Just under half a century has passed since the young Mark di Suvero (born 1933) made his debut with an exhibition of sculpture that met with instant astonishment and acclaim. Sheer scale would have been enough to cause astonishment-the tallest sculpture was over eight feet high-but size was by no means the principal appeal of the work. This was sculpture that was at once soaring and friendly. Its monumentality seemed to live on easy terms with an earthy and playful spirit. And while the methods and materials of the artist were familiar to anyone acquainted with modernist sculpture-these were constructions of wood and cut-and-twisted metal-the work itself had the character of something wholly new and original.
Another thing that made Mr. di Suvero’s 1960 debut exhibition noteworthy was the critical praise it elicited. Not since Clement Greenberg hailed David Smith as “the best young sculptor in the country” in 1946 had a major sculptural talent in this country been so promptly lavished with critical superlatives. And whereas Greenberg’s praise tended to be somewhat dry and laconic, the essay that Sidney Geist devoted to Mr. di Suvero’s debut was lengthy and ebullient in announcing the dawn of a new era in the history of sculpture. These were the opening paragraphs of the essay entitled “A New Sculptor: Mark di Suvero,” which Mr. Geist published in the December 1960 issue of Arts Magazine:
“It was bound to happen, sooner or later, the appearance of some sculpture that was not merely tremendous or interesting or even terrific, but that deserved another adjective, like great; that stepped beyond our immediate experience into history. And it happened in the show of Mark di Suvero’s sculpture at the Green Gallery in New York a few weeks ago. Surely it was a vague sense of participating in a historical moment on October 18 that cast a spell on the opening-night viewers, most of them too young to have had much experience of history. I myself have not been so moved by a show of sculpture since the Brancusi exhibition of 1933.
“History is glad to record the arrival of any new artist, the creation of a new beauty, or the presence of a singular work of art, but the real stuff of history is made of those moments at which one can say: From now on nothing will be the same. One felt this at di Suvero’s show. Here was a body of work at once so ambitious and intelligent, so raw and clean, so noble and accessible, that it must permanently alter our standards of artistic effort.”
Needless to say, critical praise on this level, and especially from this writer-Sidney Geist is himself a highly accomplished sculptor and one of our most respected critics-was bound to command attention. It also posed a challenge for the artist: What to do next? When you’ve been heralded for ascending to the heights, how do you negotiate a return to common ground?
It’s a further testimony to Mr. di Suvero’s remarkable self-possession that he bided his time in responding to this challenge even as the art scene was exploding with a mania for more and more Minimalism. Suddenly, that hoary paradoxical notion that less is more was being revived on a scale never before attempted, as the art public flocked to visit larger-than-ever gallery spaces in which there was usually, alas, less and less to look at. In some cases, it got to the point where-especially in the newer venues in Chelsea-the design of the gallery space was almost the only thing left to look at with real interest.
Given this curious turn in “advanced” taste, the exhibition of Mr. di Suvero’s most recent work, currently on view at Knoedler & Company, is almost as startling as his debut all those years ago. It’s called Mark di Suvero: Indoors, and as the name implies, the show eschews gigantism in favor of intimacy. There’s a greater concentration on sculpture as three-dimensional drawing. The gestures traced in these steel and stainless-steel forms are more calligraphic than constructivist; and the drawings that accompany the sculptures give us another level of engagement with the artist’s inventive sensibility.
Mark di Suvero: Indoors remains on view at Knoedler & Company, 19 East 70th Street, through Aug. 12, and has been organized in collaboration with the Paula Cooper Gallery in New York.