A Bond of Steel: di Suvero and Bellamy

Art in America (November 2005): 150-155.
mark_disuvero

The prescient art dealer Richard Bellamy was singularly devoted to the work of Mark di Suvero. An exhibition at Storm King of di Suvero’s sculptures and Bellamy’s photographs of them chronicles this productive partnership.

“You’ve been my (springboard?) (wings?) (slingshot?) to my art,” Mark di Suvero wrote to his long-time friend Richard Bellamy, searching for the best kinetic metaphor to describe the dealer’s role in his career, in the course of a heartfelt letter in the late 1970s.1 It is well-known that Bellamy, whose sobriquet was “the eye of the Sixties,” launched not only di Suvero, but also George Segal, Claes Olden­burg, James Rosenquist, Donald Judd, Lucas Samaras and many others we have come to regard as the canonical artists of that time.

But it is not common knowledge that from 1975 until his death in 1998, Bellamy set himself the task of photographically documenting di Suvero’s outdoor installations in the United States and abroad. “Richard Bellamy and Mark di Suvero,” a two-year exhibition at the Storm King Art Center, introduces us to this unexpected dimension of the New York dealer’s activities. Organized by Storm King’s director and curator David R. Collens, the show includes a retrospective of di Suvero’s sculp­tures and drawings and more than 80 of Bellamy’s color and black-and-white photographs, which are on view for the first time. In the second year, the sculpture selection will change slightly when the 70-foot Joie de Vivre (1997) leaves for a permanent home in Lower Manhattan at Liberty Plaza next to Ground Zero; a new work by di Suvero will likely take its place.

The pair met in 1960, when Bellamy was look­ing for an uptown  location to house his first enterprise, the Green Gallery. Di Suvero’s art captivated him immediately. He later told an interviewer: “After I saw di Suvero’s work I knew it would be my opening show and that the space that I had to find would be space that would accommodate showing his sculptures.”2 Di Suvero and Green Gallery debuted together on West 57th Street in October of that year. When the gallery began presenting Pop art, the sculptor showed elsewhere. In the decades after Green Gallery closed in 1965, Bellamy represented him privately and then through the Oil & Steel Gallery, which opened in Tribeca in 1980. Such was Bellamy’s commitment to di Suvero in his last years that gallery owner Carl Solway jokingly referred to his friend as “a monogamous dealer.” Bellamy relocated Oil & Steel to the Long Island City waterfront in 1985, on a section of a pier he had helped find for di Suvero’s studio a few years earlier. In a majestically scaled space with a steel door that slid back to let in light and reveal the river view, Bellamy always had a large-scale di Suvero on hand. The back room contained hundreds of his favorite photos of di Suvero’s work push-pinned to the walls. It was here that he would deliberate for hours about the esthetic merits of one print over another, evaluating variously angled shots of the same sculpture, or a single work he had documented at different locations. Dissatisfied with the existing photography of di Suvero’s work, Bellamy had bought a Nikon in 1975 and by trial and error taught himself to use it; besides, it was cheaper for the cash-strapped dealer to take his own pictures than to pay professionals.

All artists dream of having a dedicated advi­sor who knows them better than they know themselves, who can identify their finest work and install it to best advantage. Bellamy proved to be just this person for di Suvero. The sculptor put his complete trust in his dealer’s esthetic judgments. Yet there were aspects of their com­plex, four-decade association that gave truth to the old saw, “Be careful what you wish for, you may get it.”

Bellamy’s un-businesslike business sense could be exasperating. Billing it impishly as “good news,” he once told a low-on-funds di Suvero, “I just refused a commission for $250,000 because I don’t think it’s the right place for your piece.”3 Even as he turned away sales because he held the buyer or the site in low regard, Bellamy attempt­ed to kindle desirable commissions by writing brazen, poetic letters to curators and collectors.

It galled him that important museums with advantageous sites might be unwilling or unable to acquire a di Suvero. For example, he tried to cajole Leon Arkus, the director of Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum, into finding the money from area patrons to buy a major sculpture in 1979. With fey histrionics, he wrote: “Leon! Scrap Iron Kings! Waiting! Unleash yourself on those magnates of the prime product in your princedom…. Your Golden Triangle’s image glows in the very fibers of my vocational being: it is the best site in a major city I have seen.”4 But the audacious strategy failed. To this day, the only art by di Suvero in the Carnegie’s collection is a suite of prints.

Bellamy was a connoisseur of space. An exceed­ingly polite yet profoundly unconventional man, he might enter a party like a cat, treading the periphery of a room before coming to rest under a coffee table. When preparing to help site a di Suvero—a collaborative process with the sculp­tor and his crew—he would walk all around the location, learning it from every angle, the better to predict what placement might work best. He thought nothing of scuttling up one of di Suvero’s 40-foot I-beams in a hard hat to gain a better view of a sculpture’s surroundings.

“Richard Bellamy and Mark di Suvero” is di Suvero’s third retrospective at Storm King in as many decades. The connection between the sculptor and the museum in the Hudson highlands predates the exhibitions of 1985 and 1995. In the winter of 1975-76, Storm King capitalized on the dispersal of di Suvero’s retrospective at the Whitney Museum of Ameri­can Art, which included an unprecedented five-borough outdoor display of large-scale sculpture. David Collens arranged a long-term loan for five of these monumental pieces. Bellamy aided the sculptor in siting the works at Storm King. They chose not to nestle them around the museum at the top of the hill, where they would seem like crowning jewels. Bather, the two configured the sculptures in an arc on the sloping meadow, well below the galleries. This solution afforded the dual opportunity to look down on the works from the building’s high vantage point and to experi­ence the sculpture at pasture level. Subsequently designated “di Suvero Fields,” this site is home to the four di Suveros in the permanent collection as well as others on loan.

The current show includes 17 major sculptures, located in di Suvero Fields and on the higher ground of the museum building’s lawn and patio. The Fields’ airy expanse is a perfect foil for Ad Astra (2005), a crimson-painted steel assem­bly that reaches skyward, as the title implies. Neither this, di Suvero’s most recent sculpture, nor Beethoven’s Quartet (2003), nor Frog Legs (2002), has previously been exhibited. The latter evokes di Suvero’s earliest work with scavenged materials in its use of found elements such as a post and a backhoe. Po-um (2003) and Origins (2001-04) are on view in the United States for the first time. As does Ad Astra, Origins incorporates a trio of inclined orange beams. One holds aloft a serpentine black doodle like a daredevil dad bal­ancing his child on an uplifted palm.

Inside the museum are Bellamy’s photos, eight di Suvero table-top constructions made between 1961 and 2001 and a selection of works on paper spanning three decades. Collens arranged one small gallery with cheek-by-jowl snapshots to convey the sensibility encoded in Bellamy’s Long Island City office space. Here the images are 8 by 10 inches, the scale of the prints he would send to prospective cli­ents. Elsewhere, the photos have been handsomely enlarged and mounted on aluminum.

From the windows of a second-floor gallery you can look out on a sculpture that used to be called Gateway (1984-85), now renamed Shang in allusion to the Chinese dynasty. Symmetrical, it has the solemn bearing of an ancient Chinese bronze. Collens placed it on the hilltop spot it occupied 20 years before, framing a distant allée. Bellamy documented it in situ in 1985. A drawing from that year reveals how di Suvero first visual­ized the sculpture, the seeds of its hieratic form discernable in the bristling image. “I do the draw­ings so that I can remember what I saw in the vision of what the piece could be,” di Suvero told a recent interviewer.6

The idea of art as aide-mémoire is relevant to Bellamy as well—he photographed di Suvero’s sculptures to record his vision of how they looked out in the world. He often rose early to stake out a particular piece, waiting for the “defining moment” when the sun obliged and the lighting met his high specifications. But the relationship of sculpture-to-site-to-photograph is nuanced. Bellamy’s crucial participation in choosing the best site and orientation for the sculptures aligns him with the directorial mode of photography, where most of the work of creating an image is in arranging the setup.

The photos in the exhibition record instal­lations of the sculpture around the world; they also document the sculptor himself at work in studios from Petaluma to Chalon-sur-Saone. The earliest captures di Suvero’s historic exhibi­tion in the Jardin des Tuileries, when in 1975 the French honored him as the first living artist to show there. In January 1977, Bellamy stood in the snow in di Suvero Fields to shoot Ik Ook (1972) in black and white. He referenced a human response to the sculpture by capturing a delighted young girl who has fit herself into a crook along its lower reaches. For di Suvero, bodily interaction with his art has long been the sincerest form of compli­ment; he reputedly does not consider a work as properly christened until a couple makes love on the ones with horizontal swings.

The majority of Bellamy’s shots include the human form to indicate scale. Some of the figures are posed, some happenstance. In a color photo taken during the Venice Biennale in 1995, when seven major di Suveros were displayed around the city, a woman in a white jumpsuit stands with her back to us and to Will (1994). Her location at the water’s edge, looking out across the choppy Grand Canal at the church of S. Giorgio Maggiore and the distant dome of the Salute, adroitly contextualizes the sculpture in space and sets up a visual conversation between near and far. People sit on distant benches in a 1991 waterside photo of Tendresse (1989-90) on Nice’s Promenade des Anglais. Bellamy caught the sculpture’s taut red limbs against a cerulean sea and cornflower sky. It is the magic of his photograph that Tendresse seems as if it were leaning into the ocean wind.

Visitors shouldn’t be confused by the “George Bellamy” copyright on the photographs. It is the selfsame Richard Bellamy, using the name he selectively applied throughout his career. To hear that “George” was on the line signaled enhanced intimacy to me, a curator he knew professionally, bringing me one step closer to the mysterious, private center of his being. This recurrent alter ego, more than a pseudonym and less than a per­sonality disorder, was also a way to differentiate his creative self from his other identities. It was a poignant vestige from his teen years. Bellamy’s father, a physician, ran a clinic in a black sec­tion of Cincinnati. After the untimely death of his mother, a Chinese doctor born in Shanghai, the 17-year-old Bellamy and his father teasingly referred to themselves as George and Lennie, the two lonely outsiders who are the main characters of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.

“Richard Bellamy and Mark di Suvero” is at base an exhibition about relationships. Like part­ners in a long-term marriage, the two could com­mune or squabble with equal intensity. A shared passion for poetry and music connected them spiritually, as did their dual association with China. Born in Shanghai in 1933 to Italian par­ents who were anti-fascists, di Suvero fled with his family to San Francisco when the Japanese gained control. Bellamy’s Chinese heritage was not obvious in his looks; but friends who knew the dealer’s background found its influence profound. One of them, writer Jill Johnston, considered Bellamy’s Chinese lineage to be “inescapable in assessing his style.”6 Before Bellamy’s death, he and di Suvero were making plans to visit China together for what would have been the dealer’s first trip to his mother’s country.

Bellamy never considered himself a photogra­pher, nor regarded what he did as art. As he saw it, documenting di Suvero’s work was part of his job. Nonetheless, his photos artfully communicate the perception of depth we experience in walking around an actual sculpture, no small accomplish­ment. Informed by his intimate knowledge of di Suvero the man and the artist, Bellamy created a consummate record of visual experience, one that also opens a window on an extraordinary friendship.
1.   Mark di Suvero to Richard Bellamy, undated, Richard Bellamy Papers, box A19, Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York.  The author gratefully acknowledges Mark di Suvero, David Collens, Miles Bellamy, Lowell McKegney, Carl Solway, Ivan Mestrovic, Lisa Mordhorst, and Kathleen Tunney for their kind assistance in the preparation of this article.
2.   Richard Bellamy, interview with Amy Newman, Feb. 7, 1996, transcription in Richard Bellamy Papers, box G11, Museum of Modern Art Archives.
3.   Mark di Suvero, interview with author, Aug. 15, 2002.
4.   Richard Bellamy to Leon Arkus, May 4, 1979, Richard Bellamy Papers, box C3, Museum of Modern Art Archives.
5.   Jan Garden Castro, “To Make Meanings Real, A Conver­sation with Mark di Suvero,” Sculpture, June 2005, p. 33.
6.   Jill Johnston, Mother Bound, Autobiography in Search of a Father, New York, Knopf, p. 120.

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