Saturday, June 21, 2008


On 2 October 1996 the French appointed Mark di Suvero a Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres and gave him a medal. But the sculpt0r had to wait for it. Although Mr. di Suvero came all the way from the United States, he arrived right on time at the Ministry of Culture on the rue de Valois, where such things are done. The Minister, on the other hand, was still closeted in his mirrored, cream-colored, gilded office at the far end of the hall and was late.

BY 11:25 A.M., the large well-dressed crowd in the elegant Salon de la Ministère was getting restless. Even the wonderful perfume the women were wearing, which initially seemed so festive, was beginning to lose its allure. Seated up front with Mr. di Suvero were some of the other medal recipients, including two distinguished gray-haired gentlemen who looked somewhat alike--the Anglo-American painter R.B. Kitaj and the Swiss art dealer Jan Krugier--in handsome dark blue suits. As for Mr. di Suvero, he wore a neat red flannel shirt, blue dungarees, and sneakers, and seemed no less at home than anybody else there, a sort of Benjamin Franklin at the court of Louis XVI. Another medal winner, the English sculptor Anthony Caro, whose work has been compared to Mr. di Suvero's and whom he particularly looked forward to seeing, was unable to attend.

At the side of the room, the television cameramen had wearied of taking preliminary shots of the medalists and guests. Even Korean TV News seemed by now to have enough footage of the seated Madame Ra Hee Kong in her stunning ceremonial kimona. Madame Kong, the director of the Samsung art collection, was also to be honored by the French government. Her husband is the owner of the Samsung Corporation.

Unable to sit still any longer, Mr. di Suvero pushed himself up with the aid of his metal crutch and headed for the French doors that opened out on the balcony. His crutch is a memento of a bone-crushing, back-breaking, freight elevator accident that he suffered in 1960 while working as a mover. Stepping onto the balcony, he walked past the small group of guests who had come out for a breath of fresh air. Mr. di Suvero stood off to one side by himself looking down at the neatly-ordered gardens of the Palais-Royal with their fountains and sculpture. Though motionless, he radiated energy, his long gray hair blowing in the wind. When told that the minister was on his way, he raced back to the reception, his aluminum crutch flashing in the sunlight.

Monsieur Douste-Blazy, the French Minister of Culture under President Chirac, looked no more like a culture minister than a cardiologist, which he also is. With his thin face, high cheek bones and wavy hair, he gave the appearance of an affable young movie star. After apologizing for his lateness, he got down to the business at hand, dispensing medals and embraces with a smooth, production-line efficiency.

When it was Mr. di Suvero's turn, he clambered up on the platform and, leaning on his crutch, stood with his head bowed listening to the minister's prepared praise as if taking his medicine. Then the minister's dour assistant wrapped a medal around his neck, the minister kissed him lustily on both cheeks, and it was all over. But the sculptor was apparently not ready to leave just yet. He had prepared a few words of thank you in French for the occasion. Despite his obvious discomfort, he delivered them well. The audience applauded.

Mr. di Suvero was one of the first to leave. As he bolted down the steps of the ministry, taking them two at a time in his haste to get out of there, I stopped him on the landing to offer my congratulations. He thanked me. I mentioned the first time I had seen his work in 1964 at the Dwan Gallery in Westwood near UCLA, a huge shaggy balanced beam as big as a telephone pole-- with old tires dangling from steel wires tied to it--that barely cleared the immaculate white walls of the gallery as it moved, an anarchic-looking force not easily contained beneath that pristine dome.

He nodded with pleasure, recalling that show. Then he threw me a challenge. "But did you see my Peace Tower two years later?" An enormous sixty-foot structure, he had built it while still wheelchair bound as his passionate contribution to an artists' protest against the war in Vietnam. It was flanked by walls of pictures, each two-feet square, donated by artists from all over the country. But it was the tower itself that dominated the scene, a giant among inchlings.

"On Sunset," I said. "How could I forget? You couldn't miss it."

He smiled, waved. "Got to go," he called, and rushed out of the building.


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