PRINT Summer 1967

Mark di Suvero

“ONLY A STAGE STRUCK ENGINEER could have conjured up . . . those beams draped with tons of chain, these gangplanks teetering from arch to arch, these pieces that stand like beacons for exploring loftiness and light.” How suggestive might these words have sounded as an evocation of the sculptures exhibited in Mark di Suvero’s astonishing first show at the Green Gallery in 1960. Yet, far from being the observation of a contemporary critic, they are the remarks of a scholar, A. Hyatt Mayor, describing the set of etchings by Piranesi, called Imaginary Prisons. Even more would such a description have rendered the feeling of di Suvero’s atelier, then as now occupying a crumbling, 19th-century Fulton Fish Market edifice, in which one climbs up creaking wooden staircases, mounts unsteady ladders, shrinks along sagging catwalks, and finally reaches a mammoth attic that resembles, with its canted eaves of timbers, the overturned hull of a windjammer. In this setting it would almost seem normal to have produced an art of rather sinister grandeur, as di Suvero, in fact, did.

More than the fibrous, chipped bulk of its lumber, this sculpture’s sense of an only provisional arrangement, its imminent “falling apart,” produces a certain alarm. It seems to want to slide or tumble, lope or tilt in a chaos of caving buttresses that prevents relocation of any single organizing plane. Unlike the Franz Kline paintings which had already excited di Suvero in 1953, these first mature examples of his work are radical because they lack a “fuselage,” and an awareness of space framing a central scaffolding. On the contrary, they poke or shamble about in an open space that is as unlocked and precarious (though activated) as the “distribution” of weight in the multi-axial elements themselves. Yet their very gawkiness has a willed, almost indomitable quality about it. Never haphazard, disequilibrium becomes a way of life, a concept that makes fresh use of collapse, and levitates densities with a strength that is an affirmation in its own right.

The motif in Piranesi’s Carceri has an insubstantial, visionary, and nostalgic character: in it man is overwhelmed and imprisoned by the ruined maze of his own past. Caspar David Friedrich, in his famous Wreck of the Hope (1821), shows; for his part, the hard coming to grief of the isolated human element in an indifferent nature, where ships will founder against forces with which they may always struggle to prevail. The American, di Suvero, had once wrecked his own ship, been crushed atrociously in an elevator shaft, and had even created a work called Prison Dream, in which steel bars have been agonistically wedged or torn open into an undifferentiated space. One of his great wooden pieces of 1960, For Sabater, is an homage to the Spanish loyalist who fought desperately against the Franco police and was finally gunned down by them in the fifties. Involved as he is with the theme of defiance pitted against tangible odds, di Suvero has appropriated it to the slums, docks, and junkyards of his immediate environment. But it is not only in vernacular, or better, rude, language that he differs from his predecessors; his sculpture, after 1960, begins to invite its spectators variously within its own movable spread, to give them some kind of habitable, and always startling perch whereby they are transposed from spectators to passengers. He thus closes rather than expands the psychological distance to which his iconography seems otherwise committed.

But this would be to take a superficial view of a humanism that registers an outer aggression in order to flex its own imaginative strength, a strength secure enough to surrender the integrity of the sculpture as a detached object of contemplation. Instead of the picturesque or cold pessimism of Piranesi and Friedrich, di Suvero disarms, while fortifying the beholder by his homely, accommodating pride. With Frank Lloyd Wright, he can utter the motto “Truth Against the World,” and yet, by the curious tension of high romanticism and the literal accessibility of his work, suggest that when the spectator “enters” his sculpture, he establishes his own world of truth. Even the immense scale and height of some of his works, unprecedented in modern sculpture (Nova Albion, 1964–65, Elohim Adonai, 1966), do not so much overawe as they magnify the possibilities of communion with the statement, as well as physically extend the levels on which it can be experienced.

Di Suvero entered the scene of American sculpture at a moment when there could be detected a fairly serious slump in its vitality. Only David Smith, among the generation of the Abstract Expressionists, had maintained a purposefulness and power that had declined in many of his colleagues. Of the slightly younger men, Richard Stankiewicz had been outstanding for five years before he was joined in excellence by John Chamberlain, 1960, and followed, the next year, by the Englishman, Anthony Caro (who not only worked, but exerted an influence here greater than any of his countrymen). This was the peer group, half derived from Smith, and half affected by the more Expressionist wing of the action painters, in which di Suvero took his rightful place. They were all characterized by a direct attitude toward their materials, and a virtuoso formal inventiveness that belied the more sentimental and decorative stances, the tactile preciousness and biological cliches of sculpture in the previous decade. It is as much to say that these emerging men had a more immediately carnal, empathetic grasp of sculpture, a more flexible sense of its extensions in space, and a point of view which, if it was metaphorical, was never illustrational.

Before setting up a dialogue with any of them, however, di Suvero had to outgrow his earliest experience with a Zadkine-oriented instructor in Santa Barbara, and a kind of Neo-Boccioni idiom represented by some flanged, cast hydro-cal and gilded pieces produced before the period of his first show at the March Gallery in 1958. A sculptor who interested him temporarily at the time was Gabriel Kohn. But it appears that di Suvero’s initial use of wood was not so much occasioned by any example in the sculpture around him, as by the inadvertent discovery of the ruined timbers of a downtown factory. Of the issues generated by his Green Gallery exhibition, the three most salient were the “found object,” the gestural sensibility in sculpture, and a scale bordering on “environment.”

The wooden planks, the barrel, the chain: all these come unabashedly from the Bowery streets of lower New York. So too, did Chamberlain’s elements come totally from automobile graveyards. With Chamberlain, a point of fascination is to determine whether the jagged and bent steel forms are “givens,” or have been perhaps “adjusted,” and to what degree there might have been an intermediate attack in any individual piece. That is, there is an equivocation between the original crushed status of the material and the amount of composing transformation: violent collision and calculated shaping mime each other. With di Suvero, posts and lintels and broken floorboards are given particular spatial functions even as they maintain their identity. There is a juxtaposition of the two, in which the sculpture can go through its various constructed paces independent of the nature of the artifact, although benefiting from it, gaining its specific bearishness from it. Stankiewicz, on the other hand, utilizes various found objects like bicycle chains and boilers as “ideas,” suggesting personages or fragments thereof, in such a way that one appreciates the wit of the formal dislocation and the associational relocation simultaneously. Though all three sculptors garner rich sensations from their methods, Stankiewicz belongs more to a Picasso-Gonzalez tradition of freeform metal work, now bodied forth in assemblage, Chamberlain comes out of de Kooning, with his shallow space frustrations, whereas di Suvero thinks of certain grand compositions which, far less self-consciously than his colleagues, happen to be implemented by a kind of empirical scavenging. His tires and logs are accepted as differentiations within the statement, but they form part of its expressive configuration on the basis of what they “do,” not on the pathos of their origin.

Of course, what they “do” might be as specific as being flattened under pressure, as the tire squashed onto the floor by the diagonal strut in Nova Albion. Here di Suvero is literal in a way the others are not, but literal for the purpose of rendering tension, rather than for stylistic or figurative allusion. The priority he gives to such things as tensility, suspension, and pivoting allows him to be quite free-wheeling in his choice of elements, whose interest for him is their different behavior under compositional stress. In a sense, painted I or L beams or railroad ties are neutral materials, the lingua franca of sixties sculpture, but it is their brittleness and strength in opposition to cable, chain, rubber and wood which is the operational premise of his work, and not a striving to break free from associations. The scope of real artifacts or organic materials in his art combines with his absence of referential bias to allow for a vocabulary that not even David Smith would find wanting in formal rigor, nor any assemblagist consider devoid of social overtones. It is not that di Suvero compromises between the two worlds; it is rather, that his morphology is abstract, and that ligaments of the man-made environment provide the readiest sources of what can be pressed into the service of that morphology.

Now, if I must offer some contradictory remarks, it is because morphology and vocabulary are one thing in di Suvero, syntax another. The overall grouping of his forces obeys an underlying feeling for gesture, so that each of his lines or shapes tends to seem to reach or uphold, or clamp, to push or to balance. Understood in terms of their genesis, these are testings of various conditions, far more than they are outpourings of impulses, yet they relate to the same sign language that had once been elicited by 10th Street painting. Although many modern sculptures will evince such unit functioning, the situation here is quite different, say, from that in Caro, where planes and angles exist in a peculiarly English fragmented form that must be organized quite heterogeneously and emphatically by an eye that constantly has to shift position. Di Suvero’s sculptures, on the other hand, have an immediate unity, out of which the most unexpected permutations will swivel or regenerate. If one frequently looks down inductively at a Caro, one more often looks up—deductively—at a di Suvero. The latter, in the sense that most of his braces are interacting in a physical concord, a mutual dependence of work-loads, makes the former look like a manipulator of interesting direction indicators. The points of intersection in a di Suvero sculpture, say Zero, are not just brought together, or rest upon each other, but are—in fact need to be—bolted together. (A process more articulate than the conventional and “softer” arc welding whose adhesiveness is underplayed, when it is not dispensed with.)

Additionally, di Suvero’s sculpture has a charade content that paradoxically refers only back to itself. If a piece has a tripod, carrousel, or cranelike configuration, it is because this is an expression of its structure, as well as the form it has taken. It is this that gives his sculpture at its best, its naturalness and inevitability. One is dealing with expressive coordinates that are a stand-in for gesture, at the same time as they fulfill, with sloping spareness, the constructive compression that has been assigned to them. The method has the advantage of being a very broadly conceived way in which to work; it has the disadvantage (for the sculptor), of demanding the utmost in sensitive intuition in the balancing of asymmetric masses. Hung, or “impaled,” these masses are like the personae of gargantuan, improvised scales. But, generally speaking, this is not a sculpture of masses at all; it is the product of an essentially linear mentality, and if it is perceptibly much heavier and more impending than any other open form and draftsmanly sculpture, it is so by virtue of its leviathan scale. Not for nothing does your glance spread out immediately in picking out centers of gravity that find themselves along the margins of each composition. The true center does not correspond to the acting densities for the reason that tension is a live element in composing, an element that unpredictably seeks maximal spans in order to find its most appropriate trajectory. Yet, unlike the work of Kenneth Snelson, for example, the compression-tension ratios are so unequal that the engineering aspects of the execution immediately fuse into a process of discovering that is freely sculptural.

What complicates the situation—and yet greatly enriches it—is the fact that di Suvero’s criteria of organization obviously include the visual as well as the “functional.” The two co-exist in an undifferentiated, self-intensifying matrix in which a secondary concept of sculptural disjunctions plays an important role. The squat, dismembered tree-trunk segment that juts out from Nova Albion is an example of such disjunction; the barrel in Stuyvestantseye and the tire in Pre-Columbian, are others. So too, is the ladder that hangs down from the top of The A Train. These are perhaps gratuitous—one never quite knows—from the viewpoint of the workability of the sculpture; but they are incisive and surprising accents, when judged compositionally. The faculties needed to discriminate between the two conditions are meaningfully confused, the more so since whole areas or passages of the works can be activated, with the result that the fixed and the literally movable, exigency and flourish, commingle in a dramaturgy of hypothetical vectors and false cantilevers. Occasionally, when di Suvero makes his disjunctions particularly emphatic, such as the open tongs in New York Dawn, he strikes almost a Surrealist note, partly like the intermittent Surrealism of David Smith, which referred to the tools employed in shaping the work, and partly like Giacometti, where such a motif would be used as a claw, in episodic contrast to the remaining, harder to identify, mass.

It is already evident that di Suvero’s sculpture is not an outcome or progenitor of specific volumes; yet it remains true to say that he is the creator of an environment artist statement. The smaller examples of his work, of course, do not fall into this category. In them, tangled noodles of steel may be juxtaposed with long, low-swung metal slats that tend to fend off, in their apartness, any large conjunctions of space (Silver Bow, 1962). However, that which allows one to speak of the environmental in the bulk of his sculpture, is either its attachment to, or extension of, an architectural feature (Blue Arch For Matisse, 1966–67), or its capacity to convey physical experiences in which the spectator moves through or creates his own space. People are essential to this kind of sculpture, not merely as beholders, but as participants. It would have been difficult to foresee this development on the basis of di Suvero’s Green Gallery show, although there the man-size rafters were of a character to suggest a mangled version of the room in which they were seen. Yet, it was in the erection of outdoor pieces (Nova Albion, or the play structure for the Bagley Wright house in Seattle), that di Suvero came to uphold a vision of his work as a game for adults and children, by which to give delight. That these creations are social without relinquishing their expressiveness, is one of their particular triumphs.

To speak more specifically is to move into an area of some difficulty, because the language does not yet exist by which to describe either the bodily sensations, or even the unpredictable paths, of a “ride” upon one of these constructions. (For that matter, description bogs down in trying to give an account even of the angle patterns of such art.) Judging by photographs alone, the sculpture has a seemingly endless series of views in the round, of multiple personalities and projections, in which one or more elements will loom or probe transiently out from the composition. How much more kinesthetic, therefore, is it to “join in,” with the originals. In Love Makes the World Go 'Round, 1963, two people ensconce themselves on seats provided by tires linked by an arc span that swings off-keel from a suspension to another arc balanced on a tripod. The utterly fresh motion is like a cross between a teeter-totter and a merry-go-round, a rotary hovering with sudden dips and waggles whose momentum depends upon the weight of the passengers and the velocity with which they have gotten off. All this would be like a pretty demonstration from di Suvero’s admired reading, Geometry and the Imagination, by D. Hilbert and S. Cohn-Vossen, if it were not for the sculptor’s overbearing stress on the second of the terms, the imagination. Only superficially could the works he creates be considered models for the movements of cantilevered weights through space; much more relevantly, are they shuntings of forces that can be initiated and felt by the observer. Of masterpieces such as the Nova Albion, which has a bed suspended like a pendulum, and the Elohim Adonai, a movable tetrahedron twenty-two-feet high, it can be said that they are as grandiose in conception as they are uplifting in motion. Particularly surprising is the silent giddiness of their gestures, rarely exactly repeated, as they contrast with the reassuring strength of their supporting members. No one has yet had the casual seeming nerve and wit, not even Calder, to include people in a mobile sculpture of such magnitude, nor to make of mobility and structure such easy concomitants of each other.

In this light, it is instructive to consider di Suvero’s pervasive influence on the group of sculptors associated with the Park Place Gallery. Obviously deriving from many of his basic researches, men like Robert Grosvenor and Forrest Myers have concentrated on the technological element, extending its dynamics into a full-blooded, modular, three-dimensional (but deceiving) geometry. They have found its basic principles in di Suvero, but have felt it necessary to fine down its look. It is surely no denigration to say that they bear approximately the same relation to him as Anthony Caro bears to David Smith. By such avid continuities does American sculpture replenish its modernity.

Max Kozloff