In late 2012 I flew to Sicily for the first time to meet Arturo Di Modica, then 71 years old, to discuss acting as his first official art dealer. As I walked through airport arrivals, through the crowd, it was impossible to miss the thick trademark beard waiting to greet me. One of the first things that I noticed was that he had very kind eyes and characteristically of him, he was a little quiet, wrapped up in his own thoughts. It was only over time he would open up and tell me his story.
During the middle of the night on the 15th December 1989 Di Modica and friends arrived on Wall Street with his 16ft bronze Charging Bull on the back of a flatbed truck. After spending the last few nights scoping out the location and monitoring the patrols of the guard, he knew he only had four and half minutes until the guard returned. To his surprise, a gigantic Christmas tree had been installed since his last visit, right where he planned on dropping his sculpture. So knowing time was ticking he announced, ‘Drop the bull under the tree – it’s my gift’.
In order to understand his 1989 stunt and the entirety of his body of art, you need to step back to 1941 where he was born in Vittoria, Sicily shortly before the Allied forces invaded the island during World War II. Not only was he shaped by a period of extreme conflict, but he also grew up surrounded by the remains of the Greek and Roman empires. Right from the start he was being conditioned to fight and was filled with ambition.
By the age of 18, he made his first pivotal life decision, to leave his native Sicily in pursuit of the life as an artist. He boarded a steam train destined for Florence, home of the renaissance greats, and his journey began. The first years in Florence were very hard and he had to take a whole assortment of odd and bizarre jobs to survive. Unable to afford the local foundries he resorted to forging his own tools, salvaging materials and casting his own bronzes in his home built foundry. These efforts culminated with his 1968 exhibition of rough castings at the prestigious Villa Medici.
Shortly after the 1968 show, Di Modica was working in the Carrara marble studios when he had a fateful encounter with Henry Moore, as the British sculptor was preparing for his important 1972 Florentine show. The influence of Moore was clear and strong on the young Sicilian with a whole new style emerging shortly afterwards. However by the early 1970’s, Di Modica had grown frustrated with the limitations of Florence for his career and the second key move was made – New York City, capital of the world’s art market.
Upon arriving in NYC, Di Modica quickly set-up his first studio on Grand Street where often large- scale abstract marble works could be found outside on the street. During this period he was primarily focused on abstract work and mixed media sculptures, experimenting with materials such as Belgium marble and stainless steel in single works. It was also Grand Street where he caught a young artist spray-painting ‘Samo’ on the studio door – Jean Michel Basquiat.
In 1977, after an exhibition in Battery Park and becoming offended by a conversation with the art critic Hilton Kramer, Di Modica decided to carry out his first major stunt. He loaded sixty tonnes of his abstract marble works onto the back of a truck and turned up outside the Rockefeller Center, blocking off 5 th Avenue. He proceeded to unload all the works outside the Center after which the truck made a speedy getaway. A few minutes later he was confronted by four NYPD officers who came running up with their guns unholstered. Unable to speak much English at the time, Di Modica pushed one of the officers’ guns to the side and handed over a flyer which left the officer completely baffled as to what to do. So in the end, Mayor Beame came down to meet the ‘crazy bearded Sicilian’ and issued a $25 fine, after which Di Modica was granted permission to leave the sculptures on temporary exhibit. And the next day, he was the front page news of the New York Post. A valuable lesson was learnt.
By the early 1980’s Di Modica embarked upon his next major project – construction of his Crosby Street studio. Managing to pull enough money together from a few collectors, the rising artist was able to purchase an empty plot of land at 54 Crosby Street. Spending all his money on the down payment, he had to resort to salvaging materials, exchanging sculptures for concrete and often dragging seven- meter long beams of wood through the night for construction. After building three storeys up, he wanted more space down but could not get planning permission. Undeterred he started digging, again by night, having to sneak the rubble out and new materials in. And upon completion was left with his two storey basement where he would often work on his largest models.
It was on 19th October 1987 Black Monday struck the American stock markets. By this point, Di Modica had far exceeded his wildest of dreams in life with a private following of some of the most important collectors all around the world and his own 5-storey Manhattan studio complete with his Ferrari 328 GTS. So when the hard times ensued after the market crash, he felt completely indebted to the American people for welcoming him into their country and, the idea of Charging Bull was conceived. He went on to spend the next 2-years creating his 16ft bronze masterpiece, paying all the $350,000 costs out of his own pocket. So when he arrived on Wall Street and by chance the Christmas tree had been installed it could not have been more fitting.
Charging Bull was Di Modica’s gift back to the American people to thank them, and to inspire each person who came into contact with it to carry on fighting with strength and determination through the hard times for a brighter future. The day after his late night stunt, he was front-page news all around the globe with Charging Bull going on to become one of the world’s most iconic works of art, drawing millions of visitors each year. After the unexpected and meteoric success of Charging Bull, Di Modica went back to working alone, dealing directly with his collectors as he always had. It was only in 2012 when I went to meet him in Sicily was his mind open for the first time to formal representation as he was battling cancer at the time and needed support. It was not easy to witness his health battles but he fought with the same strength as he worked through out his life. Often, to our frustration, when we insisted he take time to rest, he would never listen. If he got knocked down, he would always get back up. Not only did he get back up, his projects and ambitions became bigger than ever.
To understand his work is to understand Arturo Di Modica the person. Pieces of his personality and values, not always easy to decode, are captured in each and every one of his works. He was born into a period in history of shocking conflict and it has always been his mission to unite the world for a better tomorrow through his art.