“After 60 years I’m still doing it with my hands. I cut the steel. I weld it. I put it together,” said Mark di Suvero over the phone. Speaking of working in steel for the past six decades, he states, “You have to go with it — when you’re working. It’s like the grain of wood. It goes one way; if you try to plane it in the wrong way it doesn’t work.”
If you’ve been in Chelsea lately you’ve probably noticed the brightly colored steel sculpture on 11th avenue between 25th and 26th streets. The work, installed in a vacant lot, elegantly covered in pea gravel, soars 50 feet into the air. The bright cadmium red against the brick-and-glass backdrop of the city brilliantly shocks the eye. The tripod-shaped I-beam structure, “Hugs” (2011), is di Suvero’s latest massive sculptural installation for Paula Cooper in celebration of the gallery’s 50th anniversary. The work also honors di Suvero’s history with Cooper; they began working together in 1965 at Park Place Gallery.
“What art can do for a community is incredible,” di Suvero told me from his California studio. He emphasized the need to make art accessible to the public. Scale has in many ways informed the placement of his work in outdoor environments, but it is also the artist’s preference. “My problem is the scale that I like, that I feel is the right scale for human beings — with the sky and building and clouds around, it unifies everything — doesn’t fit inside.” While museums are public institutions, they often create an unseen barrier between the viewer and the work; many people choose not to go to museums because of the cost or the perception that museums are irrelevant to them. But if the work is outside, people will see it.
“Anesthetic” is how di Suvero describes the barriers placed between the viewer and art at museums. “You got to stand in line to get a ticket; it stops your instant feeling of how the sky is blue.” For him, the satisfaction of relocating art outdoors far exceeded his desire to place it in an institution. In fact, there is only one di Suvero in the world that resides indoors, at a shopping mall in Dallas, Texas opened by the late Raymond Nasher. “I think that he [Nasher] was a very dedicated man, and has done really wonderful things for Texas, and for Dallas,” he explained. “He changed the view of what art was for Texas. Before that it was just country western and boots or something,” he added in a playful tone.
Di Suvero’s journey to art has had its harrowing moments. He was in a near fatal accident in 1960 that resulted in a year-long hospitalization and residual paralysis. The need to create partly emerged from this experience, as well as a formative encounter in his youth. Born in Shanghai, China, in 1933, the son of a naval attaché for the Italian government, his family immigrated to San Francisco in 1941 after the outbreak of World War II. As an immigrant in the 1940s, he met an artist who deeply impacted him. “I was taught by a woman who ran a children’s arts and crafts [program] in San Francisco, and we as immigrants — we lived in her basement,” he shared. “She told me, ‘Mark you read too many books,'” and she urged him to start using his hands and making things. “You have people who come into your life and they say one thing or do one thing and it changes your whole life,” he added. Needless to say, di Suvero did start working with his hands; his relationship with art spans from his sculpture to his love of classical music to his still-intense affair with the written word. “We are surrounded by symbolic structures,” he told me. “Many things people just take for granted. They don’t stop to think about the amazing things that language does — transferring your unity to someone else.”
During the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement at Zuccotti Park, where di Suvero’s “Joie de Vivre” sculpture resides, the work became a symbol of corporate greed — corporations buy art, place it in public spaces, and write off their cost. Occupiers referred to the sculpture as the “weird red thing.” During this time, Di Suvero remained conspicuously silent on the matter. Over the phone, I asked him why. He replied by alluding to how times have changed since he first came to New York in 1957. “It was such a different world then,” he said. “Now the influence of money has been just [something] I find very negative. Although I live by it, I have to have income in order [to keep] everything working, it is not the rule. … People and money have done something with the art since the ’60s that is just, how can I put it, it is a very difficult relationship.”
Perhaps, by putting his work outside, di Suvero inadvertently put this “very different relationship” into relief. While art might have an intended meaning or framework around it for the viewer to engage with, art is also a mirror — it reflects the experience of the viewer, who will often project onto the art. At its best, public art does a service to a community, it can inspire a new conversation, or be a space in which people are moved to create call to action. There is less control over how people will interact with public art than with work installed in a museum or gallery. There is a freeness there, an ability to ambulate and move around it and breathe with the work, and that is what continues its relevance.
Hugs continues at 220 11th Avenue, Manhattan through February 28.