PRINT November 1972

Mark di Suvero

If, on the other hand, I have understood that truth and value can be for us nothing but the result of the verifications and evaluations which we make in contact with the world, before other people and in given situations of knowledge and action, and that even these notions lose all meaning outside of human perspectives, then the world recovers its texture; the particular acts of verification and evaluation through which I grasp a dispersed experience resume their decisive importance; and knowledge and action, true and false, good and evil have something unquestionable about them precisely because I do not claim to find in them absolute evidence.
—Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “The Metaphysical in Man” (1947), Sense and Non-sense

MARK DI SUVERO’S FIRST ONE-MAN show was at the Green Gallery in 1960. From that time on his work has found enthusiastic support, especially among artists. The response borders occasionally on adulation, and over the years his personal stature has grown until his moral presence is equal in impact to the physical presence of his work. But there’s something of a paradox in this. During the ’60s, a decade of rejections, reductions, and denials, di Suvero’s art grew through its inclusiveness. While rival art movements challenged each other with mutually exclusive genealogies, di Suvero drew on a variety of sources with an exuberance that carried him beyond eclecticism. Though di Suvero has the authority of a leader, he has the freedom of a man unburdened by followers. Perhaps now, with the ’60s over and the concern with art world hierarchies greatly lessened, it’s possible to examine the nature of his achievement.

It helps to recall the expressionistic hands that appeared in some of his very early pieces. They are images of strain, of agonized reaching. They grasp desperately, or they are pierced and suspended above a board filled with nails. They have a resemblance to studies by Rodin. These images appeared in a time of restraint. All the movements of the ’60s, from Pop art to Conceptualism, employed feeling in a strict devotion to esthetic and historical correctness. It was a time of good taste—and studied ironies of bad taste. I can’t think of another artist of di Suvero’s importance who had the sentimental, unembarrassed gall to make a direct reference to a style as little respected in 1960 as Rodin’s. Di Suvero wisely dropped the hands soon after they appeared. But they were important. Openness to experiment means nothing if one’s experiments are always cautious. Though the extravagant emotionalism of the hands is missing from di Suvero’s best subsequent work, the courage and directness which found a temporary place for them is still there. This episode in di Suvero’s career can be seen as a generalized image of touch losing out to the results of his own arranging, balancing, and positioning. Even before the hands disappear, the artist’s structures begin their evolution toward the complexity and precision which make them instantly recognizable despite their varied materials and the absence of unique formal trademarks.

Concurrent with the hand imagery was a series of abstract constructions in wood, larger in size and more directly linked to di Suvero’s mature work. Made of salvaged planking and beams, they occupy space with a vigorous sprawl. With these works di Suvero found his way to eliminate the traditional sculptural base—an issue faced by a number of American sculptors in this period. For Sabetere (1961) is characteristic. Di Suvero refuses to give the work’s spread a point of origin. Each of its numerous joints is both end and starting point for angular extension. A beam serves as a prop for a cluster of other elements and as the cluster’s means of reaching outside itself. The piece orders space in an architectural way, and yet there is no question of entering bodily into that space: its complex, endlessly reiterated self-referrals turn the viewer to his powers of visual and conceptual penetration. The issues are of plane and depth in all its variety, literal and illusionary, with illusionary depths being both linear and—because of the way the piece “gathers” light—tonal. Pictorial resources have burst out of their usual two-dimensional locale, and yet they maintain an integrity through the unrelenting architectural presence of the work.

Works from this period show di Suvero’s capacity to make the processes of invention, of improvisation, explicit. The viewer rarely arrives at conclusions, or extracts an unvarying visual “argument.” Tracing a work’s structural patterns leads away from a summing up to the experience of rich variation and ambiguity. This sculpture is obviously firm, but its joints have a skewed, improvised quality. Of more importance is their permanent openness to interpretation and reinterpretation. Ambiguities remain equal to one’s capacity to discover them. Since these works do not present finished, enclosed images, they are able to reconstruct themselves in the course of perception.

Di Suvero’s use of antecedents can be described in the same way. As he left behind the direct expressionism of the hands, he developed a more general interest in the full range of modernist sculpture. Di Suvero doesn’t employ influences so much as gather them to the vicinity of his works. His Constructivist heritage has been often noted. He shares a structural linearity with, say, Alexander Rodchenko, Naum Gabo, and Max Bill, who was especially interesting to di Suvero during his Park Place period (1963–67), when Bill’s work led him to experiment with reflecting metal sheets along the conceptual lines of topology. Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the IIIrd International soars, as do di Suvero’s largest works, but the relation is one of analogy between separate traditions, not source for later development. El Lissitzky’s Proun series shows at first glance a diagrammatic predecessor to di Suvero’s style. But Lissitzky’s eye was dominated by the supra-personal demands of his situation and esthetics. Di Suvero is less interested in Constructivist absolutes of form than in an energized specificity in the relation of particular forms to each other.

Nor is he in the line established by Julio Gonzalez and the early David Smith. Their translations of the Cubist depths and refusals of depth back into three dimensions gives way in di Suvero’s sculpture to the explosive “pictorialism” mentioned in describing For Sabeter. This leads to di Suvero’s connection with Abstract Expressionist painting. The formal similarities between di Suvero’s flung beams and Franz Kline’s surging horizontals is the example most often given. Di Suvero does show the improvisatory vigor, the toughness, and the reliance on individual resources that characterize the best of the gestural painters in the Abstract Expressionist tradition. But there is an important difference. Abstract Expressionist gestures result in images of private emotions and energies. As has been pointed out over and over, their paintings serve as mirrors, as reflections of the artists’ interior conditions. Their art, regardless of its formal value for the painters who came after them, is guided by a representational intent. By contrast, di Suvero’s materials—especially when compared to those of a painter—are too unwieldy to be nuanced by the fleeting energies of an interior personal condition. Di Suvero’s spontaneity arises out of his engagement with an exterior situation. His works may provide an oblique reflection of his emotional state when he constructed them, but this is of peripheral importance. The arrangement of materials produces a physical structure whose self-sufficient image is able to “gesture” into space on its own. Where the Abstract Expressionist gesture ends by mirroring itself, di Suvero’s is transformed, reaching beyond itself to a new scale, a new and independent mode. In this sense, his art reaches beyond the original possibilities of Abstract Expressionism.

The junk sculpture of the late ’50s and early ’60s derives from Abstract Expressionism, and di Suvero shares the sources of his early, found materials with such artists as Richard Stankiewicz, John Chamberlain, and Jean Follett, who anthropomorphized the materials while preserving their origins. The connection here is to di Suvero’s smaller works, such as the hands, whose traditionally expressionist intent is often signaled by a return to the sculptural base. But di Suvero’s larger pieces always expand beyond the base, and they do not recall the human form. Their gestures make self-evident the particularities of their own forms and the capacities of their materials.

Di Suvero draws his materials from a wide range of sources—when they are not uniquely his own. An automobile tire often appears in pieces from the early and mid-’60s, recalling Robert Rauschenberg’s goat wearing a tire around his neck. Di Suvero is not out to shock, to confound, or to expand the boundaries of traditional mediums. He accepts the permissions granted by Duchamp and Dadaism without joining Rauschenberg in the creation of a neo-Dadaist spirit. On the exclusively formal plane, there are similarities between di Suvero’s sculpture and that of his contemporaries—see, for example, the thin, Caro-like bars in Love Makes the World Go Round (1963). Yet this is never a question, pure and simple, of influence absorbed or exerted. Di Suvero’s relation to the current scene is like his relation to Constructivism—both are contexts, situations, providing general values and expectations to which he reacts with energetic specificity. It’s not that he refuses to be influenced; rather, his art is of an intelligence and generosity that rejects the implications of power and control implicit in hierarchies of clearly traceable influence. This is one source of the moral presence of his work. Another of its qualities: a self-sufficient unity, a seamlessness. His gestures of placement and balance unify images from a variety of disparate sources: art by others; his own art; engineering and math; commercial fabrication; urban demolition; and the frantic visual style of the streets.

Di Suvero’s structures, no matter how large, no matter how extended or how subject to the pressures of freehanging components, are self-contained objects. They present images of internal cohesion and solidity. Though di Suvero’s structures are complex, going far beyond the predictable functions of architecture, their images read clearly. At another level, the structure dissolves into images of separate beams, boards, poles, and wires. Each is necessary, each becomes a focus of attention. Retrieved from a succession of earlier uses, as in the case of the wooden beams, or diverted from industrial use, as with steel beams, a work’s components are distinguished by the specifics of size, texture, configuration, and provenance. Each part reveals itself independently—visually, through placement, and functionally, as it works toward structural stability. Seams, joints, joinings, gaps, and elaborate fittings are the most noticeable and the most immediately grasped features of di Suvero’s work. He insists on making these details clear and accessible from a number of viewpoints. But this explicitness in physical structuring finally allows the work to offer a unified presence.

Di Suvero worked predominantly in wood at the beginning of his career. His recent work has been all in metal. In the mid-’60s he came close to an even distribution of the two, as in Nova Albion, a piece which appeared in two versions (1964–65 and 1965). Nova Albion is a large tripod from which additional elements are canted. Two of the tripod’s legs are of weathered wood. The third is a metal rod. The wooden legs are thick, the metal one thin, showing the adjustments in size that must be made for different materials to perform the same function: variations in weight-bearing capacity are equalized in a way that both clarifies and is clarified by the overall structure. Shorter wood and metal elements, wire hawsers, and chains mark the interior space of the tripod. From the base of the metal leg a short metal bar points up and outward, bearing a thick chunk of wood. It balances—visually and physically—the larger beams and bars extending from the other side of the tripod. The small element at the base gives a variant on the metal-wood relationship in the tripod, but of greater importance is its relation to the viewer’s size. The top of the wooden chunk is more or less at shoulder height—a precise matching is not aimed at, nor would it be helpful. The point is that the wooden form enters space at the same scale, within the same range of volumetric displacement, as does the body. However, this form doesn’t stand for the body. There is a strong contrast between the chunk’s canted position and the viewer’s upright position. But because their capacity to occupy space is roughly equalized, and because the wooden chunk is so much a part of the structure of Nova Albion, the viewer is provided with an opening to the piece.

In the early version of Nova Albion, a tire was suspended by ropes from the top of the highest leg of the tripod. It supported a Styrofoam-covered board. A couple, not an individual viewer, was invited to recline. This, along with the overtones of Blakean regeneration in the title of the work, shows di Suvero adding sexual to esthetic experience. Or, he expands the range of esthetic experience to include sexuality. The suspended tire is echoed by another, upon which the metal leg of the tripod rests. This repetition draws the canted wooden chunk into the orbit of sexual imagery: its angled position can be seen as phallic. Yet this interpretation is no more convincing than the one which would see the wood as equivalent to the entire body—chiefly because its shape is rather grotesquely inappropriate in both cases. These readings are subverted by di Suvero’s wit.

Di Suvero’s best works are powerful without relying on pure spectacle, which if he were to permit it, would reduce the individual viewer to an anonymous eye. The discipline by which he avoids exerting reductive power is a kind of generosity. And it is a thorough discipline. Di Suvero avoids the conceptual equivalent of spectacle (seen in sculptural displays of pure engineering expertise) as well as its art historical equivalent (in works whose impact depends on a limited but precisely defined esthetic “advance”). By freeing himself from the impersonal rigors of spectacle, he frees himself to draw on a wide variety of sources and responses, even where they have been discredited among his contemporaries.

Di Suvero dismisses compositional niceties for a response to the strengths and qualities of his materials. Nova Albion holds together under stress which is equalized throughout the piece, allowing each element to respond to pressures exerted at any point. This sets di Suvero apart from traditional modernist sculpture, which draws on the rigidities of post and lintel architecture and mechanical engineering—in its ordinary forms, its extreme forms (kineticism, environmentalism), and even in its advanced forms (Caro, Judd). Di Suvero’s structures, on the other hand, are unified by an organic reciprocity. Their motion is comparable to the human motion which initiates it. This quality is suggested when a dismantled di Suvero sculpture is reassembled: it usually refuses to go back together the same way.

As di Suvero turned more and more to construction in metal, his works grew larger. By the mid-’60s, though he had begun to recover from his accident, he often had to assemble them with a crane. Despite this potentially dehumanizing expansion, however, his largest metal works, like those in wood, can be experienced at the scale of one’s own presence. One of di Suvero’s largest works is For Peace, erected in Pasadena in 1970.1 Forty feet high and with a severely reduced number of elements, it could possibly become an overwhelming hulk, a Constructivist work afflicted with giganticism. This did not happen. Even though the viewer was unlikely to climb the piece (since dismantled), he could still admit it to his own space. One’s ordinary acceptance of the scale of buildings is especially important here. Di Suvero provides an architecturally scaled “entry” in the form of horizontal beams set near the ground by establishing a human measure, much as he does in Nova Albion with the chunk of canted wood. In For Peace the device is a means of visual and conceptual access to a monumental scale. Monumentality is overcome, and the way is opened to an intense, complex, and specific grasp of the work’s structure. Its upper beam was designed to move revealing the structural capabilities of the piece which is able to support precisely this motion in this manner. This fact can be considered a form of traditional kineticism, or a witty variant of architectural stability, as an expansion of individual gesture to a comment on individual aspiration, similar to the one made by Nova Albion.

In 1968, di Suvero had a one-man show at the Lo Guidice Gallery in Chicago, his first since Park Place and his last in the United States. Since then he has shown by himself at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, Holland (early 1972), and this past summer at the Wilhelm Lehmbruck Museum in Duisberg, Germany. There were a number of small studies in metal at the Duisberg show. Though not representational in a strict sense, they leaned toward the kind of imagery seen in the early hands and such later pieces as New York Dawn (For Lorca), of 1965. The main interest of the show was in the large metal beam constructions exhibited on the museum’s open grounds.

Two of these recent sculptures, Ik Ook and Homage to the Viet Cong (both 1971–72), are symmetrical and unified by a single, overall color. This gives them a new rigidity. K-Piece and T-H Piece (both 1971–72) are asymmetrical, but their clarity is so stark that rigidities result. Though elements of all four are extended toward the viewer to provide access like that in his earlier work, they seem at first less specific, less immediately present. Sleeker, with their components more elegantly deployed, they bring di Suvero as close as he has ever been to the ideal forms and balancings of Constructivism. But a deliberately awkward bravura (Ik Ook) or a charge of somewhat mysterious intensity (T-H Piece) links them to the improvisational openness of the earlier work. Di Suvero has an immunity to modernist idealism: he resists the spectacle of impersonal clarity, even in the European setting.

Until now, his work has taken its place inside or next to architecture and provided a brilliantly modulated expansion of the experience of buildings. In the European exhibitions, di Suvero has abandoned this relationship, which was never close enough to be restricting, and certainly not representational. These new works do not presuppose the urban setting, nor do they deny it: yet their most direct engagement is with the sky and the ground on which they stand. The symmetries, the smoother surfaces, the efficiently ordered structural details—all the aspects of their new, highly focused clarity—are in response to the freedom of this unstructured space. K-Piece presents a clarified version of the sprawl of certain early wood pieces, exchanging an immediate “explosion” of forms for a far-reaching spatial orientation. Its arms establish the cardinal points of a compass. T-H Piece has a frozen dignity verging on the anthropomorphic, which suggests the image of a sentinel. But finally it is the deployment of the canted beam that has meaning with its precise inflection of one’s sense of the horizontal and the horizon. Of all these works, the rigidly symmetrical Homage to the Viet Cong begs most to be climbed (and indeed this happened).

lk Ook is the largest, massive and symmetrical, with its upper beams in complex suspension. Access to the piece is through its contact with the ground, intricate and yet openly calculated to provide stability. It is an elegant piece. Di Suvero’s usual toughness is accompanied by delicacy of a positive nature which can be seen in the work’s readiness to be activated by any of the natural powers—from a heavy storm to the viewer’s perceptions—that might confront it.

Di Suvero does not attempt a polyvalent accommodation to the traditionally separated male and female viewpoints. He wants to unite them, to open his work to whatever forms an expanded, “esthetized” sexuality might take. The bed disappears from the second version of Nova Albion, perhaps because the piece was rebuilt outdoors, though later outdoor pieces have been planned to include beds. This disappearance is not a deprivation, but an indication that the freedom granted by di Suvero’s esthetic are dependent on the overall impact of his art not imagery. That such a change can be introduced without depriving the audience of meaning points out the extraordinary ability of di Suvero’s sculpture to maintain itself against fragmentation of the times. Many of his large works have been dismantled. Many of them have never been seen in major art centers—as a protest against the Viet Nam war, di Suvero refuses to have a one-man show in America. But these facts amplify his art: it continues to inhabit the present even where it is invisible.

This persistent impact is partially due to di Suvero’s broad social concern. He is an engaged artist without being especially political. It shows in his antiwar position, in his important role in the communal activities of the Park Place Gallery (1963–67) in his work with New York’s Institution for Rehabilitation and Research and other social agencies, (especially in the construction of playgrounds), and in his efforts to produce toys, designed, as he has said, to have “training potential for nausea-conditioning (vertigo)—the prime condition of an esthetic approach to modern life.” And there is a social dimension to his extraordinary recovery from a serious elevator accident in 1960. Forced to stay in a wheelchair for several years, he learned to direct others in the construction of his sculpture. It seems inevitable that the ability to lead cooperative efforts through projects of such complexity is one source of the openness of his art, its capacity to engage and to draw out individual perception.

In 1966 a large group of American and European artists donated works to a protest in Los Angeles against American policies in Viet Nam. The landmark of the exhibit was a tall, pylonlike structure by di Suvero, who was one of the leading organizers of the protest. This Tower of Peace is extremely simple, even stark. It is not an advance over his previous work, nor did it point in the direction his work was to take. Yet he thinks enough of the piece to include a reproduction of it in the catalogue of his Duisberg exhibition. Di Suvero’s close identification may be explained by his extraordinary tact—which is the capacity to respond to specific situations in a way that enhances them. The Los Angeles Tower for Peace was an elementary structure because his usual style, with its complex individuality, would have detracted from the coherence of the artists’ group, and because the group’s statement of protest had—and has—the elementary directness of the indisputable: obviously the war-should end. His solution evoked appropriate responses appropriate to a landmark of public protest.

Di Suvero has often been quoted as saying that he wants his sculpture to be able to “defend itself against an unarmed man.” Much of his work is built outdoors. It can survive both the weather and the ordinary curiosity of viewers, some of whom are likely to climb on it, swing on it, perhaps write on it. This last would not be a serious offense. Di Suvero’s work is open to ordinary events and able to withstand them. This is another side of the accessibility I attributed to Nova Albion, For Peace and the new work in the Duisberg exhibition. It presupposes a toughness, a sturdiness, and a generosity. Di Suvero assumes that his audience is for the most part “unarmed,” that is, intent on experience, not destruction. He builds his sculpture in the same spirit: his works are not armed and yet they survive, not by protecting themselves—stylistically, conceptually, or literally—but by inviting the audience to engage them.

Carter Ratcliff

This article is occasioned by an exhibition of Mark di Saver’s sculpture organized by the Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, Holland, during April/May 1972 on the museum grounds and at four separate locations in the city. The exhibition subsequently traveled to the Wilhelm Lehmbruck Museum, Duisburg, West Germany.



1. Anterior to the metal beam sculptures made in Pasadena and Holland are a number of large metal beam sculptures made from salvaged materials in Brooklyn, New York, in 1966, and polychromed after construction (see Art News, February, 1967).