In 1973, Deborah Butterfield received her MFA from the University of California, Davis, where the faculty included Robert Arneson, Roy De Forest, Manuel Neri, William T. Wiley, and Wayne Thiebaud, artists committed to a hands-on approach, who combined the traditional and experimental in their work. For her thesis exhibition, she showed life-like ceramic horses. Since then, over a career spanning nearly half a century, Butterfield has focused on the horse as her sole subject. No other sculptor has pursued a single subject with such relentless fervor. What is remarkable about Butterfield’s single-minded approach is the breadth of materials she has incorporated into her sculptures, and the different subjects and issues they touch upon. While she has often stated that she “first used the horse image as a metaphorical substitute for myself—it was a way of doing a self-portrait one step removed from the specificity of Deborah Butterfield,” there is much more to her beguiling work than meets the eye. At the beginning of “Horses, Sculpture, & Creative Process,” a talk that Butterfield gave at Crystal Bridges in 2018, she told the audience that she was born on the day when Ponder won the Kentucky Derby, went on to say that Ponder was sired by Pensive, and concluded, “It all adds up.” It is this holistic sense of Butterfield’s work and its relationship to the everyday world that we should consider when looking at her sculpture.
When Butterfield began making horses, she realized that she was coming up against the history of equine statuary, which consists largely of men astride war horses, which is to say subjugated animals that serve a particular purpose. Equine sculptures are made to honor heroes and masculinity. Butterfield’s horses, however, have not been vanquished by humans and become engines of destruction. Self-contained, independent, and unadorned, they are not aggressive steeds. They do not stir up associations with the role played by stallions in the history of conflict, surrender, and domination. In order to separate herself from this male-dominated history and celebration of victories, Butterfield chose mares and foals as her subject: “I wanted to do big, beautiful mares that were as strong and imposing as stallions but capable of creation and nourishing life. It was a very personal feminist statement.”
Having been around horses for much of her life, including a stint working on a racehorse farm while she was a student at UC Davis, Butterfield has an unrivaled knowledge of their physiology. She knows that horses possess an unusual trait—they are able to sleep standing up or lying down. When they are in the former position, they are able to flee a predator if they have to. She has both an intimate knowledge of them and the ability to see them as an abstract container—a large rectangular canvas balanced on four legs—in which she can make a three-dimensional drawing out of a wide range of materials, each one possessing individual characteristics. Those attributes define what kind of line she can make. Rather than making a particular horse, she makes each horse particular through her choice of materials.
Butterfield’s horses can be understood as survivors. Despite the unsettling, contemporary world they inhabit, they have managed to endure and, to some degree, thrive. This persistence, along with the fact that they are mares and foals, adds to our metaphorical understanding. They live apart from humans in a domain that is contained within ours, that should be respected and maintained. There is nothing nostalgic about these horses; they do not harken back to a golden era. If anything, they underscore the need for humankind to be nurturing, to take care of the earth. Because her mares are comforting creatures, they invite us to appreciate their separateness and power to sustain others. This is one of the central themes of Butterfield’s work, and it deserves notice. She is an ecologically minded artist whose work rejects our dependency on an extraction economy in which we take what we need from the earth with little regard for the long-term effects of our actions.
In fact, I would argue that Butterfield’s ecological concerns have deepened over the past 50 years, particularly after she began working with found materials, which happened when she received her second grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and a Guggenheim Fellowship and decided to travel to Israel in 1980. While staying in Jerusalem, she began to use materials that she retrieved from junkyards. Her ability to adapt to new circumstances and use whatever was available is evidence of her resilience. One could extend this further and say that Butterfield’s flexibility is a testament to her subjects. She uses what is available to make them come into existence.
In the early works, when Butterfield used mud and sticks, it was as if the horses had emerged out of the ground, taking on a mythic stature. They became creatures of dreams, at once familiar and ghostly. Formally speaking, they are figures whose organic materials recall their inextricable connection to the earth. They are dependent on what the earth gives them, which is also true of us. The difference, of course, is that the horses only take as much as they need to become what they are. Unlike humans, they are neither gluttons nor hoarders, their interaction with the earth not based on extraction. In the later works with found materials—including tree branches, yarn, barbed wire, car parts, pieces of plastic, galvanized steel, and discarded metal letters—Butterfield likewise eschews extracting from the earth. This is one of the resonant incongruities of the work she has made since 1980, and the change in materials adds another dimension to her work.
When Butterfield began making her horses out of the very materials that altered their existence, and rendered their contribution to efficiency obsolete, her work also started to comment on encroachment, land use, and American expansion, without becoming overtly political. The industrialization of Western civilization—which began to accelerate rapidly in the 19th century—pushed horses from a central role to a marginal one. How are we to read one of Butterfield’s horses when it is assembled out of car parts or farm machinery? Is she commenting on the cycle of obsolescence that is a central feature of industrial progress? Does her retrieval of detritus remind us that we produce waste in myriad forms, from junk to irreparable pollution? Do her horses become eerie reminders of America’s past or survivors in a post-apocalyptic future? What do they mean to us in the present?
While writers have pointed out that Butterfield has never been part of the various movements that have swept through the art world, it is a mistake to think that her work is not in dialogue with that of Donald Judd or John Chamberlain or artists working with found materials. Members of an older, male-dominated generation, Judd, Chamberlain, and many others believed that an artist needed to break away from the past and do something new. Rejecting the importance of subject matter, they focused on formal issues and non-art materials. And yet, doesn’t Butterfield’s response to the history of equine statuary also represent a rupture with the past? One could go further and say that her use of materials and processes is in dialogue with her contemporaries and the history of sculpture. Like the Minimalists, Butterfield does not subsume the identity of what she uses in her work. A tree branch always looks like one, even when it is cast in bronze. At the same time, she rejects the macho aesthetic of monumental works, as hers are always related to human scale. Whether her materials are found in nature or in a junkyard, Butterfield is respectful of them. She does not try to disguise what she uses, and each of the things we see in her sculpture evokes its previous life.
Butterfield works with what she finds—literally speaking, with what the earth gives her. She stays true to each specific cache of found things, whether a particular kind of tree branch or the junked parts of a farm machine. Her sense of the specific, and her uncanny ability to see how, for example, the letters from a discarded movie theater sign can become an essential part of a horse’s physiology, is one of the most salient features of her work. In Riot (c. 1990), Butterfield names the horse after the four red sheet metal letters that make up the sculpture. If we once thought her mud and stick sculptures looked as if they rose out of the earth, Riot seems to have formed itself out of the letters of its name. And by giving the horse this name, isn’t Butterfield honoring the innate nature of the horse, its resistance to being domesticated? Isn’t she reminding us that the relationship between a human and a horse has to be one based on trust?
Butterfield’s need for specificity animates her sculptures, giving each one an innate personality. This is what makes her work truly exceptional. Most equine statues are idealizations of a war horse, odes to virility and valor. Butterfield’s horses are, as she says, metaphorical self-portraits one step removed, but as the poet Walt Whitman declared: “I am large, I contain multitudes.” The same can be said for Butterfield’s sculptures. This is what we must consider when we look at and reflect upon her work, beginning with the subject—mare and foal, mother and child. What connects the later works to her early horses made of mud and sticks is their ghostliness. They are preternatural presences, reminders of mankind’s destructive nature and the will to adapt and survive.
When Butterfield told the audience at Crystal Bridges, “It all adds up,” she was not exaggerating. In fact, she was understating what goes into each work, the trajectory of her thinking and the choices she makes. The attention that she pays to how each part functions within the overall work, as well as to its material identity, makes her work special and innovative. She often creates a horse out of a single kind of material, be it a kind of tree or machinery. The wood she uses is native to a particular locale. This respect for materials and place is an essential part of what adds up, revealing the intensity of Butterfield’s attention to the world in which she lives.
In 2000, a client invited Butterfield to Napa, where she and her husband and their three young children lived. The result was a commission to make three one-of-a-kind sculptures, one for each of the children: Zak, Zelda, and Cody. While at the ranch, Butterfield began collecting different kinds of wood to bring back to her studio in Montana. She selected wood that she associated with her subject. She chose manzanita for Zelda because of its delicate complexity, oak for the oldest child, Zak, and madrone, which she thought of as powerful, for Cody. She was also engaged by the intrinsic shapes and textures of these trees, which she had never used before. As she told Katie White of Sotheby’s: “When I have new material, it’s so exhilarating that I almost can’t keep up with myself, putting it on the armature.” She saw each work as capturing a moment in time, not a “‘direct portrait’ [but] a meditation on each of the children.”
Butterfield, who divides her time between Montana and Hawaii, made Monekana (2001) out of tree branches that she found in Hawaii and cast into bronze. The patina she applied mirrors the textures and tones of the fragments. Monekana is Hawaiian for “Montana.” Living in two distinct geographic locales, each with its own seasons, flora, and fauna, she has become keenly attuned to the particular materials of a place. The title also indicates that Butterfield is aware that neither she nor horses are native to Hawaii.
As a group of volcanic islands, Hawaii is one of the most ecologically diverse landscapes in the world. Its geographic distance from other land masses has made it home to species not found anywhere else. Yet the islands’ isolation also makes them particularly vulnerable to invasive species, and many native animals and plants are endangered, or already extinct. In Monekana, as in Butterfield’s other sculptures, she calls attention to a specific animal and what it is made of. Identity and what the work is made of are inseparable. The textured surfaces and subtly changing tones infuse the work with a tactile presence. The branches do not become a solid mass. Being able to see through Monekana makes the work—for all its evident strength and size—seem vulnerable.
Starting out with ceramics, then moving to mud and sticks, Butterfield’s first sculptures were about making forms, an extension of her love for clay. She was shaping her materials. When she began using tree branches and found materials, she started making three-dimensional drawings of a body in space. The horses can be standing, their heads bowed. Some of the branches might be smooth, while others are pitted or flecked with clinging bits of bark. Each piece of wood or metal is essential to the sculpture and, at the same time, a distinct thing exerting its own unique identity. The interplay between the individual parts and the way they have been orchestrated to form a whole in which no two branches are alike is one of the formal strengths of Butterfield’s work. The thickness, the feel of the surface, and the bearing of the material—from sinuously curved to ramrod straight—all do their part to imbue each work with a distinct personality and distinct traits.
Butterfield’s horses are resonant metaphors addressing society and history. They remind us that the natural world is not there to be subjugated, and that such outmoded beliefs have led us to the current, precarious state of the planet, which we continue to despoil without regard for the future. Using weathered wood and other materials, she comments on our production of nondegradable waste. Looking at Butterfield’s work, you might not think she is a politically or socially conscious artist, but you would be mistaken. There is deep compassion and responsibility pulsing through all of her work, a feeling of independence, celebration, desolation, sadness, joy, and lamentation.
A solo exhibition of work by Deborah Butterfield is on view at Marlborough Gallery November 3, 2022–January 14, 2023.