MARK DI SUVERO
DECLARATION OF SPIRIT
As you walk toward Venice Beach past the end of Windward Avenue, Mark di Suvero's newly installed sculpture greets you with breathtaking suddenness. Out of the tangled cadence of slightly swaying palms, "Declaration" soars majestically above gentle explosions of fronds. As with much of di Suvero's work, massive steel beams converge in impossibly graceful balance, so that your awareness of staggering weight and size gives way to an exhilarating sense of space and possibility.
Mark di Suvero has installed this piece, in cooperation with LA Louver, to mark the occasion of the Venice Art Walk's 22 nd year in support of the Venice Family Clinic. Di Suvero's work couldn't be a more perfect choice. As long time friend Laddie John Dill said at the commemoration, "Mark has this incredible commitment to peace and the human spirit." That a work of such scale is conceived and implemented by a man with a broken back, who stands with support of twin canes, is remarkable testament to the triumph of that spirit.
Mark di Suvero was born in Shanghai in 1933 and came to San Francisco in 1941. Di Suvero's early work of the late fifties were often fabrications of found objects; tires, cable, rope, lumber and steel which he combined to create unusually graceful and delicate sculptures. A nearly fatal studio accident, in 1960, left di Suvero with a broken back and confined to a wheel chair for several years. Yet by the mid-sixties, di Suvero's work on large scale steel sculptures had resumed with greater ambition than ever.
It is impossible to stand before di Suvero's powerful, lyrically balanced sculptures without a sense of wonder at how they came into being. When I met di Suvero at the site for "Declaration" , he was wearing his characteristic hard hat and had just finished the installation with his small crew. The cranes and lifts surrounding the 60 foot high piece were no help in imagining how he did it. Yet after spending time with Mark di Suvero, you realize that with passion and energy all things are possible.
Venice: Let's talk about the piece you just installed, "Declaration" . I went earlier today and it was so big that that I didn't see it at first. I was looking down too low-
Mark di Suvero: Too low huh? Are you sure it wasn't the pollution that made it blend into the background?
Well the trees do have an interesting effect with it.
Peter [Goulds, owner of LA Louver Gallery] promised to paint it fluorescent orange, himself. I like the idea.
Put him to work.
Yes. Do you want to talk about the artists' of Venice that I've known?
Sure. Why don't we start with that.
Okay. There is Guy Dill, and Laddie John Dill. And I like to look at the beautiful pieces of Kenny Price that are here. Joe Goode, and people like that. They were all working when I was working in the city. It was when we were all awake and alive, some thirty years ago
Yeah, late sixties, early seventies?
Late sixties just up to seventy.
And you lived in the West Hollywood area?
West Hollywood, and then in Pasadena. Pasadena has changed completely. Of course thirty years ago, for Los Angeles, means a couple of generations ago. (Laughs) It is different now.
A lot of those artists- Larry Bell, Robert Irwin, De Wain Valentine, Billy Al Bengston-worked with materials like polyester and resin, pursuing ideas about light and space-
-They were the cutting edge, Finish / Fetish, the whole idea of abstract expressionism, or "A.E.". go on-
Did you have any flirtation with those materials or ideas? How did you see yourself fitting in artistically?
No. They kind of refused me. I was from New York, although we were all friends. They were supposedly of another type, and I didn't quite fit in. The work I was doing was too raw, or seemed raw. It seemed funky. It seemed direct, and that wasn't what they were doing. But they liked me, because there was that sense that we were all working together and had something.
Who were your early influences as an artist?
Early influences...well, how far back do you want me to go?
I'll let you decide.
I had to do a studio class today, for Otis, and I talked to them about the Venus of Willendorf and Brancusi as two different poles. As two different time sets. You look at the Venus of Willendorf and you look at Brancusi as really deep influences. People that I liked, of course were...what... you weren't born in the Fifties-
So that's about when I started. I started in about '55. I was in school. The people that I really looked at, at the time were people like Gonzales and Henry Moore, who was considered modern. There was Picasso, there was Brancusi, there were the Americans like, ah help me-
-David Smith -
Yeah, David Smith, those people.
When did you feel your work began to develop its current identity?
After I had my back broken, that's when I really was able to finally start welding, no longer working just with wood. I looked a lot at the Russian Constructivists, so by the time I came to L.A., I was working with heavy wood, large I-beams. I had already done pieces like "Maryann Moore" , which is now in the Mall in Washington D.C. So what they call my signature style, which is actually sculpture that is the right size and scale for working with a truck crane, had already been reached. Although I hadn't reached it to the level of this piece, "Declaration" .
Even your smaller works have a wonderful monumentality to them. If you look at them out of any context of scale, they could be huge.
I talked to Don Judd about that. We were talking about scale as this kind of internal reference. For me, the real struggle for sculpture since the very early sixties has to do with space. The people who really began that spatial exploration were Rodin with his "Burghers of Calais" . Not the one you have here in LA [at the LA County Museum], which is all wrong spatially, but the one where they are spread out and they look like they are lost and in lost directions. Then it goes into Giacometti, with his "Men in a Square" , where everybody looks like they have nothing to do with each other, they're going all in different ways. There is that sense of space and scale which is really completely different from the previous ideas- the monuments, the monoliths- where the space is enclosing. A lot of the people in L.A. when I was working here, did not have that. They were into Andy Warhol, and that Finish / Fetish stuff, and stuff like that. So I was a little bit out of it, and finally I had to leave. So it wasn't only because of Norton Simon-
What was your run-in with Norton Simon?
When I returned after the Vietnam War, Norton Simon said to me that I had to get my piece out of there, [the Pasadena Museum] and that they would pay for the crane to bring it down but they would not pay for the truck. So I had to pay for the truck back to my studio. The piece ended up back in my studio and later near a Phillip Johnson building.
That was right after Norton Simon took over the Pasadena Museum?
Yes. Then he destroyed it.
I know for a lot of you back then, the Pasadena Museum was a real seminal, supportive environment.
From everyone I've talked to, the Pasadena Museum had a huge impact on the development of an artistic sensibility in Los Angeles. It was really the beginning...
Yup! John Coplans was there and Barbara Haskell. Then Norton Simon came in, it had to do with their budget, and they lost it.
A big loss at the time, for LA artists.
What is there now, LACMA, right? There's the Contemporary [Museum of Contemporary Art] right? Then there's the Temporary Contemporary [Geffen Contemporary] -which has done so much, I think.
One of the Geffen's most impressive recent shows was the one for Richard Serra-
I didn't see it, but it also went to Bilbao and it was a big success in there.
You and Serra both work with massively large scale steel sculptures. Although they are clearly quite different in style, are you pursuing similar sculptural and spatial concerns?
There's a great deal of difference, although we grew up together. Same area, we had only one house between us. We grew up in the same neighborhood. No, I think Richard has had terrific influence, and although we work in the same material there are strong differences. I asked Dick Bellamy to show Nancy Graves, that's when they were together, but he showed Richard Serra. I think that Nancy Graves is in some ways so wild and explorative and Richard has a different psychological zone to him.
Let's talk about this piece for a minute. It has a feeling of celebration of life. But there's also something quite sexual about it-
Sensual or Sexual?
Well, perhaps sensual with a sexual twist?
Well, when I suggested bungie cords with a bed at the bottom, there were people who said that it wouldn't work in Venice, it would get worn out! (laughs).
In conceiving of "Declaration", was there any thought in terms of the theme of that particular piece? Did that have anything to do with commemorating the Venice Family Clinic?
No it didn't. I had built the piece and had already finished it. It was already in position when Peter [Goulds] first saw it. It's a heavy piece, for me but I think that it has that thing I aimed for.
What do you aim for?
I've been writing a book for the last thirty years and it has to do with the human perception of structure. The idea of symbolic structures in language, math, and art. Maybe it's going to get published. It has in it photos of a hundred pieces of sculptures that are more than five meters tall. The photos will say something about the sculpture and my choice of poetry will say something about my vision of structure in poetry, which is what I think is necessary to make a work glow.
So you see a parallel between the structural form of sculpture and the structural form of language and poetry?
I had to jam the book together to say it to you, but there's a dimension in there that you are correct in, but I wouldn't quite say it that way.
In terms of the massive scale of this piece, relative to the scale of the viewer, there is a sensation that is quite humbling. When you walk up to it, the piece becomes almost overwhelming in its size.
I would like to think not that it's humbling but that it expands your sense of possibility of spirit. After all, I realize that for the last 40 years that I've been handicapped, I'd like kids to feel, "Wow, if someone handicapped can do that, I sure can!". I like there to be a certain level of participation. Whether its in small pieces where there's touch and you have that sense of feel or with pieces with swinging beds, which work on your sense of balance. I've done these pieces where people walk right through the sculpture-
Which "Declaration" invites you to do.
Yes. That goes back some thirty odd years.
Upon seeing "Declaration", my first reaction was that I wished that there weren't palm trees behind it so that I could really see the stark contrast of the structure against the vast expanse of the ocean. But on further reflection, I like how something of that scale is initially lost in the trees and then suddenly erupts from the landscape behind it and towers against the sky.
You know there's an ecstatic poet named Rumey. Do you know his work?
I dedicated a work to him years ago. It was shown in New York and at the Guggenheim in Venezia. It's in Kansas City now. He talks about ecstacy. Its a joining of the world with the world in a way that is, and should be, joyous and brilliant and colorful and all of it, all at once. Which is why I want Peter to paint that piece fluorescent orange. He should start from the top. He suggested a sable brush!
I heard him and I hope that he does because that will mean that it will be here for a lot longer than the four months that is planned.
I'm afraid it will get tagged more often - but that's OK too.
In spite of the fact that you say "Declaration" was not specifically created for the Venice Family Clinic, it seems like a great choice because it feels like such a life affirming piece.
Well, I would like it to be that. You know I told Peter when they demanded a building permit two days before it went up, that if he didn't get the permit then there was no show. I would not deliver the piece, although it was half loaded onto the trucks. But I still felt positive about it because of doing the lithographs (for the Venice Family Clinic), doing the posters and T-shirts, which I don't normally do. But I felt it was all going for a really righteous type of thinking. That Family Clinic is terrific. I think that Liz Forer and the people that work there and volunteer are the best part of America.