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.

The work that followed, especially his classic abstract sculptures of the 1970s, quickly changed di Suvero's status from that of an interesting artist to that of a truly important one. And nothing has happened in the intervening twenty years to change that.

"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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