Heavy Metal

"Lao Tzu," Denver's new 1990s di Suvero, recalls in its complicated formal rhythms the artist's early junkyard years. Yet like "XDelta," it is essentially a three-dimensional steel line drawing, with Acoma Plaza serving as di Suvero's paper.

The sculpture's vivid reddish-orange paint scheme has already been compared by some local wags to the famous team colors of our own Orange Crush. But it's actually a distinctly different shade with a decidedly Oriental flavor--a lot more Beijing than Broncos.

Huge at more than 30 feet high and 36 feet long, "Lao Tzu" is a dense horizontal tangle of strong diagonal elements made of I-beams that have been juxtaposed to expressionistic sheet-steel crescents and circles. A sublime sense of balance and of formal tension runs through "Lao Tzu," which is magnificent when viewed from any direction. And there is a subtle kinetic element that hangs in a delicate balance like the yin and yang of the sixth-century Chinese philosopher for whom the sculpture is named. It's all part of a mystical Taoist philosophy--which di Suvero says matter-of-factly that he "of course doesn't believe in."

After weeks of preparation, "Lao Tzu" rose, was disassembled, and then rose again in Denver late last month. The activity occurred under the personal supervision of di Suvero, accompanied by studio assistants Matteo Martignoni, who is the artist's nephew, and Lowell McKegney. Essential aid in assembling the sixteen-ton sculpture also came from a crew of workmen from Denver's Duffy Crane and Hauling, who helpfully provided a Grove fifty-ton-capacity crane and a cherry-picker.

When the last element--the kinetic piece at the top--was finally put in place on Saturday, April 27, the mood among the small group of art devotees assembled on Acoma Plaza was jubilant. Even the roughnecks on the Duffy crew were beaming. One of them, Eugene Perkins, who described Duffy's usual tasks as putting industrial turbines or air conditioners in place, said that it had been "fun putting a sculpture together for a change" and that di Suvero "had been a wonderful man to work for." But much to di Suvero's consternation, putting "Lao Tzu" together hadn't come without a struggle--chiefly from the persistent wind, which, according to Duffy workman Guy Quaintance, slowed down the job considerably (the sculpture was supposed to have been in place the day before).

And it wasn't just the wind that was blowing hard that week. Another hitch developed over the specific siting of the piece. The Denver Landmark Preservation Commission, which has the mandate to oversee historic districts like the Civic Center, had become concerned that the placement of the sculpture would block the view from the south on Acoma Street of the Greek Theatre in Civic Center Park.

"We just all held our breath," says Nancy Tieken, the adjunct curator of the Modern and Contemporary department at the Denver Art Museum, who, along with DAM director Lewis Sharp and Modern and Contemporary curator Dianne Vanderlip, engineered the acquisition of "Lao Tzu." (The same crew scored those twenty Robert Motherwells last year.)

Using his considerable powers of persuasion, di Suvero suggested to the commission that he be allowed to temporarily erect the piece on Thursday, let the commission inspect it while it was in place and then have the group make its final decision on Friday morning. After some hours of discussion, the commission agreed to the plan. "I decided to trust their sensibilities," di Suvero says. "I depended on their aesthetic judgment. They saw it, and they understood that obviously this is the right place. Thank goodness."

Interestingly, di Suvero chose to place "Lao Tzu" essentially in the middle of the south side of Acoma Plaza, much closer to the soon-to-be-remodeled Bach wing of the DAM than his trio of patrons from that facility would have liked. This sends architect George Hoover's expansion plans back to the drawing board, but museum officials don't seem to mind. "This is too great an opportunity, and George understands that and feels that the changes necessitated by the placement are not a big issue," museum director Sharp noted, almost giddy with excitement as the last piece of "Lao Tzu" was put in place. "This is one of the finest objects ever acquired by the community."

And Sharp isn't just whistling in the wind. My advice to the curmudgeons--including one well-known local historian--who have dubbed "Lao Tzu" a pile of "scrap steel": Get over it and allow the rest of us to appreciate a great new Denver landmark.

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