Dwarfing students as they pass, two prodigious, almost alien frames tower over the lawn of the University of Michigan Museum of Art. The gigantic orange arms of Orion stretch immensely toward the sky, and the huge welded bucket of Shang swings with ease above the concrete. These sculptures are not only iconic to campus, but they epitomize the fusion of abstracted steel and public space that has become synonymous with abstract-expressionist Mark di Suvero.

Mark di Suvero: Tabletops

Through Feb. 26, 2012

Like many artists, di Suvero is known for one particular style but not necessarily his considerable work in other mediums and scales, as UMMA director Joseph Rosa explained. “Tabletops,” the newest show to open in the Irving Stern Jr. Gallery at UMMA, brings out the depth of di Suvero’s aesthetics and his diverse imprint on the art world for more than 50 years.

“Art is driven by idea, creativity, aesthetics and not by a medium,” di Suvero said in an interview with The Michigan Daily. “That’s not to say the medium is not vital to the work, but for me, the artistic thought translates from steel to pen, from giant landscapes to canvas.”

That is why the show brings together tabletops — his smaller sculptures — in the gallery, paintings on the walls and his larger landscaped sculptures outside. The tabletops are small, no larger than several feet tall, and are made of cut stainless steel and other materials that rotate, swing and pivot around on axes.

“One of the main ideas is to study the tabletops, which are lesser known and very beautiful, and to relate the intuitive forms of these smaller sculptures to the giant structures on the lawn,” Rosa said.

The relationships between the tabletops and di Suvero’s larger works not only speak to the breadth of his talent and scales of his sculpted form, but they also express the aesthetic considerations that drive di Suvero artistically.

“Literally, these tabletops give Shang and Orion a history,” Rosa said. “In many instances you will see a piece of art you like and you just see the object, but then when you see the other pieces the artist has made, it brings the person to life who made that piece. You understand the family of gestures that one makes as an artist.”

These gestures even translate into the most rare di Suvero pieces — his three murals that surround the gallery. Rosa explained that the pieces are distinct in the cues they take from di Suvero’s interest in calligraphy, which is rarely seen in the construction of pieces like Shang or Orion.

“I’d become fascinated with calligraphy from a young age, which in part stemmed from my childhood in China,” di Suvero said. “There is a fluidity in calligraphy, regardless of which script, which I began trying to capture in my painting.”

Equally intriguing is the layout of the exhibition, which, though numbered chronologically, fights against the museumgoer walking a simple timeline through the show.

“When you install, you never install in the chronology of the art, especially with sculptural pieces,” Rosa said. “When you look at art three-dimensionally, or even two-dimensionally, you want people to feel moved by the pieces, by forms and not by time.”

Moving through the gallery, the sculptures eventually lead to a final project called Cumon, under which is written, “touch this piece.” Gently spinning the work, one becomes aware of the intriguing power of these little tabletops. More than just fleshing out di Suvero’s works with the artist’s aesthetics or highlighting the diverse mediums of a great artist, “Tabletops” actually allows visitors to take the place of Shang or Orion and tower over Mark di Suvero’s dynamic forms.

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