The last time sculptor Mark di Suvero visited Orange County, he was a long-haired, bearded dude driving a truck back to L.A. from the UC Irvine Art Gallery, when the police stopped him in Newport Beach, mistaking him for a Hells Angel.
Three decades later--after a self-imposed exile in Europe during the '70s to protest the Vietnam War and the flowering of an international career--Di Suvero is back under markedly different circumstances.
Following a flurry of temporary outdoor installations of his large-scale steel sculptures in New York, Paris, Venice and other cities, Di Suvero was invited by the Orange County Museum of Art and South Coast Plaza to install six recent pieces for the summer on the pristine lawn of Town Center Park, across the street from the shopping mall.
On a sunny day last week, after a crane gently lowered the 28-foot-tall "Borealis"--a tripod-like steel sculpture with intersecting arcs--Di Suvero maneuvered himself onto a grassy mound to chat.
At 64, he is a compact man with a genial manner and a slightly European inflection in his voice, who gamely weathers the results of a long-ago elevator accident that crushed his legs under a ton of pressure. A painful recent fall on a staircase in New York--his home base when he's not abroad or in his Petaluma, Calif., studio--caused him to stretch out briefly on his back with his eyes closed.
The spacious setting in Costa Mesa allows for the artist's most extensive outdoor installation in the U.S. since his 1975 Whitney Museum retrospective and a 1985 exhibition at Storm King Sculpture Park in New York. But what is his work doing at Town Center, where--with the exception of Isamu Noguchi's "California Scenario" garden--the permanent sculptures are the work of little-known artists?
"I think the whole show is like a rain dance," Di Suvero ventured impishly. "You know? When you dance for rain? It's a rain dance in order to have them build a museum right there, where there's a parking lot."
Enrico Martignoni, Di Suvero's nephew and longtime assistant, explained that Anton Segerstrom--son of Henry, the shopping mall magnate--was in New York visiting Noguchi a few years before the sculptor's death in 1988. Segerstrom was urged to look at the work of Noguchi's Long Island City neighbor, and thus was the groundwork laid for a future Di Suvero project in Orange County.
In February, Orange County Performing Arts Center Chairman Mark Chapin Johnson announced Henry Segerstrom's tentative plans to donate land adjacent to the Performing Arts Center for a concert hall and possible art museum--which the Orange County Museum of Art has made no bones about wishing to run. A couple of months later, the museum announced the outdoor sculpture exhibition.
"Suddenly this park is like a museum en plein air, eh?" Di Suvero said. "For two months. And afterward it will be gone, but it gives people an idea of coming here just to look at the art, not to look at the parking structure and the Westin hotel."
Born in Shanghai to an Italian family who emigrated to San Francisco when he was a child, Di Suvero worked as a ship-builder and cannery employee before embarking on a peripatetic college career that ended with a UC Berkeley degree in philosophy in 1956, the year he began working in metal.
Early assemblages of found wood, tires and chains evolved into all-metal welded pieces that retained his preoccupation with oblique lines, spatial exploration and delicate balances.
Asked about his hands-on approach to sculpture, so different from prefabricated contemporary art objects, he spat out the objectionable word.
"Fabricate! If you look at Michelangelos in the Accademia in Florence--the unfinished ones, the 'Slaves'--it's as if he has peeled the stone off in layers. You are only capable of doing that if you work directly with the material. Which I do.
"You see those curves?" He pointed to "The Answer," made in 1991 for an exhibition in Valencia, Spain. "They're drawings I do directly on the steel, and then I cut 'em with a torch."
He harnessed the brute force of a crane to make the "cold bend" that pressed a 60-foot I-beam into a clothespin-like shape for "Yoga." Perched on a stainless steel pole in front of the shiny metal Cesar Pelli building in the park complex, the piece rocks slightly in the breeze.
Di Suvero opened his wallet to retrieve his New York City crane operator's license ("C-1 cherry picker, 50 tons max."), bragging that he actually runs an even more powerful machine.
The wallet also contains a prominent photo of his wife, Kate Levin, who teaches Renaissance literature at City College of New York, and their 3 1/2-year-old daughter, his only child ("worth more to me than any 20-ton piece of sculpture").
Making toys for poor kids who lived near his studio in Lower Manhattan in the '60s taught him about people's "physiological interaction" with his pieces, Di Suvero said. The children "taught me principles of balance and use that I'm still working with today."
At Town Center, two kids figured out how to rotate "Scarlatti," an undulating stainless steel sculpture, by pushing on its curving forms as if they were the partitions on a revolving door.
Di Suvero lets others site his pieces, claiming he lacks the eye of his longtime New York dealer, the late Richard Bellamy. Friends also help with the diplomatic dance of securing permissions for sculpture exhibitions on public property.
One especially pleasant experience was his 1995 installation of seven sculptures along the Grand Canal in Venice, the city that was his father's home and his own artistic refuge in the early 1970s, when he taught at the Universita Internazionale dell'Arte.
"I was invited back there through friends I'd had 20 years ago, when they were students and young teachers," he said. "They became the cultural advisors to the city, so they were in power." Support from Patrizio Bertelli and Miuccia Prada of couture fame clinched the deal.
But the behind-the-scenes machinations for his exhibition in Paris last fall--seven pieces grandly situated on the lawns in front of the Esplanade des Invalides--were another story. After eight years of negotiation with one French minister, the man died, which meant another five years of haggling with his successor.
"In France, art ends up between the crushing stones of politics, eh?" Di Suvero said. "There's a struggle between the state and the city. If the initiative is from the state, the city tries to cut them down, and if it's the other way around, the state doesn't help at all."
Still, he said, "my dealings are all with France. They supported me. France is very strange. If you say you're an artist, they look at you and raise one eyebrow. But once they're convinced, they open the doors."
* "Di Suvero/Orange County" remains at Town Center Park, Bristol Street between Town Center Drive and Anton Boulevard in Costa Mesa, through Sept. 27. Another Di Suvero piece is in the sculpture garden at the Orange County Museum of Art, 850 San Clemente Drive, Newport Beach. (714) 759-1122.