The last retrospective dedicated to Mark di Suvero took place more than thirty years ago, when the artist was in his late fifties and had already been making work for more than three decades. That the length of his career has more than doubled since then—and there hasn’t been a comprehensive retrospective since—is notable. Di Suvero never slowed his pace of making and innovating, and as he approaches his ninetieth birthday, he has at long last been heralded with an overdue survey. Mark di Suvero: Steel Like Paper, now on view at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas and organized by the museum’s Chief Curator Jed Morse, includes thirty sculptures in addition to a wide array of lesser known drawings and paintings. Across these bodies of work, which span from the late 1950s through the present, di Suvero’s much-lauded vitality and generosity of spirit pervades the show, bestowing the viewer with a lingering sense of joie de vivre that is sometimes hard to come by in an oft-antiseptic contemporary museum setting.
In the Nasher’s central gallery, the lofty sculpture Swing (2008–22) is both a focal point and an invitation. A stainless steel base soars towards the ceiling from which hangs a cradle made from steel and rubber, loosely resembling a large bird’s nest. Visitors are encouraged to climb into the swing (one at a time) and are given a gentle push by a docent. This feels revolutionary in an age where works of art have been almost entirely cut off from all of the senses besides sight. In a museum, it’s standard that we look but don’t touch, and soon forget the fact that there are indeed many different ways to see.
Rocking in the swing while overlooking the vast gallery and huge picture windows facing the museum’s bucolic sculpture garden—which features a number of di Suvero’s iconic outdoor steel sculptures—the viewer has the sensation of becoming part of the sculpture, and is also imparted with a distinct awareness of being within one’s own body. That so many people who swing in di Suvero’s sculpture feel compelled to quickly jump out, a defensive measure against dawning self-consciousness, only underscores what di Suvero seems to be trying to share. Contemporary life discourages us from such intimate contact with our own human vessels. We don’t want to think about the untold goofy and heedless gestures we enact each day. A moment of vulnerability transpires when resting in di Suvero’s swing. For those who can allow themselves to linger in his refuge, swaying to and fro, the gentle action becomes a radical act of magnanimity.
Di Suvero’s name is nearly synonymous with his towering, large-scale outdoor pieces and public sculptures, and probably for that reason his work is frequently described as “monumental,” though the artist himself eschews that term. Even his largest works aren’t so much muscular in the sense of being aggressive or brawny, but rather in the somatic sense. They’re in sympathy with the body relative to its movement through space. A work like Swing provides a rejoinder to the prescribed line of thinking on di Suvero’s work; though it sails upwards, nearly grazing the ceiling, the humane quality of the sculpture is preserved.
Again and again, di Suvero’s work testifies to the exhilaration of fluidity and movement. This was true even in his earliest sculptures, but its importance cannot be divorced from the poignancy it assumed after 1960, the year the artist became paralyzed from the waist down following a devastating accident he suffered while working a day laborer’s job. At thirty-one years old, he defied his doctors’ predictions that he would never walk again, and regained mobility with the assistance of leg braces and canes. Hankchampion (1960) memorializes this critical juncture in di Suvero’s life, a work begun prior to his accident, and completed—with help of his younger brother Hank—in its wake. Salvaged from building demolitions in lower Manhattan that di Suvero frequently scrounged for materials early in his career, the chunky scraps of wood, though immobile, are pieced together in such a way as to suggest forward momentum. The sculpture simultaneously conveys precarity and sturdiness, locked in poetic limbo.
The exhibition makes a further case for the “anti-monumentality” of di Suvero’s work by highlighting a number of sculptures that are human-scale or smaller, including St. John the Baptist (1961), the first work he made completely in steel after learning how to weld following his accident. Some of the cuts to the metal appear jagged, as might befit an early work in metal but the slatted elements that dangle from one armature of the work, and resemble a twisted spine, are heart-rending. From here, audiences witness di Suvero’s increasing facility with metal across the ensuing decades. In a mature work like the tabletop sculpture WonTon (1970), di Suvero has coaxed an easy sensuality from the steel, bending and curling it into sinuous knots and corkscrews that can be shifted into various configurations, leaving open the possibility that one may never see exactly the same sculpture twice. With his implied encouragement of human interaction with the work itself, di Suvero again bucks the convention of severing object from mortal.
A number of drawings, prints, and paintings are also included in Steel Like Paper, emphasizing a less frequently seen but crucial facet of di Suvero’s oeuvre. His drawings are done in an assertive hand that communicates a warm optimism. As in a series of ink drawings from 2000–2001 titled “Eviva” for his large, outdoor sculpture Eviva Amore (2001) that sits in the Nasher’s sculpture garden as part of the permanent collection, his gestures on paper are reminiscent of the vigorous work of sculpture without ever crossing over into precise description. “If he could capture the energy of his ideas in a drawing,” Morse notes in his exhibition catalogue essay, di Suvero has said that “he could convey that energy in the finished sculpture.” Elsewhere, a nearly wall-sized canvas, Untitled (1995) is a two-dimensional surprise standout of the show. At around nine by eleven feet, the abstract painting is awash in squiggles of bold, kinetic color over a background of rich blue tones. Drawn in by the kineticism of di Suvero’s assured marks, which seem to move in a kaleidoscopic waltz across the surface, the eye can’t help but dance across the canvas. Once again, the viewer becomes one with the work, impossible to separate the dancer from the dance.
– Jessica Holmes