It’s hard to imagine a better setting for Tabletops, the current exhibit of pioneering American abstract expressionist sculptor Mark di Suvero’s smaller pieces, than in UMMA’s glass-walled Project Gallery. The room brims with sunlight. It glints off the tips and edges of rarely exhibited sculptures such as Silverbow II, a piece whose stainless steel wings turn silver in the late afternoon. The west- and north-facing gallery also invites in a sliver of sky, as much a di Suvero material as steel. Stoop in front of Silverbow II, and you color the void of its body sky blue or cloud gray. In addition to providing this balance of elements, the gallery contrasts these indoor sculptures with an outdoor di Suvero: the orange giant Orion (2006), which, at over fifty feet tall, casts a long shadow just outside the gallery.
To some extent, the exhibit’s sixteen sculptures overshadow one another as well. All are congregated in the middle of the gallery on a square platform consisting of joined podiums of varying heights (think of the stands for first-, second-, and third-place finishers in a medal ceremony). The tip of the highest sculpture reaches just around eye level; the lowest, mid-calf. There is no need to crane your neck like you do with Orion. Instead, it’s best to circle the exhibit, in order to fully take in the twelve outer sculptures and then those four nested in the middle of the dais. Not only does a difference in perspective reveal new shapes—triangle, cube, pyramid—the overlap of separate pieces creates unnamable geometries as well.
One remarkable counterpoint of height, material, and form arises from Untitled (1958/1960) and For the Janitor’s Wife (2004). The former—the smallest piece in the exhibit, measuring roughly a foot and a half high, wide, and deep—is undoubtedly the exhibit’s runt: a jagged, dense assemblage of rusted pieces of steel welded together. The sculpture would be forgettable were it not for the way its torn parts and rough texture dramatically elevate the smooth, brilliant topology of its neighbor. The most striking feature of For the Janitor’s Wife is a sheet of stainless steel twisted into a spiral, held aloft atop an axle counterbalanced with steel weights. (The spiral was rocking ever so slightly when I walked in, something I can only attribute to the surreptitious touch of another visitor in the gallery, since the museum doesn’t permit touching this particular sculpture.) This contrast of extremes—of the open, lively figure with the crushed, closed form—represents so much of the precise balance we’ve come to expect from individual di Suvero pieces.
What comes as a colorful surprise are three of di Suvero’s wall-sized abstract paintings. One of these, Origins, resembles a periwinkle blue net laid over warm shapes. The painting pulses, providing a vivid backdrop for the sculptures. All are on display through February 26.