LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Interlocking steel beams, sometimes painted vivid red or orange, attached at sharp angles, zigzagging up to a hundred feet in the air - this is the work of Mark di Suvero, who went from studying philosophy to working construction to becoming one of the world's most acclaimed sculptors. He recently oversaw the installation of a massive piece at the Storm King Art Center in Mountainville, N.Y. Reporter Karen Michel watched it go up and has this story about the 86-year-old and his art.
KAREN MICHEL, BYLINE: Sculptor Mark di Suvero first started using a crane to make his humongous wood beam and steel sculptures in the mid-1960s. He says he uses a crane the way a painter uses a brush. It's a tool for doing the work, just bigger and way scarier.
MARK DI SUVERO: The crane is a very delicate instrument that's a question of life and death. They may talk about painters risking their life with a painting, but it's very different when you're working with 10 tons of steel and there are people working with you. The question of life and death is right there.
MICHEL: Di Suvero speaks from experience. In 1960, he almost died from a construction site accident.
DI SUVERO: A terrible accident when I was working for $2 an hour as a cabinetmaker's helper. And I learned that I could no longer pick up the wooden beams that I used to pick up.
MICHEL: That's an understatement. He couldn't walk. He was already affiliated with a gallery in New York, and he was determined to become mobile again and to continue sculpting. Now he uses crutches or a wheelchair. A leg was recently amputated. He'd burned it welding. But when the artist is up in a crane, he can move and work. So the way some people wax rhapsodic about their first car, Mark di Suvero reminisces fondly about his first crane.
DI SUVERO: I discovered the crane as a tool working in a lot that was a garbage lot. And I traded welding time for crane operation. Then I ended up in Jersey buying a dead crane. And I am an operating engineer. I am a member of the union, and it changes everything.
(SOUNDBITE OF CRANE BACKING UP)
MICHEL: Di Suvero was up in a cherry picker, overseeing the installation of a work that had been moved from France to the Storm King Art Center in New York's Hudson Valley. At close to a hundred feet tall, the H-beam and stainless-steel sculpture called "E=MC2" is di Suvero's largest work.
DI SUVERO: The speed of light squared changing the relationship of what a material is to its energy, translated into energy, is incredible. It is one of the great monuments that a human mind has devised in the last century.
MICHEL: Energy is central to di Suvero's work, too. Some of his sculptures have moving parts that people literally can play with.
Di Suvero's had 50 works shown at Storm King, and Mike Seaman has overseen the installation of almost all of them. It's a complex job, a lot like threading a needle, but with tons of interlocking steel plates and H-beams, especially for the massive "E=MC2."
MIKE SEAMAN: It's 69,000 pounds, give or take a little bit. We didn't add the bolts into the weight - really magnificent piece.
MICHEL: You can see nine of the sculptor's other works nearby, but they're smaller - say, 65 feet - already huge, but not to di Suvero.
DI SUVERO: None of my pieces are large. All of my pieces are human scale. Next to a mountain, next to an ocean, I am a little bit bigger than a grain of sand.
And this is the studio. This is where the steel gets bent, where the pieces get welded and...
MICHEL: And where in Long Island City, the octogenarian artist still does much of the bending, welding and cutting himself. For him, the work - the steel - has kept its fascination.
DI SUVERO: (Laughter) Steel is so beautiful. It bends. It comes back. It's merciless. It's in our blood. The center of the blood corpuscle has to do with iron. So I mean, if it's there in the blood, it's part of us.
MICHEL: And for di Suvero, that's key to his goal of giving viewers joy when they see his work. One of his pieces is titled "Are Years What?," after Marianne Moore's poem "What Are Years."
Di Suvero reads the last lines.
DI SUVERO: (Reading) So he who strongly feels, behaves. The very bird, grown taller as he sings, steels his form straight up. Though he is captive, his mighty singing says, satisfaction is a lowly thing. How pure a thing is joy. This is mortality. This is eternity.
MICHEL: For NPR News, I'm Karen Michel.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE ALBUM LEAF'S "STRETCHED HOME")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.