The sculptor Mark di Suvero’s New York studio occupies a complex of warehouses on an isolated stretch of the East River in Astoria, Queens. But the outward anonymity belies what’s inside: something like a bustling artists’ commune, over which di Suvero presides. There are large, live-in studios set aside for younger artists, and several glossy exhibition spaces display his work. (The legendary dealer Richard Bellamy, who gave di Suvero his first show and helped find the studio, which the artist purchased in 1980, ran a little-known gallery out of one of these rooms for close to 15 years.) There’s a touch of luxury outdoors — a small vineyard near the bank of the river — but it’s buffered by di Suvero’s brutal workroom, which functions as a kind of graveyard of unfinished sculptures, scattered among forklifts and laser cutters. In a common room, stacks of books stretch to the ceiling.
On a recent morning, two large dogs slept in a corner there, and a group of assistants sat around a large wooden table. Many of them had worked with di Suvero for years and had, at one point or another, lived in the warehouse or in one of his other studios. A small di Suvero sculpture — a sturdy mass of steel sitting atop a vertical chassis that looked like some immovable, upside-down anchor — was situated between them. Di Suvero entered the room wearing an orange hard hat and a dirty red work shirt, walking with two canes, the result of a construction accident that broke his back just before his first solo exhibition, at Bellamy’s famous Green Gallery, in 1960. Di Suvero uses a wheelchair more and more these days — he’s 83 — but he still does much of the work on his sculptures by hand. “It’s important to him,” one of the assistants said. “It’s his reason for getting up in the morning.”
Di Suvero is one of the last surviving Abstract Expressionists, and virtually the only artist from that era still making new work. (He’ll open a show at Paula Cooper Gallery in New York on Nov. 3.) His sculptures have been celebrated since the first Green Gallery show, but in his six-decade career, di Suvero has also given his time and resources to other artists, playing a quieter role as a political operator.
The studio in Queens has provided work space or housing for so many artists — including Ursula von Rydingsvard and Heidi Fasnacht — that di Suvero has lost count. He built it out of a crumbling pier on a section of the East River called Hell Gate, and for years after he moved in, the surrounding neighborhood lived up to this name. The artist described a stretch of road where Astoria Boulevard comes to an end as a popular spot for carjackers, who would hide behind the tall bushes at the intersection, embracing the element of surprise. When people in the neighborhood complained about the situation, di Suvero said, the city’s solution was to trim the bushes.Continue reading the main story
Di Suvero had a different response. He hired residents from the Smith Houses in Manhattan, as well as the nearby Astoria Houses project — he still refers to them as “my kids” — to help him build out his studio and the surrounding land, which had primarily been used as an illegal dumping ground. (“Rat Park,” as he used to call it.) He transformed it into the city’s first outdoor sculpture park, Socrates. Over the last 30 years, over 1,000 artists have exhibited there — and it has broadened the acceptance of public art in the city. The work was touch and go for a while. Di Suvero was mugged at his door one night by someone who had been working to help clean up the park during the day. “I knew the guy — not only his name, but his Social Security number,” di Suvero said. He was on the artist’s payroll. “And he’d been paid, like, $65 the night before, but he needed money right then.” (Di Suvero’s Great Dane helped ward off the attack.)
Bellamy opened his gallery, called Oil & Steel, in the studio in 1985. Di Suvero gave him the space for free: “There was no question of him paying rent,” he said. “He discovered the place.” Bellamy, whom di Suvero described as “a brother,” showed work mostly by his friends, like Richard Nonas and Walter de Maria. He also had the ceiling painted a sickly blue color, an embellishment that still stands. The gallery remained something of a secret. “Nobody would come here,” di Suvero said. “It looked like a dump. They didn’t want to come in.” It was certainly an odd location for a gallery championing the avant-garde. There weren’t many collectors who made the trek to Queens (“he was a terrible dealer,” di Suvero said of Bellamy, because “he didn’t care about money”), but there were other visitors. One day, a local kid stole Bellamy’s computer — again, the perpetrator was known around the studio — and the dealer had to send an employee out into the neighborhood to buy it back.
The Queens complex is only the most current example of di Suvero’s utopian, collaborative vision. In 1962, he co-founded Park Place, one of the first artists’ cooperative galleries in New York, which became a model for the SoHo gallery district later in the decade. (The artist-dealers never sold much work, but they did start a short-lived and possibly doomed jazz band, in which di Suvero played the steel drum.) And in the 1970s, he began installing his sculpture in public areas long before this was a common or even desired practice. Di Suvero’s old studio on Front Street, above the former Fulton Fish Market, was a meeting ground, and occasional residence, for artists like Linda Fleming, and Danny Lyon used the space as inspiration for his photography book, “The Destruction of Lower Manhattan.” And di Suvero would later turn a converted barge in Chalon-sur-Saone into another quasi-commune called “La Vie des Formes,” giving artists from all over the world a place to live and work.
The Astoria Houses project is still standing, but the neighborhood surrounding di Suvero has been transformed, in no small part because of the artist’s presence. Around Socrates, there are now luxury apartment towers. “And they advertise that one of the reasons they can rent them out,” di Suvero pointed out with an exasperated smile, “is because of Socrates Sculpture Park.”
This social element to di Suvero’s work isn’t so much accidental as unconscious. He doesn’t publicize it, and it has made him difficult to categorize: You couldn’t quite make the argument that John Chamberlain, a di Suvero contemporary, was a community builder. When asked if he identified with the label most commonly applied to him — Abstract Expressionist — di Suvero cringed: “Oh, God. No.” He tapped a corner of the sculpture at the center of the table in the common room with his hand. It started to spin silently around its base, not nearly as rigid as it had seemed at first glance, and di Suvero laughed: “I’m a corrupted constructivist.”