PRINT February 1976

Three Sculptors: Mark di Suvero, Richard Nonas, Charles Ginnever

AN AMBITIOUS RETROSPECTIVE, ORGANIZED BY the Whitney Museum, offers us the opportunity to extend our understanding of Mark di Suvero’s sculpture beyond formal matters to its dialogue with particular sites, with the environment, with people. It also provides an occasion to reconsider his work in the light of subsequent artistic developments.

Such hindsight, far from isolating di Suvero’s position, affirms the fecundity of his sculptural syntax,which has been assimilated and reformulated by many other artists. Richard Nonas and Charles Ginnever, who happen to have been showing concurrently (though without the fanfare that heralded di Suvero), are among those who give evidence of such transformations. Nonas’s work is rooted more firmly in Minimal and post-Minimal art than in Abstract Expressionism; nevertheless, it possesses qualities which can be seen as extensions of di Suvero’s esthetic. And Chuck Ginnever, whose career has paralleled di Suvero’s in certain respects, has been largely ignored, though his work has always displayed its own strengths. Indeed, the work of these two sculptors profits when compared with di Suvero, as it shows how his insights have been imaginatively mutated. And di Suvero himself gains in status as we become aware of his impact on the development of sculpture in the past decade.

The Whitney exhibition brings together almost 20 years of di Suvero’s exuberant activity. The formal properties of his art—its Abstract-Expressionist roots and evolution through the ’60s—have received full examination in the literature. But for political reasons (di Suvero’s), little of the work has been seen in the United States since 1970. In addition to those on view at the museum itself, 15 outdoor pieces, many of which were constructed and first shown in Europe, are now scattered in prime sites throughout the five boroughs of New York City. How, we may ask ourselves, does di Suvero’s work construe this social context?

The decade of the ’60s, in which di Suvero developed his artistic strategies, spawned, in addition to an unprecedented amount of art, a number of notions about art’s civic responsibilities. The first sign of action from government, on both state and federal levels, sent museums scurrying to invent programs “designed to make art accessible to larger audiences,” thereby, of course, making public dollars available to themselves.

Somewhere in the midst of this flurry, monumental abstract sculpture acquired the epithet “public art.” And though it has sprouted in public places across the country, from bank plazas to turnpike rest-stops to city squares, and received the high praise of esthetic and environmental “sanitizers,” the public’s enthusiasm has been considerably less evident. Tales of indifference, hostility, and hassles with local communities are more common than success stories.

The kind of success that di Suvero’s work enjoys, and the very public arena in which such success is achieved, offers some suggestions as to the causes of much contemporary public art’s predicament. The failure of much abstract art to engage public enthusiasm has to do, not with its lack of representational toeholds, as is often claimed, but with its dearth of anything but formal underpinnings. Public art, by nature, implies the sharing of its audience’s sensibilities. Even with representational works, however, the qualities which assure such a dialogue rarely have much to do with artistic values. Religious art is an obvious example, also historic monuments. The public message is conveyed through a shared set of beliefs or associations which viewers bring to the work, not necessarily by anything recognizable in its appearance (though this can help). Even as “Minimal” an object as the Washington Monument succeeds in being public—by patriotic associations, not realism.

This is where di Suvero comes in. The energies which inform his work have always gone beyond formal concerns. His sense of fun, of movement, his desire for the viewer—any viewer—to play an active part, gives his constructions a free-wheeling earthiness and accessibility. He often includes antiformal, spunky elements—tires, chains, a snowplow—which never fail to jolt one’s expectations. But at the same time their incongruity seems oddly appropriate. His large sculptures are supposed to be sat on, pushed or ridden. There is never a single vantage point—often a great view of the piece can be had from standing on the top, perching on a protruding limb, or lying down underneath. Many of the smaller tabletop pieces are meant to be played with and rearranged. The public is involved in the work not by association, but by participation of a particularly amiable and unpretentious kind.

None of this is tacked on as a crowd-pleasing sideshow. It is as much a part of di Suvero’s esthetic as the formal concerns which are the source of its ultimate visual probity. Baroque juxtapositions of tough, massive elements, often (especially in the earlier work) sculptural equivalents of gestural Abstract-Expressionist painting, are achieved through skillful but primarily intuitive trial-and-error construction. Individual elements are tested and adjusted as he works, subjected to the forces of gravity and manipulated to arrive at structural and visual points of balance. These forces are often evident, incorporated in the slow, see-saw motion which activates many pieces.

In the more recent works, painted I-beams have replaced the rough-and-ready hunks of found materials, resulting in more streamlined and attenuated forms. They are more gracefully proportioned, so much so, in fact, that from a distance the works seem deceptively small in size. Only when viewed close up, against one’s own height, does their full spread unfold itself. Their limbs stretch out and up, silhouetted against the sky like the cranes the artist uses to make them (a vernacular “quote”). Movable parts are often interconnected by cables, so that a shove on one element sets up a chain reaction. All this is, of course, the result of precise engineering, but the works’ casualness belies this complexity, unlike George Rickey, for instance, in whose works one is extremely conscious of structural intricacies.

This casualness manages to ease any resistant (public) tensions. Di Suvero is obviously not preoccupied with obligatory “high-art” seriousness, so his works project a comfortable friendliness that is attractive and disarming. The works invite you to accept them on whatever terms you choose. And clearly this show succeeded in producing many levels of enjoyment. Are Years What? (For Marianne Moore), which alighted in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, acquired an impressive collection of graffiti in precarious places, testimony to the climbing prowess of the signers. And back at the museum, there is often a queue waiting to climb into the old desk chair that surmounts Homage to Brancusi.

I’m not suggesting that artists should convert their works into a kind of esthetic jungle-gym in a play for popularity. The results of such action would be no more successful than that of museums which attempt to woo an uninterested public with flashy show-and-tell packaging. Di Suvero is not advocating such a move either. But the public success of his work is welcome evidence that abstract art need not maintain a posture of formalist detachment.

Richard Nonas, who recently showed two new pieces at the Holly Solomon Gallery, is one of several younger artists whose work derives acknowledged inspiration from aspects of di Suvero, as well as from more obvious Minimal and post-Minimal sources. Several pieces in Nonas’s 1973 show at 112 Greene St. were, in fact, dedicated to di Suvero; floor constructions of beams were stacked log-cabin-style, their rough-hewn timbers reminiscent of di Suvero’s Hank-champion era. Despite this avowed admiration, the two artists’ work bears little formal resemblance; however, they do share an interest in the expressionistic possibilities offered by crude, heavy, industrial materials and processes, an area in which di Suvero was unquestionably a pioneer. And both have produced tough, powerful pieces which invoke gravity and weight, and involve spatial definition and manipulation.

Since the 1973 show, Nonas’s work has undergone quite a refining process. Rough, splintery beams have given way to carefully fabricated steel constructions which, though far from polished, indicate a change in his previously casual approach both to materials and to the creation of the forms themselves. The new works, however, pursue concerns which were evident in the earlier pieces—the alteration or adjustment of space through the positioning and arranging of deceptively uncomplicated forms.

The first piece one came upon when entering this show consisted of four 12-foot steel beams, three stretching end to end down the length of the room, the fourth running at right angles to them at the near end, thus forming an inverted L shape. (The fourth also rested on its narrower side, so it stood a couple of inches higher than the others, further emphasizing its separate function.) The description makes the work sound like something of Carl Andre’s, but actually Nonas’s intentions are so different that the resemblance ends there. Andre’s interests are more in the process of continuation—the infinite extension possible if whatever situation he sets up were to be continued or enlarged proportionally. (Lever, whose straight, sectional construction is recalled here, could consist of either more or fewer bricks. His Triodes, shown recently, reproduce his original premise of a center and three equal extensions in a number of different sizes.)

The crosspiece in Nonas’s work establishes its distance from Andre’s activities. It makes the work echo the shape of the room itself, at the same time delineating a very specific space within it. Even though the beams don’t touch the walls, you are very much aware of being either inside or outside them, a situation not encountered in Andre’s pieces. The beams suggest the foundation for a new wall that might be built; the spaces outside become narrow corridors.

The second piece altered the space around it even more effectively, though the result was one of confusion rather than definition. The work consisted of a 12-foot-square steel plate, one-half inch thick, cut on the diagonal and flopped over on itself to form two right triangles, one on top of the other. But its location on the floor, the way in which it was turned in relation to the walls, had the very disorienting effect of making it impossible to identify the right angle, a geometric configuration sufficiently familiar that it is normally recognizable as such. The size of the other angles was equally elusive, bringing into question just what perceptual devices we habitually and unconsciously use to situate ourselves in relation to objects and to identify their shapes. Here the most common, ordinary form—half a sandwich, a folded handkerchief—manages to throw us totally off balance. How? The very simplicity of the reason is enough to disorient us further. It is merely that the triangle is tipped so that one cannot line up any part of it visually with either the floor-boards or the walls. Eliminating these points of reference destroys the clarity of the shape. Simple, yes; but surprisingly effective. The result, walking around it, was not unlike those fun-houses where stairs appear to descend as you feel yourself climbing up, or you reach out to touch something right in front of you only to find it’s some distance away.

With the recent proliferation of on-the-floor sculpture—Andre, Serra, Grosvenor, Rabinowitch, to think of a few—it is interesting to consider how superficial the similarities between them can be. Reductive situations are often intended, among other things, to test one’s perceptual acuity, and in these new works, Nonas has succeeded in.finding yet another means of putting us to that test.

Charles Ginnever is an unjustly neglected artist. His work, along with that of di Suvero and John Chamberlain, roughly his contemporaries, emerged from Abstract Expressionism and has followed comparable lines of development. It is unlikely, however, that three new works will ever receive adequate public exposure; the first, and perhaps most impressive, is already a thing of the past.

Zeus, which occupied the basement of Sculpture Now in SoHo for a month or so last fall, consisted of three 30-foot lengths of 15-inch I-beam, hung from the ceiling to form an enormous thunderbolt. The positioning of the three sections was dictated by and interacted with large, evenly spaced pillars which held up the ceiling above. The beams zig-zagged between them, producing the thunderbolt configuration. They were suspended from cables at a gradually ascending angle (low to the floor at the entrance to the room, close to the ceiling at the far end), and were joined loosely enough so that the structure could be set in motion by a determined shove. The thing swayed menacingly. A dramatic bonus, adding greatly to its imposing presence, was the sonorous clanging as the beams bumped each other. The sound rumbled threateningly up and down the beams as they moved, repeating as its echoes reverberated off the cellar walls.

One does not normally connect works of such obvious physical permanence with the ephemerality of a very temporary and specific installation. Though Zeus could (and may, eventually) hang in another setting, without the pillars which were integral to its initial conception, much would be lost in translation. The contradiction between its immense scale and the pent-up sense of enclosure of the underground room also had much to do with the work’s success. Its labyrinthian associations and trapped-monster allusions would vanish in the open air.

As with di Suvero, Ginnever’s process refers as much to industrial construction techniques as to past Constructivist art. The precarious cant of the I-beams, as well as their lethargic motion, quote a familiar city street sight, where cranes hoist similar materials and workers wrestle them into position. This particular work is closer than di Suvero to such sources. The transformations that occur here have more to do with context than conscious composition or reformulation.

The other two pieces, installed in the same location after the demise of Zeus, are not intended for this or any other specific spot, and as a result suffer somewhat by association with the previous tenant. This is a bit unfair, for had I not been expecting something that would repeat or even exceed the spectacular crescendo of Zeus, I would have come away quite satisfied.

Daedalus and Icarus, as these two are titled, are each fabricated from several oblong sheets of cor-ten steel, bent diagonally to give them individual three-dimensionality. These sheets are then propped up on each other, corner to corner, so each is lifted off the floor a step further than the preceding one. Daedalus, the larger of the two, rises slowly and majestically from one end, where the longer side of the first sheet runs along the floor, to its full height, where the shorter side of the last sheet forms the base. It conveys the immense effort of struggling to lift itself off the floor, an act which the original Daedalus did finally manage. However, one feels that the duration of the event is temporary—even the most upright piece leans at a rakish angle.

The companion piece, Icarus, is much smaller, and though constructed on a similar principle of propped, leaning, angular sheets, does not incorporate the same precarious drama. Icarus was, of course, the mythological failure, and it would be easy to dismiss this piece on similar grounds. Ginnever invites the invidious comparison, as is evident by the titles. Nevertheless, history does seem to repeat itself in this case, for Daedalus is the more interesting work.

The question of gravity, both metaphorical and structural, pervades all three works. Whereas di Suvero accepts it and puts it to work, Ginnever probes and experiments, accentuating its pull by his handling of avowedly massive, weighty materials. Zeus, though hanging in mid-air, does not give the illusion of floating that so often characterizes the free-swinging. beams in di Suvero’s sculptures. In fact, much of its impressive power derives from an awareness of its weight. Daedalus hauls itself up with exhausting effort, and one is obsessed with the nagging fear that it is only a matter of time before something falls. Di Suvero alleviates this sense of massiveness and weight, countering it by pivoting elements of various densities. Ginnever heightens it by making his sculptures appear to work against a natural force. Each solution has its own, irrefutable drama.

Nancy Foote