DeWitt Cheng reviews Stephen DeStaebler's exhibition at the De Young Museum on Huffington Post

Stephen De Staebler: Matter + Spirit

March 2012

by DeWitt Cheng

I'm not attracted to formal religion, but I am drawn to the questions that religion tries to deal with: Where did we come from? Why are we here? Where are we going? Those questions will never be answered in any final way. While you're alive here on earth, you can ignore them or you can try to deal with them.

The sculptor Stephen De Staebler died in 2011, leaving a legacy of figurative sculpture that invites comparison to the work of Auguste Rodin and Alberto Giacometti, two artists whom he revered. To the list of acclaimed shows in recent years around the Bay Area -- at Richmond Art Center, San Jose Museum of Art, Laguna Art Museum, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and Dolby Chadwick Gallery -- we may now add the de Young Museum in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, which is showing nearly 60 works in a medium-sized retrospective, Stephen De Staebler: Matter + Spirit.

Nearly 60 pieces, including masks, maquettes, semi-abstract wall and floor landscape pieces, wedge-enclosed figures and free-standing figure columns, and bronze angels, are beautifully displayed in several medium-sized galleries. An excellent catalogue, edited by the show's curator, Timothy Anglin Burgard, features gracefully written, illuminating essays by critics Rick Newby and Dore Ashton that provide esthetic, historical and psychological perspective into the man and his art.

DeStaebler is important both as an exemplar of certain postwar trends and as an anomaly, or, to reclaim a regrettably misused word, maverick. As one of Peter Voulkos' graduate students at Berkeley in the 1950s, where Hans Hofmann and others advocated a subjective and intuitive approach to nature, De Staebler was one of the pioneers who made clay the respectable art medium that it is now. Voulkos' and De Staebler's physical, intuitive approach to clay, a three-dimensional analogue to Abstract Expressionist painters' dripping and slathering, is well and comically expressed in DeStaebler's account of how he abandoned his early impulse to perfectionism:

I didn't know what I was doing. I couldn't see the clay... And then I just jumped like crazy all over that thing. I just wallowed in the clay. I just mashed it, punched it. I didn't know what I was doing. I couldn't see the clay. You know, I had to do it by kinesthesia alone. And then finally, after I'd punched myself out, I peeled [the plastic] all off. And it was just incredible. It was really beautiful.

Cross Torso, 1976 | Pigmented Porcelain with Surface Oxides | Photo: DeWitt Cheng
Cross Torso, 1976 | Pigmented Porcelain with Surface Oxides | Photo: DeWitt Cheng

The matrix of clay, infinitely malleable, became not just an arena for action, in the Abstract Expressionist sense, but also a surrogate for human anatomy:

There was this beautiful undulating flesh landscape. It was so much more beautiful than anything I had in my mind, just one of those great moments where what you're given is more beautiful than what you wanted... I began to realize that clay is earth... When it's wet and soft, it's very fleshlike... And when it gets stiff, it becomes like bones. And when it gets dry, it becomes brittle like old bones. And when it's fired, it's frozen.

Wedged Woman Standing, 1985 | Fired clay | Photo: DeWitt Cheng.
Wedged Woman Standing, 1985 | Fired clay | Photo: DeWitt Cheng.

But if De Staebler's improvisatory technique was cutting-edge, his allegiance to the human figure, or, perhaps, human artifact, in a time dominated by the grail of abstraction (sometimes to the point of dogma), must have seemed contrarian and quixotic at the time. In 1951, the Abstract Expressionist painter Robert Motherwell advised his young Black Mountain College student, then unsophisticated about abstraction, and art (he would eventually major in theology at Princeton), to consider working with children; it was a devastating blow. (Another teacher, the social realist Ben Shahn, was more sympathetic.)

Pointing Figure Column (detail), 1985 | Stoneware, Porcelain and Oxides | Photo: DeWitt Cheng
Pointing Figure Column (detail), 1985 | Stoneware, Porcelain and Oxides | Photo: DeWitt Cheng

Although De Staebler once described being intimidated in his youthful "mud-pie production" by the great figurative art of the past, his interest in the monumental, heroic and tragic art of the past remained: "the Michelangelo prisoners and finished figures... the Winged Victory of Samothrace... the Three Graces... from the Parthenon.., these things just never leave me."

Standing Woman, 1975  and Standing Man, 1975 | Pigmented Stoneware and Porcelain with Surface Oxides | Photo: DeWitt Cheng
Standing Woman, 1975 and Standing Man, 1975 | Pigmented Stoneware and Porcelain with Surface Oxides | Photo: DeWitt Cheng

His description of the Belvedere Torso of Hercules, a Roman copy of a Greek original that Renaissance artists exalted and studied:

...this magnificent twisting torso with no head, no arms, no legs. It just sits there, this gigantic statement of man's endurance.

might stand for his own eroded, shattered fragments of classical statuary, exemplars of the existentialist sensibility that dominated the Cold War 1950s and symbols of heroic endurance.

Standing Figure with Yellow Aura, 1985 | Pigmented Stoneware with Surface Oxides | Photo: DeWitt Cheng
Standing Figure with Yellow Aura, 1985 | Pigmented Stoneware with Surface Oxides | Photo: DeWitt Cheng

De Staebler wrote, about the "boneyard" of ceramic torsos, limbs and heads that he used for what one critic called his "recombinant poetics," -- "Your past work is the truest record of who you are."

Matter + Spirit reception
Matter + Spirit reception

He certainly knew Giacometti's statements about the difficulty of capturing human life and personality and the importance of perseverance; one of them comes from a book whose author had previously written about De Staebler: "Just the fact of living requires so much will and so much energy." Matter runs on spirit.

Seated Woman with Outstretched Hand, 1984 | Stoneware, Porcelain and Lowfire Clays | Photo by DeWitt Cheng
Seated Woman with Outstretched Hand, 1984 | Stoneware, Porcelain and Lowfire Clays | Photo by DeWitt Cheng