The Iron Will of Mark di Suvero

Original Publication: New West Magazine – July 31, 1978.

A California sculptor finds fame in Paris and New York, but not at home

            In the middle of a junkyard a man with chiseled features and fiery eyes climbs in and out of a salmon-colored crane, wielding its levers the way great artists wield their brushes. Next to him huge steel girders rise majestically into the sky like a pile of giant pickup sticks poised before falling. The seventeen-ton bow of an old banana boat sways gently in the breeze, incongruously suspended from a base of interconnecting steel beams. In every corner of the dusty yard, pushed up against ancient tractor parts and old truck cabs, are heavy metal sculptures of varying size—bold, beautiful creatures imbued with a rare energy.

            The man is lame, and dwarfed by the size of his work, yet even from a distance he projects an indomitable spirit that flows directly to his art. The artist is Mark di Suvero, one of the world’s foremost living sculptors, and the Sonoma County junkyard is his secret studio, the place where he has been working feverishly for a year on a single piece. Now the deadline is upon him. By July 19 the Shanghai-born, San Francisco-bred artist must be ready to unveil ISIS—named after the Institute of Scrap Iron and Steel—at the Smithsonian Institution’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden on the Mall of the nation’s capital. The association commissioned the work from di Suvero for its fiftieth anniversary.

            On the day the 60-ton, 42-foot-high sculpture has to be disassembled and loaded into flatbed trucks which will carry it to Washington, di Suvero is still creating. The nose of a diesel locomotive might not hang from the piece after all. The wire cables used to suspend the ship’s bow are being replaced with chunks from heavy anchor chain. Di Suvero wanted the work to suggest “the immigrant,” since both he and many members of ISIS are immigrants. He thought of a ship, but was morally opposed to using any easily obtained discarded military hardware so a scrap dealer in Los Angeles found him a banana boat.

            On hand is an engineer from the Smithsonian Institution who has flown in to measure and structurally test the piece, and his neat red-and-white polyester pants and shirt contrast sharply with di Suvero’s filthy overalls. The engineer not only pronounces ISIS structurally safe, he is obviously moved by what the sculptor has accomplished. “He tells me he bends the beams cold,” marvels the engineer. “His fits are within a quarter of an inch. I’ve never seen work done by hand so precisely on such a large scale.” Unlike the majority of sculptors, including the late master, Alexander Calder, di Suvero does not rely on foundry workers to make his pieces for him. He makes everything himself.

            For his vision and poetic engineering, di Suvero, 44, is one of the most honored contemporary sculptors, celebrated in the great museums of Paris and New York. Ninety officials, artists and businessmen cooperated to mount the largest sculpture show ever in the five boroughs of New York when the Whitney Museum displayed di Suvero’s work in 1975. He is the first living artist to have a one-man exhibition at Paris’s Tuileries Gardens. Joan Mondale invites his mother to tea. On July 18 in Los Angeles, PBS is airing a documentary about him. He collects honorary degrees, but they’re always from schools in the East. Not only is di Suvero almost totally unrecognized in his home state of California, he has often been treated hostilely here. Most Californians don’t know or don’t seem to care that he has led the way in redefining the meaning of public art, forcing a direct contact with the contemporary environment, with pieces whose scale alone assures they cannot be confined by museum walls or residences of the rich.

            Di Suvero is a populist who wants the public not merely to appreciate his work, but to play with it—slide on it, gong it, spray graffiti on it. He once made toys for ghetto children and says, “Those kids taught me more than most of the art world.”

            His work seems even more heroic in light of his personal history. In 1960, just before his first big show in New York, di Suvero was nearly crushed to death in an elevator accident. Doctors first gave his less than a year to live and then told him he’d be paralyzed from the neck down for life. Di Suvero refused to accept their prognosis and willed himself, within a year, out of bed and into a wheelchair. He began sculpting again, painfully, on his lap—a series of tortured hands. In 1964, in Inverness, north of San Francisco, he made a 20-foot-high sculpture of wood and “found objects”—from his wheelchair. The next year he walked.

            Di Suvero says he got his sense of scale and space from growing up in the West. In creating his first big pieces along the ocean, he realized they looked miniscule in the context of seven miles of beach. “I get something from California,” he says. “I learned to work outdoors and then when I went back to New York I took a western scale of space with me. It’s funny—you get something from California but you’re supported in New York or even Texas. Artists aren’t supported in California—they get teaching jobs instead.”

            Di Suvero, in fact, tried to have a part of the Golden Gate National Recreational Area set aside for a sculpture garden with the understanding that he would place his sculpture there and give it to the government when he died. Then, he tried to purchase a piece of adjoining land for the same purpose, the bureaucrats weren’t interested in either of his proposals.

            In 1965, di Suvero, who considers himself a political radical, was shot at in Los Angeles when he began working on a “peace tower,” a sculpture on the Sunset Strip protesting the Vietnam war. He eventually exiled himself because of the war, spent four years in Europe—gaining recognition in France by creating five pieces in the town of Chalon-sur-Saône—and returned to the United States in 1974. That year, when Norton Simon took over the Pasadena Museum of Modern Art, he ordered the removal of two di Suvero pieces on loan there, saying, according to di Suvero, that their presence “disturbed the landscape.” “I had to pay the shipping myself,” di Suvero says.

            The Oakland City Council footed the bill for the early removal of his controversial Mother Peace, in 1975, a 30-ton work which enraged a local judge when it was placed in front of the Alameda County Courthouse by the Oakland Museum as part of its show titled “Public Sculpture:  Urban Environment.” Subsequently, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors twice turned down the recommendation of two different panels of experts—and a hefty $50,000 matching grant from the National Endowment for the Arts—that di Suvero be commissioned to construct a piece for the new Alameda County Courthouse in Hayward.

            Last year, but only after local artists and prominent members of the national art establishment mounted a campaign in his behalf, di Suvero was allowed to keep several of his pieces on 60 acres of land he bought above Cotati, California. Di Suvero calls the breathtaking site of golden, rolling hills overlooking a valley his “sculpture ranch.” But Sonoma County officials said the pieces didn’t conform to the building code and put them under the category of “attractive nuisances.” Today the land is fenced in, and cows graze beneath the avant-garde art.

            Surprisingly, di Suvero is not bitter over the treatment he’s received here. Instead he’s turned the other cheek. “No man is a prophet in his own land,” quotes his vivacious Italian wife, Maria Teresa, an architect.

            After the Mother Peace uproar, Oakland Museum curator of art George Neubert went ahead and raised funds to buy a di Suvero work for the museum. Once it was installed it was “played with” so much it broke. “Mark told us to return it to him,” recalls Neubert, “and then told us he was giving us a larger piece worth twice as much.” This summer di Suvero’s gift to Oakland, the elegiac Homage to Charlie Parker, will be erected on the museum grounds.

            Marco Polo di Suvero is the best-known member of a remarkable family. He probably inherited his passionate spirit and will from his father, who was a Venetian baron of Sephardic Jewish origins, and from his mother, who came from a noble Catholic family from Piacenza. His oldest brother, Victor, is a poet and owner of the only operating sapphire mine in the world. His younger brother, Henry, a radical Los Angeles attorney, is president of the National Lawyers guild and helped found the Watts Legal Clinic, and his sister, Marie Louise, is the curator of Greek Collections at the Portland Museum.

            When Mark was born his father was an Italian government official in Shanghai, a former naval officer and an accomplished engineer who invented the Chinese typewriter in 1927. Mrs. di Suvero writes in the family history that little Mark sobbed in confusion when he came home at night from the Italian School in Shanghai because the fascist indoctrination he was getting all day was being contradicted by what his parents told him every night. They were finally able to flee China in 1941; they arrived in San Francisco a few days before Pearl Harbor.

            While Mark was growing up—studying philosophy at Berkeley, living in a tree house in Santa Barbara, where he first studied art—the elder di Suvero wrote his son long letters on the meaning of art and life and sent him copies of the drawings of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. “The concept of excellence,” says Victor di Suvero, “was not alien to our family.”

            Today the family remains close. When Mark was to receive a particularly prestigious award—he can’t remember which one—his mother insisted he wear a tie. So Mark dutifully painted a tie on his overalls and scrawled over it, “I wore this for my mom.”

            In the past di Suvero has been variously described as moody, contradictory and difficult. But during the last few days of constructing ISIS not a trace of temperament showed and he was playful with his two young assistants, Bill Wareham and Lowell McKegney. At dusk one day Maria Teresa drove to the junkyard to meet him for dinner. In the back of her station wagon was the balsa wood model of the house they’re designing together for the sculpture ranch—a dramatic design that resembles one of his pieces.

            In a local café owned by a sculptor who commemorates his patron by listing “filet of sole Marco” on the menu, di Suvero discussed how he proceeds with his work. “You start with materials innate to you,” he said. “Iron is the basic constituency to steel, the most necessary constituent we live with. If we don’t have iron we don’t have blood. We have to peel away to the structural bones of our existence and steel is always around us. Then the sculpture tells me what to do—I’m a tool of the sculpture. I listen to what the sculpture wants and if I’m really legitimate the sculpture fulfills itself. My work is a terrible chore,” di Suvero concedes. “I sweat, I drip, but that’s not why I do it. 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. You feel unity, a surge, awe—you look at Michelangelo and you get it all or you don’t.” Di Suvero pauses, his eyes burning. “You have to hone your own feelings to that moment when you’re completely open and vibrant with that dream. The chore is making manifest the vision.”

            A few days later, in the junkyard, di Suvero looked at his massive piece and said, “Everything in the world is small and so is everyone. They don’t miss you—it’s like a hole in water; it gets filled up. It’s hard on people’s egos to accept that.” Then, as if to answer an unasked question he continued, “There’s a certain kind of beauty I find in this raw industrial landscape and it has to do with an essential functional view. You choose rusty beams instead of lacquer finishes. We’re in an era of expressing ourselves by building bridges and airports, not classical palaces. We’re in a different scale, an intermediate step. The next step is outer space, so today, any good sculpture deals with space instead of objecthood. We hope to make the space come alive. Sculpture is for people who react to visual form; it has nothing to do with social class, though it can be refined by education. Just as there are people who are colorblind, there are people who are born blind.”

            In Washington, Abram Lerner, director of the Hirshhorn, says ISIS is bound to be controversial. “Any meaningful work of art is, and certainly this one, given its setting and size. Mark’s a gigantic public artist who thinks in muscular terms, but there’s an enormous ambition and emotional intent in his works not matched by any other artist I can think of. Most constructionists are pretty cool birds—Mark is anything but.”

            Lerner says that from the beginning di Suvero seemed “perfectly obvious” to make ISIS. “Just as the members of ISIS buy old material once used for a specific purpose, Marks takes that same material and gives it new spiritual fulfillment and meaning. He’s a public artist and because he used public space it forces you into a relationship with his work.”

            Di Suvero, meanwhile, has been reassembling the piece in the plaza of the Hirshhorn with the aid of two huge cranes in a fenced-off area erected to keep the crowds of onlookers away. “Joan of Art” Mondale has already dropped by to pay her respects, and the ceremony for the dedication of ISIS, promises the Hirshhorn, will be one of the most elaborate of its kind for any piece of art in the history of the capital—attended by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Secretary of the Interior Cecil D. Andrus. Di Suvero, however, is unconcerned with the folderol. 

            Instead he had to decide whether or not to use the diesel locomotive—loaded onto a truck at the last moment—and how to paint ISIS, a decision he won’t be able to make until he sees the work framed in its own environment.

            Di Suvero ultimately wants people to feel ISIS in a special way. “I want them to sit under a magnolia tree under a full moon and see the ship wave in the breeze. I want it to illuminate their lives and give them a sense that everything weaves in the cosmos.”

This article is typed from the original material.  Please excuse any errors that have escaped final proofreading.