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Artists Mark di Suvero

Mark di Suvero

American Sculptor

Movement: Modern Sculpture

Born: September 18, 1933 - Shanghai, China

"I'm a constructivist... symbolical constructs - like language, like mathematics, like art - are the things that change people's minds. They are where we grow."

Synopsis

Mark di Suvero's work is the epitome of modern sculpture, which consists of unconventional materials, forms, and approaches. Assembling his works from wood and steel, he created what he referred to as "sculptural structuralism." These three-dimensional constructions were structures that consisted of angled beams intersecting others, sometimes with spiral elements. Such "gestures-in-space" were related to two-dimensional Abstract Expressionist gestural abstraction and action painting - a period of art-making that immediately preceded the artist's most creative period. As di Suvero's worked developed, it became more architectural and often became, or was commissioned as, public sculptures.

Key Ideas

Because di Suvero's works consist of built elements, they also incorporate "space" into the composition - that is, that the empty spaces that are formed by the elements of sculpture become a component of the sculpture itself. The space he creates, because it exists within architectural elements, maintains its human, true-to-life, relatable scale.
Di Suvero's works are important to the development of modern sculpture through his tendency to include kinetic - or moving - elements in them. The moving elements, while heavy because of their industrial materials, are meant to give the illusion of ease and suspending gravity.
Often visually off-balance and asymmetrical, Di Suvero's works lend themselves to the idea that they are "drawings in space" and related to the gestural abstraction that became prevalent during the mid-twentieth century.

Most Important Art

Untitled (1961-62)

Untitled consists of individual pieces that arise vertically from an irregularly shaped flat base. The wooden block at the left is set at an angle upon its corner and attached to a curved, unsteady-looking pedestal. Tipped to the left, it creates visual tension with the two bent and tilted vertical pieces of steel affixed to the right. While the sculpture looks physically off-balance, it is also visually off-balance and asymmetrical. It does not conform to the typical sculpture as a singular object, since at that the very bottom left of the composition, a winding snake of steel sits just off the edge of the base. At the time, di Suvero approached many of his works intuitively. As a result, the complex yet elegant assemblages often contain an improvisational quality. The precarious arrangement of the elements in Untitled, animates them with gesture, which harks back to the gestural abstraction of the Abstract Expressionist action painters that di Suvero was so fond of.

Because it is an early work, and perhaps because it was executed shortly after di Suvero experienced his nearly fatal elevator accident while working in construction, Untitled is compiled from scavenged objects and is smaller than his later, more monumental sculptures for which he became known. However, it contains important characteristics of modern sculpture because it includes the use of unconventional materials, is a built, rather than carved, object and it incorporates "space" into the composition as there are empty spaces within the sculpture itself, that become part of the piece.

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Ladderpiece (1961-1962)

This large-scale work uses the same principles and elements of Di Suvero's other works of this era, and it also acts as a foundation for his later large-scale compositions. Made of pieces of wood and steel that are (remnants of) found objects, they are balanced and tilted in relation to each other, therefore combined to create an internal balance within the work. The central axis in Ladderpiece, is a strong diagonal, providing a distinct sense of dynamism and tension, with the movement is directed both upward and downward as the axis seems to simultaneously reach skyward and anchor the sculpture to the ground. The linear elements of the work act almost like three-dimensional drawings in space and the use of raw wood and old chains, as well as the construction, suggests ruins. As a junk sculpture, it is made of items that have had a utilitarian purpose or a history as part of other functioning objects.

It is an assemblage - a work that assembles objects into a composition--although with the tilted and unusable ladder fragment, it also crosses into what is known as "junk sculpture." The use of cast-off or broken utilitarian objects becomes prevalent in the sculpture of the 1960s and 1970s with other artists such as John Chamberlain (making sculptures with automobile shell parts), and Louise Nevelson (who uses wooden pieces, many of which are architectural elements such as chairs and bannisters).

Named after the most recognizable element of the composition, a ladder, Ladderpiece can be related to two of the most influential art movements of the first half of the 20th Century: Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism. Similar to how the Surrealist "found object" sculptures put semi-recognizable but unrelated objects together - this work contains some semblances of the familiar, even if the objects are taken out of context and are not usable anymore (such as the portion of the ladder). And reminiscent of the Abstract Expressionists such as the strong slashing brushstrokes characteristic of Willem de Kooning and the oversized plank-like gestures in Franz Kline's paintings are echoed here by di Suvero in his three-dimensional gestures in space. Di Suvero liked to refer to such formations as "sculptural structuralism." Like architecture, and even including architectural elements, this is a "built" structure - but as an aesthetic object the piece remains a sculpture.

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Poland (1966)

Poland is a good example of di Suvero's work from the 1960s in which he incorporated discarded industrial materials such as leftover lengths of I-beams and other found scrap steel. These types of materials become increasingly important to his work, especially as he expands the scale of his work to more monumental sizes. Despite the weight of its various elements, Poland has the capacity to become animated through motion, which is an innovation in modern sculpture, referred to as kinetic sculpture. The suspended ball, which can swing back and forth references wrecking balls used in construction. The abstract object attached to it prevents the work from mimicking the equipment exactly, even while suggesting its use on destroyed buildings. Such imagery derives di Suvero's own background. The base of the pendulum is certainly "crane-like" in form.

As is the case with di Suvero's sculptures, he creates angular compositions and counterpoints through diagonals. The hanging ball is held up by a diagonal pole, set upon a diagonal I-beam and stabilized by another rod on the ground that runs perpendicular to the whole composition. Contemplating its title, one might wonder whether di Suvero was paying homage to the countless Polish construction workers who helped to build many of America's industrial structures or whether he commented on the troubled history of a mid-sized European country, whose borders have often been violently challenged throughout its history.

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Gandydancer's Dream (1988)

This composition is based on a multitude of parallel and perpendicular geometric planes, which interlock and overlap to create an almost labyrinthian conglomerate of shapes. The manmade quality of these elements is accentuated by di Suvero's use of his signature shade of bright red and black. As suggested by its title, this sculpture pays homage to so-called Gandy dancers; railroad workers who worked in groups and timed their rhythmic movements through musical chants. Meanwhile the "gandy" was the tool that was used as a lever to move the tracks. Di Suvero captures the sense of co-dependency inherent in this subject by counterbalancing distinct elements, such as the dominant red wheel shape and a thick black beam that serves as the work's stabilizing agent. In addition, he also allows for musical movement by introducing a kinetic element and allowing a part of the sculpture to rotate and sway.

Here we see the use of circular forms and moving parts, which are characteristic of his work of this era. The reference to actual persons/objects in its title, also harks back to Surrealism. The form of the sculpture is almost a "personage" or an abstracted form that somewhat looks recognizable, but does not really exist. The Surrealist Juan Miro was a master at creating figures that looked like living things, but were some other kind of hybrid or imagined organism. This strange pterodactyl-like form also may be influenced by contorted forms created by mid-career Pablo Picasso in both his paintings and sculptures.

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Mozart's Birthday (1989)

Created when di Suvero was well-established, the foundations of his aesthetic are present but with additional flourishes. Here, I-beams create a stable structure made of two triangular steel foundations. These vertical peaks hold the edges of the work, while two other beams lean against it. He has added curved strips of steal that orbit around joints and on the end; he suspends an inverted triangle, therefore implying movement.

This work is an excellent example of di Suvero's interest in and employment of both industrial materials and methods since the 1960s. As a member of a crane operators' union he repeatedly expressed his admiration for the steel workers who helped to build and shape America's industrial landscape: "We have a great tradition of steel workers, going all the way back to the fabrication of the Brooklyn Bridge." Indeed, Mozart's Birthday translates as an homage to industrial steel because its supporting structure is made of hard-edged I-beams, evoking the skeleton of large industrial buildings in their raw power and geometric beauty. However, the work also embraces a lighthearted, playful quality by adding swirls of metal. Through their elegant curvilinear forms, these elements defy the physical limitations of their actual weight and the sense of gravity that usually comes with it.

In their fluid movement they seem far removed from any industrial context and are evocative of Henri Matisse's cutouts or musical movement rather than construction sites. In fact, this could be representation of a musical melody - only in the sky, not on a page. Paying homage to one of the most gifted classical composers in its title, Mozart's Birthday balances structure with creative impulse and succeeds in being both physically and emotionally accessible despite the size and the bulk of the industrial components involved.

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Joie de Vivre (1998)

Located at Zuccotti Park in the Financial District of Lower Manhattan, Joie de Vivre rises up no less than 70 feet off the ground. It is based on "open-ended tetrahedrons", which in geometry describe polyhedrons composed of four triangular faces, six straight edges, and four vertex corners. While reflecting di Suvero's keen interest in combining mathematics with expressive freedom, it also reveals an experienced engineer's focus on precision. The incredible weight of each section requires an utmost reliable and stable architecture to guarantee the overall balance of the work.

In the past, di Suvero has compared elements of his sculptures to the flying buttresses of medieval Gothic cathedrals, and this reference can easily be applied here as well. Painted in a vibrant shade of red that has become characteristic for the artist in recent years, Joie de Vivre evokes a monumental "x" shape, a cross. The title here is also significant and leads to the interpretation of a depiction of a person that has their hands up in a showing of jubilation.

So many of the artist's early works were untitled, and even those that were tended to be descriptive of the elements contained in them. In this work, however, di Suvero waxes metaphoric. While the work is a fairly rigid structure made of industrial material, it has inhabited four different locations, three of which were main thoroughfares. He titled it "Joy of Life" and colored it a bright orange-red, as if to remind passers-by of something beyond the daily grind, a purpose it still serves as it inhabits a park in one of the busiest and important financial districts in the world.

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Biography

Childhood and Formative Years

Marco Polo di Suvero was born on September 18, 1933 in Shanghai, China, one of four children of Matilde Millo and Vittorio di Suvero, an Italian naval attache. Although the family had been relocated to Tientsin in 1936, with the outbreak of World War II, they immigrated to the United States. By February 1941 they had settled in San Francisco where the artist grew up. Di Suvero attended San Francisco City College before transferring to the University of California, Santa Barbara (1954-55), and ultimately receiving a degree in philosophy from Berkeley.

Mark di Suvero Biography Continues

Mature Period

Mark di Suvero Biography

Di Suvero was one of many young artists at the time that admired and became strongly influenced by the Abstract Expressionists, who had become a significant international art movement before di Suvero had completed his schooling. Di Suvero was attracted to their expressive freedom and wanted to follow suit. After graduating from Berkeley in 1957, he moved to New York City. Having avoided being drafted for the Korean War, di Suvero moved in with Bea Wheeler on St. Marks Place where Milton Resnick and Pat Pasloff were among his early and influential New York friends. The Abstract Expressionists and other young artists like himself became known as the New York School.

Despite showing his sculptures in the late 1950s, in New York, di Suvero labored in construction in order to support himself. His construction jobs often provided the raw materials for some of sculptures: the wood and metal he salvaged from demolition sites. While these construction locations provided inspiration, they were also perilous, and in March 1960, just shortly before his first solo exhibition at Green Gallery, di Suvero suffered a nearly fatal elevator accident while working at one. His back was broken and his spinal injuries were severe, so much so that he was uncertain whether he would ever be able to walk again. Even with such severe injuries, di Suvero was able to recover in only four years - walking without assistance by 1965.

Mark di Suvero Photo

Di Suvero had struggled his way through rehabilitation with the assistance of his brother Hank, and maintained his focus on his art by developing his steel-working skills, including welding, cutting, and cold-bending, which were the fundamentals of his labor-intensive technique. After recovery, di Suvero embraced the tools used in construction, such as a crane and cherry-picker, in order to further expand the possibilities of his work.

In 1971, di Suvero left the United States in protest of the Vietnam War; this self-imposed exile lasted four years. The artist settled in Chalon-sur-Saone, France (he maintained one of his studios on a barge until 1989) and continued to exhibit and teach. He believed that his work could act as an antidote to illogical behavior, political unrest, and overwrought human emotions by giving viewers an experiential encounter with his large constructions. It was important to him that visitors to his work felt the work physically, rather than simply viewed it - for that reason he always built his work with a scale in relation to the human figure, as if to substantiate these lofty objectives.

With the help of Marcel Evrard, his studio in Chalon-sur-Saone was repurposed in 1989 and called La Vie des Formes, serving as an experimental artist's space. In 2009 it was moved to Montceau-les-Mines and entitled Reve de signes, and has since found a new incarnation as an atelier for emerging artists.

Upon di Suvero's return to the United States in 1975, he first moved to Petaluma, California before settling back in New York City, where he brought together a team, which first included Lowell McKegney and later his nephews Enrico and Matteo Martignoni, to assemble his sculptures. In 1977, Di Suvero founded the Athena Foundation with Anita Contini to award grants to artists.

Late Period

He currently lives in Astoria, Queens with his second wife, Kate D. Levin. He has continued to make his large outdoor sculptures, many of which are installed in public spaces and parks, such as Storm King, a large outdoor sculpture park in New Windsor, New York. There he has had an ongoing partnership with his longtime art dealer and friend, Richard Bellamy, who devoted his last decade to the artist and his work.

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Mark di Suvero Portrait

Di Suvero, is a lifelong activist whose disapproval of the Vietnam War developed into a constructivist approach to the link between humanity and art. He believed, "There's a question of what used to be called 'social consciousness', which is the kind of responsibility you feel toward other human beings. I think that there's a huge amount of current art that deals with the art market and that has absolutely no relation to social consciousness. I think that we are all related, all interconnected, if not by language certainly by some of our beliefs, whether religion or dreams or art or poetry and emotions, and that this is part of our responsibility." This belief and dedication has been the impetus for his involvement in large public projects.

Legacy

Di Suvero has diligently continued to pursue his monumental abstract style. Almost all outdoor public sculpture was influenced in some way by di Suvero because of the materials, forms, and construction techniques he pioneered. In order to create the works, di Suvero's process mimics that of construction, with the artist essentially acting as the architect, contractor, and builder - true to his background work history as a union crane operator. Using materials such as I-beams, which are the skeletal structures of architecture, his work has been embraced by builders and the public.

In conjunction with the Athena Foundation and with Enrico Martignoni, di Suvero also created the Socrates Sculpture Park in Long Island City, New York, an outdoor space where sculptors are invited to create and exhibit their work. A unique opportunity for large-scale and multi-media sculpture, di Suvero long recognized the need for a location for such endeavors as well as the benefits of having so many in one place so as to act in discourse with one another as well as a destination for public interaction with works of art. Originally a landfill and dumpsite, it also marks di Suvero's continuing involvement in repurposing the modern landscape for aesthetic purposes. This reflects his belief that the artist is crucial and should serve society.

Quotes

"I hope to make the space come alive. There's a time when a piece of sculpture stands up, becomes itself and there's no way to describe what I feel like - it's poetry."
Mark di Suvero
"I'm basically interested in something that Suzanne K. Langer pointed out - that human beings use symbols all the time. The words that we're using now are symbolic, and mathematics depends on the use of symbols. If you don't have icons, which are symbols, the computer doesn't work."
Mark di Suvero
"The idea of direct work has disappeared right now. It's computers. I'm so far linked to my hands."
Mark di Suvero
"I don't like the word responsibility, but if you're working a crane - I am a union crane operator - you know very well that your responsibility isn't just to the steel that you're lifting but to the lives of co-workers who depend on you doing the right thing."
Mark di Suvero
"I've been very fortunate in the last 30, 40 years because I've been allowed to work with the tools of my dreams."
Mark di Suvero
"I think the role of the artist remains in some way very necessary to a really living society and hopefully it is the unifying thing in terms of international culture."
Mark di Suvero
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