The art and life of Mark di Suvero
Three decades ago, long before the development of the High Line, the sculptor Mark di Suvero led an effort to transform an illegal garbage dump in Long Island City into a vast green space devoted to large-scale sculpture. Di Suvero was fifty-three years old at the time, and already a veteran of the public-art movement. During the sixties and seventies, he had taken part in several outdoor sculpture exhibitions—in Cincinnati, Houston, and Grand Rapids—and he later created citywide solo shows of his work across the United States and Europe. By 1980, he was working out of a studio in Long Island City, not far from the four-acre landfill, and it wasn’t long before he was dreaming about alternative uses for the neglected riverfront parcel. In 1986, di Suvero arranged to lease the property from the city for a dollar a year. Working with the Athena Foundation, an organization he had created nearly a decade earlier, he employed members of the community to clean up and replant the site. That fall, the newly christened Socrates Sculpture Park held its first public exhibition, which included work by Vito Acconci, Bill and Mary Buchen, Rosemarie Castoro, di Suvero, and others.
The sculpture park is but one of the subjects covered in Mark di Suvero, which was published last fall by the Storm King Art Center, with DelMonico Books. The book is the first full survey of di Suvero’s work, and it explores several long arcs of his career, including his commitment to public art; his citywide exhibitions; and his relationships with Storm King, the city of New York, and his dealer, Richard Bellamy. The book also includes an interview with Ursula von Rydingsvard, a fellow sculptor, along with a superb selection of photographs of di Suvero’s work.
Mark di Suvero was born in Shanghai in 1933—his father worked for the Italian Navy—and moved to San Francisco with his family after the start of World War II. He graduated from UC Berkeley in 1957, where he studied art and took a degree in philosophy, and immediately moved to New York City. After a two-year stint in the East Village, he moved further downtown, to 195 Front Street, where his neighbors included Robert Indiana, Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin, Jasper Johns, and Robert Rauschenberg.
Like Indiana and Rauschenberg, di Suvero assembled his early sculptures from the detritus he found while walking around the city. Working with wooden beams, planks, rope, chains, and metal, he built dynamic sculptures that matched the paintings of the Abstract Expressionists in exuberance and size. In the fall of 1960, he showed three of these large works—Hankchampion (1960), Che Farò Senza Eurydice (1959), and Barrel (1959)—at his debut exhibition of Richard Bellamy’s Green Gallery. The works were immediately praised by critics and other artists, and the show announced di Suvero as a major sculptor.
The Green Gallery show was a landmark, but it almost didn’t happen. The spring before the opening, di Suvero suffered a terrible accident: both of his legs were paralyzed while he was working on a construction job that was unrelated to his art. His brother, Henry, along with several friends, helped him to finish the works for the Green Gallery exhibition. In the aftermath of the accident, di Suvero realized that he had to find ways to make art that did not depend on his physical strength alone. Over the next few years, he continued to build sculptures from found objects, but he also learned to weld, to operate a crane, and to use other machinery. By the late 1960s, he was making his sculpture exclusively from metal—steel I beams, for the most part—which allowed him to create sculpture at the scale of architecture, and of the modern city.
Like the city, di Suvero’s sculptures provided many opportunities for interaction. Some early works incorporated benches or swings, which invited their audiences to experience the work physically as well as visually. As Elizabeth Baker pointed out in Art in America, these seats offered an ideal perspective from which to view the sculptures: from within. Di Suvero strove to make his art as accessible as possible, including to people who do not regularly visit museums or galleries.
Di Suvero was arrested twice for protesting the Vietnam War, and in 1971, his opposition to the conflict caused him to leave the United States. He lived for a time in Venice, and then moved to Eindhoven, in the Netherlands, which, in the spring of 1972, hosted his first citywide exhibition. In the fall of that year, he moved to Chalon-sur-Saône, France, where he built six large-scale sculptures with a crane company and local steelyard. He exhibited his works in the town’s public spaces between 1972 and 1974 and ultimately offered one of them to the city. Asked to choose their favorite, the citizens selected Ange des Orages, from 1973. In 1975, several of di Suvero’s sculptures were shown in Paris, in the Jardin des Tuileries, and later that year, he returned to the United States for a citywide show of his work in New York, as well as a major retrospective at the Whitney Museum.
During the Whitney exhibition, Peter Stern, the president of the Storm King Art Center, offered to “warehouse” some of di Suvero’s sculptures. In the winter of 1976, di Suvero selected locations in Storm King’s fields for several of his works, including Are Years What? (For Marianne Moore) (1967), Ik Ook (1971–72), One Oklock (1968–69), Mother Peace (1969–70), and Mon Père, Mon Père (1973–75). Storm King later purchased Mother Peace and Mon Père, and has been a great supporter of di Suvero’s work ever since.
Di Suvero’s first exhibition at Storm King, “25 Years of Sculptures and Drawings,” took place in 1985. He would later recall that when his sculptures were displayed together at Storm King, “they had resonance between them.” He went on, “Suddenly, there was this kind of family grouping.” Storm King hosted exhibitions of di Suvero’s work again in 1995 and 2005, and presented a show of his work on Governors Island in New York City, in 2011.
The 2005 show, “Richard Bellamy Mark di Suvero,” was a tribute to Richard Bellamy, di Suvero’s art dealer and close friend, who had died in 1998. In 1975, Bellamy had begun to photograph di Suvero’s work—at exhibitions, at his studio in Long Island City, and at Storm King—and over the next two decades he amassed a huge archive of images. Bellamy’s close relationship with the artist and the work allowed him to capture the sculptures in great detail, and with great sensitivity. “His vision of my work became the best photos of my sculpture that I know,” di Suvero recalled in his essay for the show’s catalogue.
Given the vast expense and complex logistics of assembling exhibitions of large-scale sculpture, the sort of photographic documentation undertaken by Bellamy is especially important. It’s also crucial, however, to see the work in person whenever you have the opportunity. Your experience of a sculpture—moving around it, seeing the changing views, realizing its size compared to yours—can only be felt in person. One intriguing aspect of large-scale sculpture is that the work changes as you approach it: the interaction of the elements and the ways they overlap keeps shifting, creating an illusion of movement.
When you are close to di Suvero’s larger works, standing near or under or within them, they envelop you. From afar, you appreciate the drawing, the architecture, and in a surprising way, the lightness and delicate touch. The sculptures don’t look heavy or straining; they sit gently on the land. Throughout his career, di Suvero maintained the fluid gesture of drawing, even though he worked with massive and rigid materials.
You can see one of di Suvero’s sculptures the next time you are in downtown Manhattan: Joie de Vivre (1997) is situated in Zuccotti Park, near Trinity Church and the World Trade Center. But the best way to see a large group of di Suvero’s work is to head upstate to Storm King, where a stroll through the fields provides a rural version of the citywide exhibition. The museum and grounds reopened for the season on April 6, and they have eleven of his sculptures on display.
Jonathan Lippincott is the design manager at Farrar, Straus and Giroux. He is the author of Large Scale: Fabricating Sculpture in the 1960s and 1970s, and is currently at work on a monograph on the sculpture of Robert Murray.