Thursday, March 20, 2014

Di Suvero and the cranes at Crissy Field, San Francisco

It was a morning full of surprises.

Crissy Field was a little hard to reach. Being new to San Francisco didn’t help any and the maze-like configuration of streets and alleys in the Presidio didn’t help either. Finally, after negotiating a series of construction zones I drove under the incomplete highway bridge that leads to the Golden Gate Bridge. Suddenly, after twisting through the foggy confines of the former military base, I was confronted with two startling sights: wide-open space and a huge Di Suvero sculpture in the flat, grassy field that grounded the space.

I had hoped I would be seeing the Golden Gate Bridge. On a clear day Crissy Field provides stunning views of the iconic structure. Today it was utterly invisible, enshrouded in fog. (That's it, behind the old coast guard buildings and the other two Di Suveros.)

The Di Suvero, however, was not only a surprise: it was lovely. I especially enjoyed seeing it in the context of the bridge construction. Exposed girders and structural steel columns made an appropriate backdrop and counterpoint to the sculpture. As if for emphasis, two tall cranes stood over the work site, crisscrossed and motionless on this Sunday morning. Life imitates art, I thought, joyfully. "How pure a thing is joy!" (See poem below.)

I quickly observed that the Di Suvero was not singular. Several more dotted the wide expanse of grass. When I parked and walked around for a closer look I counted eight sculptures, all a little different but distinctively Di Suveros, with his signature bold I-beam construction and abstract expressionist style. The next surprise was the feeling of dismay that tempered my joy as I spent time with the suite of sculptures. Perhaps it was the oppressively flat field—it had once served as a runway for the US Army air corps. Something about the repetition of the steel sculptures reminded me of the rustbelt cities of my home in the Midwest, or decaying cargo cranes at an abandoned harbor facility.

How many Di Suveros, I thought, are too many? Now, I know, particularly in Milwaukee, that’s a loaded question. Quite a substantial proportion of our fair city’s population would quickly—and loudly—answer “one!” I must hasten to say that I’ve always liked Di Suvero’s work and, having taught art for so many years, have often found myself defending it against vociferous naysayers. I’ve also seen, at Storm King Art Center in NY, a series of at least as many Di Suvero sculptures in one setting.

Storm King is not Crissy Field, though. Not flat. There each new sculpture was a discovery as one wound among the hills and trees. Here the sculptures, all of them visible at a glance, seemed diminished rather than energized by the repetition.

The surprises kept coming. I was framing this shot of the sculpture called “Old Buddy (for Rosko)”—named in tribute to his dog—when a woman jogging on the path stopped nearby and said to me, “did you see the crane?” My immediate thought was “of course I see the crane; look how amazing it is, framed within the forms of the sculpture.” But as I raised my head and before I could reveal the narrowness of my vision by speaking, the bird to which she was referring lifted its wings and flew not ten feet in front of me. You can see it on the far left edge of this uncropped version of the same photo.

I followed the crane. It hadn’t flown far and was striding slowly and deliberately down the field, among the sculptures. A living and breathing crane amongst the construction equipment and the art. Harmony and contrast. I wondered what Di Suvero would think of this. I loved it and I’d like to think he would, too.

I never got more than a glimpse of the top of one tower of the Golden Gate Bridge. It peeked briefly out from the fog, then disappeared again. But I enjoyed seeing the Di Suveros among the cranes and the crane among the Di Suveros.

OK, one more surprise. This sculpture is titled "Are Years What? (for Marianne Moore)." And how is this for an astonishing coincidence? According to the sign in front of the sculpture, the title refers to a poem by Moore, “which ends with the image of a captive bird who draws strength in its confinement through joyful singing.” 

At least this crane isn’t captive. "This is mortality, this is eternity."

Here is the poem:

What are years?
by Marianne Moore

What is our innocence,
what is our guilt? All are
naked, none is safe. And whence
is courage: the unanswered question,
the resolute doubt, -
dumbly calling, deafly listening-that
in misfortune, even death,
encourage others
and in it's defeat, stirs
the soul to be strong? He 
sees deep and is glad, who
accedes to mortality
and in his imprisonment rises
upon himself as 
the sea in a chasm, struggling to be
free and unable to be,
in its surrendering
finds its continuing.
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.


  1. looks like you are in Bakersfield

  2. What a find! I too am a Di Suvero defender and will continue to fight the good fight. The serendipity of the sculptures with the cranes is certainly poetic (and not diminished by the "crane" being a Great Blue Heron.)

  3. Jim T: You know, I thought it might be a heron, but I was swayed by the woman and the metaphor of the cranes; introduced bias led me to ignore my intuition! Thanks.