Essay by Linda Dalrymple Henderson
Mark di Suvero is one of the most important sculptors of his generation. As a philosophy major at the University of California, Berkeley, in the mid-1950s, di Suvero was deeply engaged in studying and writing poetry and was also attuned to music, from Bach to jazz. Once he began to pursue sculpture as an undergraduate, however, di Suvero found his calling as well as an outlet for his explorations in other fields that intrigued him, including architecture, mathematics, science, and, ultimately, structural engineering.
Born of Italian parents in Shanghai in 1933, di Suvero spent his youth in San Francisco. After his Berkeley education and a period of work, he moved to New York in 1957, settling in the vicinity of the Fulton Fish Market in lower Manhattan. That area near the Brooklyn Bridge as well as the building at 79 Park Place became gathering points for his friends from the California School of Fine Arts, who successively gravitated to New York and with whom he established and maintained a communal, cooperative gallery on the top floor of the Park Place building from 1963 to 1964. Relocated to Greenwich Village in 1965, the Park Place Gallery continued to operate through 1967.
Grounded in abstract expressionism, with its emphasis on the direct expression of emotion through line and color, di Suvero and his friends were energized by the spaces of the city, which were changing about them as buildings in this area were being torn down for “urban renewal.” From the refuse found at demolition sites, di Suvero pioneered a new form of sculpture in which wooden beams, chained together in outward-leaning constructions, declared the physical forces that held them in check. Upon seeing these works in a 1960 exhibition at the Green Gallery, critic Sidney Geist responded, “From now on nothing will be the same.” Often compared to the bold gestures of abstract expressionist painter Franz Kline (see Black and White, No. 2, Blanton Museum of Art), di Suvero’s sculptures engaged space in a far more active way than had earlier sculpture. That focus on space remained a central goal when in 1967 he began to build large-scale sculptures with a crane, using steel I-beams and other industrial materials, as in Clock Knot.
In 1960 di Suvero was paralyzed in an elevator accident, and his recovery is a testament to his determination and commitment to his art. During his year in a rehabilitation hospital he taught art to his fellow patients, and for di Suvero this sharing of art as a “springboard for the spirit,” as he says, would become a central goal for his artistic practice. Learning to use a crane offered the artist a new mode of working, but it was one in which the process of composing the sculpture remained at the core: instead of drawing on paper, he was drawing in space with his steel beams. One of di Suvero’s heroes was Alexander Calder, who had incorporated wind-driven motion into his hanging “mobiles.” For di Suvero, as for Calder and other kinetic artists, the presence of motion and time in their work was a means of aligning it with Einstein’s theories of relativity and space-time. While motion has been a central element of many of di Suvero’s sculptures since the 1960s, equally important for him is a viewer’s participation in the work—moving around to capture its changing vistas, and, when the work has moveable parts, swinging or banging on it (some works even sport mallets for the purpose). He hopes to reawaken the child in each of us by an encounter with his sculpture, reigniting the sense of wonder that is often lost to us as adults.
But di Suvero’s purpose goes beyond individual viewers: he is an idealist with a strong political and social vision of art’s role in improving the world. Di Suvero’s activities have ranged from Vietnam War protest via art (his 1966 Peace Tower in Los Angeles) or self-imposed exile in France (1971–74) to forming a foundation to support young artists. He has also converted an abandoned landfill adjacent to his “Spacetime Constructs” studio in Queens, New York, into the Socrates Sculpture Park, which has transformed the landscape along the East River and offers young sculptors a place to exhibit large-scale works. Di Suvero’s impressive body of sculpture—so energetic and muscular and engaged with space as well as contemporary social realities—eludes easy stylistic labels and represents a vital alternative to the minimalist sculpture associated with the 1960s artists Tony Smith and Donald Judd.
Clock Knot, 2007
Di Suvero’s titles, such as Molecule, Nova Albion (from a poem by William Blake), Mahatma (for Gandhi), The “A” Train, and E=MC2, document the range of sources from which he draws inspiration. The title for the forty-one-foot Clock Knot was arrived at differently, however. He held a contest to name the work, and a poet from New York suggested the winning title, which suits the work perfectly and adds a dimension of wordplay. From one vantage point, the Clock Knot’s crossed I-beams and circular “knotted” center do suggest a giant clock face with a horizontal clock “hand” extending to the left. (Steel beams connect 11:00 and 5:00, 12:00 and 6:00, and 1:00 and 7:00.) But as one moves around the work to the left or right, what had been read as a vertical beam from 12:00 to 6:00 shows itself to be one leg of an inverted V form. Suddenly, is it a clock or not/knot? Walking around Clock Knot produces constantly changing views, and moving under it creates yet another experience of the sculpture and its space. Historically, sculpture was an object to be looked at, usually on a pedestal, not something one viewed from underneath. Clock Knot, by contrast, offers a totally new visual and physiological experience.
Di Suvero learned structural engineering largely through experimentation. For his early sculptures, he often invited children from the neighboring housing projects to come to his studio and play and jump on his works. Even with years of experience, constructing a sculpture is still an ad hoc process for him, as he explained to Carter Ratcliff in a 1983 interview in Architectural Digest:
When you pick up a large weight with a crane, you need a sense of its center of gravity. This is something dancers understand, the way you can control a weight by shifting its center. Working near the limits of a crane’s capacity, it’s very easy to make a mistake. A cable can snap, the whole rig can tip over. So the process is delicate—like playing a violin. I try to get some of that sense of balance into my work. Just because a sculpture is big, it doesn’t have to be rigid.
Think of Clock Knot as a multi-ton dancer who has alighted on the lawn of the Chemical and Petroleum Engineering building, demonstrating the principles of balance and force that apply equally in engineering and in dance. Clock Knot is a work of poetry and power, which will have those who pass through its space looking at the sky and feeling the sculpture’s exuberant lift at the same time their imaginations play with its visual and verbal suggestions.
Linda Dalrymple Henderson is the David Bruton, Jr. Centennial Professor in Art History in the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Texas at Austin. In addition to her books The Fourth Dimension and Non-Euclidean Geometry in Modern Art (1983; new ed. 2013) and Duchamp in Context: Science and Technology in the Large Glass and Related Works (1998), she organized the 2008 Blanton Museum exhibition Reimagining Space: The Park Place Group in 1960s New York, which included works by Mark di Suvero.