Mark di Suvero

Mairie de Paris

Mark di Suvero has always associated himself with traditional left-wing political culture: according to one of his originary stories, for example, he used to refuse to produce objects for the art market, choosing instead to make toys for children in local housing projects. He claims to have learned from this “what worked and what didn’t.” Then there was his long and evidently painful self-exile from the United States during the Vietnam War—an exile that at least partially endeared him to the French. After settling in France, he was invited in 1975 by Michel Guy, France’s Minister of Culture, to become the first living artist to have a solo exhibition in the Tuileries Gardens. This embrace was strengthened by a recent invitation to install ten steel sculptures throughout Paris.

Di Suvero’s artistic response to his social politicization was paradoxical in that he increasingly monumentalized the forms found in his earlier assemblages (constructed of found metal beams and wooden detritus from demolition sites) by turning to the use of more durable, and expensive, steel. The first work heralding this change, Are Years What? (For Marianne Moore), 1967, rises forty feet in the air. In Paris, it was installed with three similarly scaled works on the immense Esplanade des Invalides. Constructed during the period of Minimalism’s hegemony, Are Years What? clung to everything the latter movement rejected: relational composition, ludic irrationality through the deformation of geometric structures, an attempt to invest industrial materials with an abstract/expressive symbolic dimension, and a direct anthropomorphism.

Presumably, di Suvero’s turn to monumental scale heralded his desire to produce a truly public sculpture; here in Paris, however, most of the pieces set up a dialogue with their surroundings that was decorative at best. On the Place de Fontenoy, Pour le Poète Inconnu, 1996, and Racine du Naos, 1996, are comfortably wedged between the Modernist UNESCO building, the Neoclassical Ecole Militaire, and the distant Eiffel Tower, a perfect setting for their attempt to wed Modernist form to the classical heritage signaled in their titles. In front of the Invalides, di Suvero’s sculptures paled before the steel construction cranes that perpetually dot the Parisian skyline. His work’s inability to reflect on its function within the urban fabric was at its worst in the ingratiating Grace à toi (Hommage à Michel Guy), 1997. Installed at the horrific site of the recently completed Bibliothèque nationale de France, this work’s placement in one of the most extensively reurbanized areas of the city testified, despite the sculptor’s evident disinterest, to the motivation behind most urban installations of public sculpture: beautification (for tourists) and legitimation (for increasing government administration of public spaces).

These are pitfalls into which even site-specific sculptural projects fall with increasing frequency, but di Suvero’s Modernist strategy of provoking an aesthetic dissonance with his work’s surroundings resulted in one tentative success—the installation of E=MC2, 1997, at the Parc de la Villette. This was the most radically simplified, even Constructivist, of di Suvero’s works in Paris. It consists mainly of the simple geometrical permutation of two pyramidal forms: the larger constructed of rusted steel girders rising from the ground; the smaller inverted and beginning roughly where the two pyramidal points cross, its stainless-steel arms extending expressively upward. The work’s internal dissonance (its contrasting finishes and the opposing directions of its two forms) echoed the almost dialectical effect the work provoked within the park’s plaza. By far the largest sculpture exhibited, it was installed between the Grande Halle and the Cité de la Musique, and its size and Modernist precision aggressively resist its eclectic surroundings: the older Neoclassical buildings and the ornate Fontaine aux Lions, Bernard Tschumi’s and Christian de Portzamparc’s new curvilinear structures, and the now-fully sublimated industrial architecture of the Grande Halle. But in its monumentality and its attempt at symbolic expressivity, this work betrays itself as a typical misreading of the Constructivism di Suvero superficially embraces (unless in fact it references Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International, but to what is E=MC2 a monument?). The sculpture also sheds light on what may be the most compelling reason for France’s enthusiastic response to this work. Di Suvero represents the last moment within American sculptural production when that most French of Modernist imperatives—to make poetry out of industry—was still considered possible. To paraphrase the headline on a French magazine that recently devoted its cover to Guy Debord, this is an idea that has died, but will not give up.

George Baker