Heavy Metal

Denver's really starting to look and act like a big city. The traffic in town is getting worse by the day. There's no place to park either downtown or in Cherry Creek. And we now have a Mark di Suvero sculpture, "Lao Tzu," sited on Acoma Plaza at the Civic Center. (There had to be an upside to all the population growth of the last few years.)

Completed by di Suvero in 1991, "Lao Tzu" is fine enough to grace any city in the world. But no city needed it as badly as Denver did. To say that there is a profound dearth of public sculpture in Denver is to understate the case. Not only can't Denver be compared to the big cities back East, but we come up short even in fair fights with comparable towns such as Kansas City and Minneapolis.

Think about all the places in Denver where sculpture should be and isn't. Aside from a piece here or there, our world-class parks and parkways are virtually sculpture-free. And the city's less-than-a-decade-old "One Percent for Art" program appears to have done little to correct that situation--a good thing, perhaps, given the questionable taste that invariably seems to accompany the public-art process here.

Because I believe in the centuries-old tradition of art being publicly funded, I hate to think that "Lao Tzu" came to Denver only because the sculpture was acquired by the Denver Art Museum with private funds. But there's no denying it. The substantial largess of a half-million-dollar grant from the NBT Foundation, along with additional funds from Jan and Frederick Mayer, among other donors, is what made this $800,000 gift to the city possible.

And what a gift. Not only is di Suvero arguably the greatest living sculptor (there can be no argument that he's at least one of them), but "Lao Tzu" is among his greatest accomplishments.

In a way, the 63-year-old di Suvero is one of the last of his type, an artist associated with the glory days of the New York School that reigned from roughly the 1950s through the 1970s. More than anyone else working today, he has inherited the New York School mantle and laurel wreath long worn by David Smith, the unrivaled giant of mid-century abstract sculpture in America.

And di Suvero's biography is filled with the sort of stuff we tend to associate with the romance and tragedy of the life of a great artist--beginning with his 1933 birth in Shanghai, China, to Italian parents serving there in the diplomatic corps. Di Suvero was only seven when his family moved permanently to this country. He grew up in northern California and, after studying art and philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley, moved to New York in 1956 to seek his artistic fortune.

Di Suvero's sculpture fell into the funk camp then holding sway in the Bay Area he had just left. For the works he created during the next ten years, the artist used materials scavenged from Manhattan's then-rotting industrial and waterfront areas. He constantly wandered in search of wooden beams, metal pipes, old tires and other likely trash-heap candidates, then used them as ad hoc art supplies.

His work of this period, exemplified by the wood-and-steel sculpture "Stuyvesant's Eye" from 1965, takes such debris and uses it to address complex spatial issues. In this characteristic piece, most of the sculpture's mass floats above the floor. The effect was achieved by di Suvero through the use of chains attached to the top of the sculpture that hold up a broken chair and a weathered barrel, among other found elements.

Work of this sort soon ensured that di Suvero got many exhibition opportunities and was a popular topic of conversation in the nation's art press. But fame and fortune aren't exactly the same thing--especially in the art world--and di Suvero didn't give up his day job in construction. That decision instead was forced on him one day when a runaway elevator at a building site plunged to the ground. Di Suvero's pelvis was crushed, and the sculptor was confined to a wheelchair for the next decade. (He now gets around amazingly well with the aid of a single crutch.)

The resilient di Suvero responded to his disability by creating his most important and seminal body of work, which featured a powerful--and, for him, brand-new--formal clarity. He changed materials, replacing his funky junk with smoothly painted steel. And the size also changed, from small-scale indoor pieces to monumental outdoor ones. He once observed by way of explanation that it was just as easy to operate a crane from a wheelchair as not. The widely publicized "XDelta," a steel sculpture from 1970, illustrates di Suvero's then-new approach to materials, form and scale: It is little more than a giant, eighteen-foot-tall "X" made of painted I-beams held in place by wires, which also hold up a swinging platform.

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia