By the time Stalin coined the phrase “engineer of the soul” to describe the ideal Soviet artist his regime had already crushed the visionary Russian art movement to which the term would actually have been applicable: Constructivism.
The suppressed impulse of Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International enjoyed an unlikely afterlife, however, in the career of a Shanghai-born, California-raised Italian-American abstractionist. Mark di Suvero has populated sculpture parks, coporate plazas and university campuses across the world with fiesty, gravity-defying, bright red-painted or artfully rusted exclamations in steel. Thrusting their limblike elements into the air in a spirit of defiant optimism, his structures operate like emblems of some long lost ideology.
An early masterpiece from his hand has been reconstructed at Paula Cooper Gallery in Chelsea, whose premises include an appropriately hangar-like structure to accommodate this 24 foot high steel and wood construction. Di Suvero put together Nova Albion in 1964-5 on the beach in northern California using sawn logs and entire trunks. The original wood has since rotted, but the steel elements bracing them together were kept in storage for decades.
Somewhat uncharacteristic in this more poetic than workerist early piece is the delicacy with which shaped and welded metal locks into warm wood. Pure and perennial di Suvero, however, is the fearless sense of conquest the soaring forms engender.
Three works by di Suvero, meanwhile , are also on view in Renzo Piano’s atrium of the Morgan Library and Museum, through September 12, in what is billed as that institution’s first exhibition of contemporary sculpture.
A version of this article first appeared at nysun.com (the New York Sun) on June 14, 2010print