In today's Wall Street Journal (go here), I interview Mark di Suvero, one of America's most significant sculptors. What makes Mark so special, in addition to his boldness, is that he works in steel. Big steel. As in steel girders. Steel plates. And stainless steel. He welds it. He torches it. And he hoists it from a crane to bend it. What's most remarkable about his massive pieces is how intimate Mark is with gravity. It's one thing to have a Montana-sized vision for what you want to do. It's another to create such works that actually stand and spin without tumbling over. As Mark told me, "I'm always conscious of balance and gravity's center point. Like a dancer or an acrobat—I'm feeling for that invisible point. For me, gravity is about space, the way water is to a surfer. Gravity isn't an adversary or an obstacle but an enabling force."
Not bad for a guy who gets around on aluminum forearm crutches. Mark had a horrible accident in an elevator shaft in 1960. But being paralyzed didn't stop him from sculpting from his wheelchair or from using his arms later in the '60s to hoist himself up beams to weld and bolt them into place. Mark is a pure '50s artist. He's as tough as nails, he's a poet at heart, and he never gives up or quits.
Actually, you're probably already familiar with Mark's work. As you look at the images in this post, you probably recognize that his multi-ton pieces stand in cities, in parks and on college campuses all over the U.S. and the world.
I knew Mark was fond of jazz before I went over to his studio in Queens, N.Y. How could he not be? Mark came of age as an artist in the 1950s, when abstract expressionism ruled and artists could be found on every corner of New York's East Village. So when I arrived at his studio in Long Island City, I brought along a bunch of CDs as a gift. "Monk!," he shouted when he shuffled through the batch. "Rahsaan Roland Kirk! Jim Hall! And Sonny Rollins! Thank you so much."
Mark was awarded the National Medal of Arts in March along with Sonny Rollins and others by President Obama. Mark and Sonny talked at length. Mark said he was in awe of Sonny. I'm sure Sonny is in awe of Mark. As I told Mark, a dream would be to listen to Sonny compose in front of one of his pieces.
Mark showed me around his studio complex—which has 20-foot high ceilings and massive factory doors. We spoke for an hour up in his office, a foreman's perch high above what used to be a brickyard sitting on the banks of the swirling East River, with Manhattan across the way.
When we were finished, I saw a set of vibes in the corner. When I asked Mark to play, he declined. When I pushed, he insisted I first lie on my back on a free-floating mattress attached to the ceiling by four cables. In addition to his massive sculptures and desktop pieces, Mark also designs the most amazing furniture.
So while I was on my back swaying slightly, Mark played the vibes—a free jazz style that has much in common with his abstract expressionist vision. He was particularly delighted by the swirling sound of the electrified notes filling the air. If geometry has a sound, Mark has discovered the music. When he finished playing, he smiled and remarked that steel, in addition to being a malleable alloy, also had a majestic, sensitive sound.
I hope you'll have a chance to read my Wall Street Journal piece. Sculpture is another one of my passions, and Mark has much in common with jazz and jazz artists. He comes from the era when jazz and art were only this far apart. Today, artists and musicians seem to have lost touch with each other. What a shame. Both could benefit from a re-introduction.
JazzWax note: For more on Mark di Suvero, go here. For more on Mark's works at the Storm King Art Center in New York, go here. And for more on Mark's current exhibit on New York's Governors Island (a free ferry ride from lower Manhattan and Brooklyn), go here.
JazzWax clip: Here's a wonderful clip that will give you a fine sense of Mark's works—their massive size, their grace and their playfulness...