Sculptor. Known for abstract work on an enormous scale, he ranks among the finest and most influential sculptors of the late twentieth century. In developing his personal approach during the late 1950s, he combined abstract expressionism's gestural exuberance, constructivism's structural probity, and the attraction to commonplace materials that characterized junk sculpture. After the mid-1960s he worked most often with clean, industrial building materials, such as steel beams and plates, although he has continued to incorporate varied media and found objects. By engineering his works to appear at first glance unstable and decentered, he creates startling and complex visual effects. Moving parts in numerous works add to their animated presence. Many of di Suvero's works are so large they can be shown only outdoors. Believing in a democratic role for art, he has devoted much of his career to such sculpture commissioned for public places. With their all-American iconography of industrial strength, urban grit, optimistic ambition, and untrammeled individuality, these intensely physical works enter into spirited dialogues with their surroundings. Many even invite the passerby to sit, swing, or clamber on them. The fervor that animates di Suvero's art comprehends a moral dimension, as well. Especially during the 1960s and 1970s, he numbered among major activists in the New York art community. In addition to participating in early efforts to provide noncommercial exhibition opportunities, he led opposition to the Vietnam War. In 1966 he spearheaded construction of a Peace Tower (dismantled after a few months) in Los Angeles, and in 1971 left the country for four years to register his dissatisfaction with the United States government. Later he initiated a community effort to establish the Socrates Sculpture Park at a waterside location in the Long Island City section of Queens. Then an abandoned landfill and now a city park, it provides a graceful setting for large works.
Born to Italian parents in Shanghai, Marco Polo di Suvero arrived with his family in San Francisco in 1941 and graduated with a major in philosophy from the University of California at Berkeley in 1956. Subsequently, in New York he supported himself with skills he had already developed in carpentry, house painting, and other handyman tasks. Concurrently, he made expressionistic bronze and wood pieces, but as he became more familiar with abstract expressionist painting and David Smith's sculpture, he soon introduced an original approach making use of weathered beams, cast-off lumber, architectural timber, disintegrating barrels, and other raw and splintered wood components. The ponderous elements generally angle outward in precarious compositions finding equilibrium among real physical forces. Often compared to the paintings of Franz Kline, the sculptures realize in three dimensions those paintings' restless and heroic tenor. Along with wood, di Suvero also frequently incorporated chains, ropes, tires, or other junk items that intensify the works' origins in the detritus of an urban civilization. This innovative work debuted to acclaim in a one-person show during the autumn of 1960. Several months earlier, di Suvero was paralyzed in an elevator shaft accident while working for a repair company. Permanently affecting his back and legs, this nearly fatal injury confined him to a wheelchair for two years. During this period he learned to weld, so he could make “laptop” sculptures, while continuing also to work with wood on a small scale. Although he did not substantially recover until 1964, against all odds in 1963 he began to design the monumental pieces that constitute his best-known accomplishments. Nevertheless, he has continued throughout his career to fashion smaller and more intimate works. With their handmade fabrication, these generally display more intricate form and a more lyric sensibility than the huge sculptures.