publication of the International Sculpture Center
by Peter Selz
fractured human figure has been the subject of Stephen De Staeblers
sculpture for many years. In a 1998 exhibition at the Franklin Parrasch
Gallery in New York he reduced this image to only the human leg. Now,
in his new work, those disembodied legsfragile but immutablehave
become larger, nearly six feet in height, and stand as witnesses to human
endurance. They fuse the tangible corporeality of clay with a sense of
Altar to a Leg,
55.5 x 14 x 31 in.
Ever since Auguste
Rodin, evoking the damaged sculpture of antiquity, presented his partial,
yet muscular and erotic figures, the fractured human form has been endemic
to modern sculpture. The human torso was a dominant theme in the work
of artists as diverse as Maillol and Brancusi, Henry Moore and Antoine
Pevsner. Giacometti pared the standing woman and the striding man to the
bare essentials of existence. But only in the Abakans, the
poignant headless figures by Magdalena Abakanowicz, and in De Staeblers
sculpted images does the fragmented figure assume a symbolic function
of human incompleteness and yearning for wholeness. De Staeblers
large-scale legs signify this predicament for an artist who faces the
human conditionboth its vulnerability and its tenacity. His work
recalls the ancient effigies of the Sumerians and the Egyptians. At the
same time, it is painfully contemporary. While there is a timeless quality
in De Staeblers work, these severed limbs remind us of our recently
awakened sense of vulnerability.
The fractured human
figure in De Staeblers work may be related to the work of his principal
teacher, the late Peter Voulkos, who broke ceramic vessels into clay sculptures.
De Staebler, after studying theology at Princeton, went to Berkeley where
teachers such as Voulkos, Harold Paris, and Jacques Schnier created a
stimulating atmosphere for the apprentice sculptor. At the start of his
career in the 1960s and early 70s, De Staebler made undulating horizontal
sculptures that appear to be landscapes. Just as we often anthropomorphize
ridges and mountains, so these works allude to the curvature of the human
body. The concept of the intimate relationship between the human and the
earth is an essential element of his work.
Figure Column VII, 2001. Fired clay,
72 x 16.5 x 11.5 in.
By 1968, the 35-year-old
artist created the sanctuary and crucifix for the Newman Center in Berkeley,
in which he combined architecture and sculpture in one of the few successful
ecclesiastical artworks of the period. As he continued to make large,
figurative sculpture he learned more and more about the unpredictable
nature of clay and its performance in the craftsmans hands. He got
to know about its softness when wet, its leathery toughness when hardened,
its tendency to crack, its truly organic character. Clay, De Staebler
points out, is really the crust of the earth itself. Clay, or terra cottaLatin
for cooked earth, was the first material used to fashion vessels,
as well as images. Suffused with myth and history, it has been reclaimed
in our time as a significant material for the sculptor. It has been De
Staeblers medium of choice for many years.
Although De Staebler
has an abiding love for clay, as early as 1960 he tried working in bronze,
doing his own castings. When he returned to bronze in 1980, he was able
to retain the cracked earth appearance of clay while gaining greater permanence,
structural strength, and monumentality. One of his more recent bronzes
is a 12-foot-high Angel of the Annunciation, commissioned for a
garden in New Harmony, Indiana, in 1998. Recently De Staebler has returned
to working in fired clay. In the ongoing war against technology and its
streamlining and dehumanizing contamination of the world, there is no
material better suited to reassert humanity against the plunder of the
Figure Column XI,
2001. Fired clay,
73.5 x 10.5 x 17 in.
Figure Column III,
2001. Fired clay,
72 x 16.5 x 11.5 in.
Figure Column VIII,
2001. Fired clay,
66 x 9.5 x 13 in.
In the 1970s De
Staeblers human forms, such as Standing Woman and Man (1975),
were enshrined in their clay supports, recalling the colossal effigies
in Egyptian rock-cut temples. Soon they became free-standing stelae in
which the stacked segments assert themselves with a churning, baroque
complexity. His human figures are not gender-based, achieving a sense
of universality in their archaic appearance and androgynous figuration.
At times the artist prefers to give form to segments of the body instead
of the human figure in its entirety, and as early as 1981 he made an Altar
to a Leg, cast in bronze.
Standing Man and Woman,
1975. Fired clay, 96 x 36 x 33 in.
The present clay
figures, called Figure Columns, were done in sections held
up by a matrix of bricks, put in place prior to their upright orientation.
The artist sees the leg as an abbreviated symbol of the human being, the
part of the anatomy in closest contact with the earth. The segmentation
of these sculptures lends a sense of vertical rhythm to the figures, similar
to the structure of stone drums in Doric columns. In the Figure
Columns, the feet touch their slanted bases and then the legs soar
to a height of up to 78 inches, as in Figure Column III in which
the left leg has a strong reddish stain. The right leg is the natural
clay color and is actually merely suggested by a concave space implying
incompleteness which, the artist feels, is basic to human life. One leg
of Figure Column VIII is almost black, created by copper oxide,
and there are black patches in VI that evoke the sense of lichen
on a rock. Pink, turquoise, blue, and orange tonalities provide a great
sense of vitality in their contrast to the hue of the clay itself. What
you get is greater than what you want, he says in describing the
element of surprise when the work is taken out of the kiln.
Some of these leg
figures are elegant and slender, while others are more massive and substantial.
In some there is a bare suggestion of a head high up on the long leg,
in others the top is cracked and rough, suggesting the sense of ancient
ruins. The contrast between segmentation and solidity in these works asks
the viewer to pause for exploration, for contemplation in a state of transcendental
Peter Selz is
Professor Emeritus of Art History at the University of California, Berkeley.