Volume 19, Number 3 | June 2-8, 2006

The man behind life’s joy

Downtown Express photo by Lorenzo Ciniglio
Mark di Suvero’s “Joie de Vivre” sculpture outside Liberty Plaza Park, which reopens Thursday.


The sculptor will be there when they dedicate the little park next to his Big Red X Thursday, but his mouth will be zipped.

Or so he says.

“They’re not going to let me talk,” Mark di Suvero, 72, said genially, explosively, from his studio hard by the river in Long Island City. “Nah, they’re scared. I got arrested during the [Republican] convention for saying Bush lied. I was one of the oldest people that got hauled in. You should have seen how the cops treated the young girls.”

The little park is Liberty Plaza Park, Broadway at Cedar St., catty-corner to the onetime World Trade Center, and the Big Red X is di Suvero’s 70-foot-high “Joie de Vivre” in steel beams painted red.

“It’s not an X,” the sculptor no less genially- explosively corrected this writer during a telephone interview. “There’s no X in it! It’s a series of tetrahedrons that are open at the ends. Yes, of course I call it a piece. A sculpture. Yes, of course it can be taken apart and put back together. That’s what’s unique about these pieces [his life’s work]: They can be disassembled.”

The piece, the sculpture, “Joie de Vivre”, was given to New York City “by Aggie Gund and her husband” – Agnes Gund, president of the Museum of Modern Art, and lawyer husband Daniel Shapiro. Its earlier Manhattan location had been in Tribeca at the rotary of the Holland Tunnel. 

“After 40 years I finally get a piece in Manhattan,” di Suvero said, “and guess what. Most people who saw it came from New Jersey.”

He volunteered “a quick history” of this particular piece.

“It was built in Sonoma County, California, oh, about a dozen years ago, by me and the two people working with me, Lowell McKegney and Matteo Martignoni – he’s an inventor who goes into Third World places like Haiti and Agra and Senegal, and does things with bicycle ambulances and rickshaws.

“I did almost all the cutting and crane operation,” said licensed operating engineer di Suvero. “Then it went to Paris, where it was shown on the Esplanade des Invalides, near the Pont Alexandre III.”

Oh yes, this writer interjected, the most beautiful bridge in the world.

“Oh come on!” said di Suvero. “My art is much more beautiful! I’m the only artist in the last century invited to exhibit there.

“Then it went to Storm King” — the Storm King Art Center, Mountainville, New York, where in fact a di Suvero retrospective opens this Sun., June 4. “They show my stuff every 10 years. I won’t be around for the next one.”

Sure he will. Mark di Suvero (pronounced Soo-vero) was born Sept. 18, 1933, in Shanghai, China, made it to the U.S. with his anti-Fascist Italian parents seven years later, survived a horrific elevator accident on W. 57th St. circa 1960 that left him tied for the rest of life to canes and braces, has been turning out huge sculptures that speak his name in iron and steel for four decades, and here he is.

Liberty Park, when they take the wraps off Thursday, will be graced with all sorts of new trees and seating and other amenities (chessboards) nestling under the shoulder, so to speak, of “Joie de Vivre.” Brookfield Properties, which owns One Liberty Plaza, paid $9 million for the renovations.

“Now, with Noguchi and Nevelson and Dubuffet” – artists of neighboring works – “this becomes like a band across the city, a sculptural walkway,” said di Suvero. He plans to attend the event with his daughter Veri, “who at 11 is almost as tall as I am” and whose mother – di Suvero’s wife – is New York City’s cultural commissioner, Kate Levin.

Liberty Plaza was still very much fenced-in this past Monday – Memorial Day – when, in mid-afternoon, under a glorious sky, the only person to be found in the immediate vicinity of “Joie de Vivre” was a young man who, when asked what he thought of it, took a look and said: “That red thing? Well, it’s a style. Other places, ugly, but here, okay.”

The young man – Igor Gornayev, real-estate agent, 34 – was born and raised in St. Petersburg, Russia. “In Europe, in cities like Hanover that were leveled and rebuilt, you see a lot of huge things like this,” he said. “But in St. Petersburg, which was not leveled, and is full of beautiful old buildings, you’d never see anything like this. But here, to me, it looks all right.”

Matter of fact, if you just back away from it a half-block or so, the X that di Suvero says isn’t an X looks rather more like a figure throwing its two arms up to heaven in joy. You know, Joy of Life. In short, but 70 feet long – or 70 feet high — after 9/11, here we are.

Downtown Express file photos by Ramin Talaie

Mark di Suvero at the Holland Tunnel rotary in March 2003 when his sculpture was removed to make way for road construction.


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