New York

Mark di Suvero, The Cave, 2015, steel, 13' 1 1/2“ × 14' 4” × 11'.

Mark di Suvero, The Cave, 2015, steel, 13' 1 1/2“ × 14' 4” × 11'.

Mark di Suvero

Mark di Suvero, The Cave, 2015, steel, 13' 1 1/2“ × 14' 4” × 11'.

As the academy of art criticism developed over this past half century, a vocabulary of enthusiasm—great, masterpiece, awesome, cool, and suchlike opinion—was struck from the lexicon of permissible discourse. The fear, quite correctly, was that such descriptives served to bolster bourgeois acquisition (ever an academic bugbear) while in no way explaining the work of art or facilitating access to its experience or meaning.

Yet, the recent exhibitions of Mark di Suvero’s sculptures at Paula Cooper’s magnificent Chelsea space reset the path anew, and we can once more use such academically ostracized lingo to draw distinctions. One 2016 work—a massive section of steel tugged and teased into biomorphic play, as if it were no more than a sheet of construction paper—is “interesting” in a Matisse-cutout kind of way (this is, perhaps, unsurprising given its title: Post-Matisse Pullout).

The two other di Suveros are quite simply “great.” Referential of Russian Constructivism, modernist sculpture’s most significant development, the massive, industrially scaled The Cave, 2015, and Szymborska, 2013–16, utterly oppose the disappointments inherent to Conceptualism or Minimalism (for example)—work that withers once you get the system, or the joke, or the irony. There is no irony in di Suvero, only steel.

The Cave is huge. Retooled black steel beams salvaged from the dismembering of the West Side High Line are here turned into a scaffold from which depends a kind of open heart recalling an ocean liner’s anchoring device. Slowly dangling, this mobile invites spectators to push it about (pace Calder); when its curved flanges are struck with a heavy rubber mallet, a resonant, gong-like sound hangs in the air. The artist has long cultivated audience participation of this kind by way of breaching the putative wall between the viewer and the purported difficulties of abstraction. The work’s title presumably invokes the Allegory of the Cave from Plato’s Republic, wherein the philosopher differentiates between shadow and substance.

Szymborska—named for Wisława Szymborska, the Polish poet and Nobel Prize laureate of 1996—is a vast steel abstraction, an assembly of splayed rectangular components seemingly dancing with open circular shapes. Flowing though is a shimmering scarf of brushed steel, calling David Smith to mind, specifically his “Cubi” series, 1961–65. A heavy maritime chain tethers this florid mass to a quasi-triangular steel element that seems to rise up through the floor.

Di Suvero is conventionally referred to as a “great” Abstract Expressionist sculptor, though he comes from a later generation; he was more a child of than parent to America’s “greatest” artistic achievement. The confusion can be traced back to di Suvero’s earliest masterpieces, his castaway wooden-beam constructions such as Che farò senza Eurydice, 1959, which at first were seen as Franz Klines of a kind, sprawled into space. Di Suvero was then twenty-six, Kline forty-nine—entirely different generational mindsets.

A last detail: To be considered “great,” an artist—all issues of visual and tactile achievement or “career” put aside—must be recognized as a moral exemplar who also addresses, either by views expressed or by manner of life, the big political and moral issues of the day. In this anticipation, di Suvero does not skimp. His long and vocal resistance to the Vietnam War set an example for an entire generation. And in his despair with our tainted nation, he chose to live expatriated for four years. In this light, I well remember that when I served as a member of a small committee that successfully militated to place several di Suveros throughout the campi of Venice during the 1995 Biennale, it was the artist’s political intransigence that most won over the sympathy of the communista city fathers.

Robert Pincus-Witten