Will Los Angeles Lose a Beloved Piece of Public Art?
Los Angeles still gets to ask itself regularly what kind of city it wants to be. For instance: Does it believe in large-scale, outdoor, egalitarian public art? In 2001, the artist Mark di Suvero installed “Declaration,” a twenty-five-ton sculpture, on the boardwalk at Venice Beach. Just over sixty feet tall, made from raw-steel I-beams, the sculpture takes the form of two intersecting “V”s: one tilted open toward the city, the other with its point aiming, prow-like, toward the sea. It was a loan, part of an annual benefit for the Venice Family Clinic, which serves low-income, uninsured people, many of them homeless. Intended as temporary, it has since become a fixture in the landscape.
“Let’s meet at the ‘V,’ ” dogwalkers say—the place of meditations, workouts, weddings. (At its base, on any given day: the stub of a joint, a synthetic petal from a lei.) Between a skate park and a police substation, the sculpture is an icon in a city of few monuments, where verticality usually takes the form of oil derricks or fan palms. At the end of the summer, after an eighteen-year run, “Declaration” will be broken down and transported back to the artist’s studio, in Petaluma, unless someone buys it—the estimated value is five million dollars—and donates it to the city.
Several weeks ago, di Suvero’s gallery, L.A. Louver, which is a few paces off the beach, had a show of his smaller-scale pieces; the gathering doubled as an early sendoff for “Declaration.” I found di Suvero in an upstairs room, where he had just awoken from a nap. He is eighty-five, with bright blue eyes; thick, white, storm-tossed hair; and a beard. He wore a rainbow-colored rugby shirt and paint-splattered dark bluejeans, with leather hiking boots. Di Suvero wears a prosthetic leg. Last year, he burned himself while welding, and his leg, already paralyzed from the knee down—he broke his back in 1960, doing manual labor as a young artist in New York—had to be removed.
After his first accident, doctors told him that he would be paraplegic for life. Wood, a favorite material of his, became too hard to manipulate; wheelchair-bound, he worked in steel. In 1966, he learned to use a crane—physical freedom, care of machine. “All my work depends upon my understanding of how to work with a crane,” he told me. “I am a crane operator.” The crane is a brush, and the sculptures are like three-dimensional Franz Kline paintings, or large-boned children of Alexander Calder. Di Suvero, who has never used maquettes or fabricators, says that making art is about “overcoming despair.” He named his first crane “For Love,” after a collection of Robert Creeley poems.
I wanted to know what Venice meant to him. “You’re talking about this Venice, right?” he said. In the seventies, after leaving the United States to protest the Vietnam War and police violence against demonstrators (he was arrested himself, dragged through the streets, in spite of his disability, and then jailed), di Suvero went to live in Europe. For a time, he lived in Venice, Italy, where his grandfather was from. (The family palazzo is now a music foundation.) Di Suvero’s father was a former naval engineer, living in Shanghai, where di Suvero was born in 1933. Escaping Italian fascism, the family emigrated, arriving in San Francisco in 1941, passing under the Golden Gate Bridge: his first impression of America.
As a child in San Francisco, di Suvero told me, he befriended an artist who had studied with the brother of the sculptor Gutzon Borglum, the creator of Mt. Rushmore. “She told me, ‘You read too many books,’ ” he said. She encouraged him to build. Richard Serra, whose family lived a couple of houses away from the di Suveros, in the Sunset District, remembers di Suvero making structures out of driftwood and detritus scavenged from the beach. In his teens, di Suvero became a boatbuilder, and, solo, he sailed the coast of California; landing in Santa Barbara, he lived in a tree house and studied philosophy, sculpture, and painting at the university.
Making art for the public is central to di Suvero’s practice. In New York, where he moved after college, he founded numerous artists’ collectives and established the Socrates Sculpture Park, in Astoria, Queens, to exhibit the work of emerging artists. In the eighties, he began a decades-long association with Storm King Art Center, where many of his sculptures are installed. “Declaration,” he told me, was named for the Declaration of Independence—particularly Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s version, with its emphasis on equality and its application to everyone. The sculpture’s site, on Venice Beach, means that the work’s authentic public are the homeless and indigent people who spend the most time there. Di Suvero’s work is a balancing act: improbable weights at unlikely angles. His pieces, many of which live outside, are subject to unpredictable forces. This premise is an apt metaphor for the crisis facing “Declaration.” In an increasingly wealthy megacity with a rising rate of homelessness, is art for the people worth paying for?
The earliest sculptures were placeholders for gods, objects to be worshipped. Di Suvero’s sculptures invert that hierarchy. They exalt, daven, salute the sun. They are giant yet unpretentious. Many are designed to be interactive. Most of them are painted a Golden Gate-inspired orange. This summer, belatedly, “Declaration” is likely going to be painted orange, too. Then, unless this city of billionaires finds the money to pay for it, it will, regrettably, disappear from Los Angeles’s horizon line for good.