very radical in that generally, once you’re grown up, nobody picks you up and moves you gently from side to side.” Another archival image depicts children swarming his sculpture Are Years What? (For Marianne Moore) (1967) and using it as a jungle gym—climbing up and down its steel girders, a practice that di Suvero always encouraged. But now that the sculpture is part of the permanent collection of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, in Washington D.C., physical interaction with it is off-limits. Similarly, Symbiosis’s swinging platform has also been removed since its initial exhibition, the artist’s warmhearted impulse amputated by fears of litigation. “The lawyers have choked off a lot of the poetry, a lot of the wildness, a lot of the happiness there used to be,” di Suvero says in Princenthal’s essay, “Suspended Animation: Moving Parts in Mark di Suvero’s Work,” which argues that this discomfort with the body and its frailties is endemic to our current moment. “For one thing,” she writes, “the surge of video into the precincts of contemporary art (and onto laptops and cellphones) has made time-based work commonplace, while disrupting its relationship to muscle movement.”
Disconnect from our bodies, the aversion to risk—our collective zest for experiencing physical presence in the world seems ever dwindling, and it is telling that many of di Suvero’s works, once intended to be hands-on, are now restricted. Because of what he has suffered physically, di Suvero is keenly attuned to the hazards of losing touch with the corporeal. Elsewhere in the book, in a delightful and eccentric conversation between di Suvero and fellow sculptor Ursula von Rydingsvard, the latter observes of him: “You and the work are obviously part of the same thing, like a strong ethical sense of right and wrong.” His sculpture, reaching toward us with the outstretched fingers of metal rafters, offers a balm to the metaphysical paralysis precipitated by contemporary malaise.