Stephen De Staebler’s “Figure Columns”

The fractured human figure has been the subject of Stephen De Staebler’s 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 legs—fragile but immutable—have 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 the metaphysical.

Altar to a Leg, 1981. Bronze, 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 Staebler’s sculpted images does the fragmented figure assume a symbolic function of human incompleteness and yearning for wholeness. De Staebler’s large-scale legs signify this predicament for an artist who faces the human condition—both 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 Staebler’s work, these severed limbs remind us of our recently awakened sense of vulnerability.

Figure Column VII, 2001. Fired clay, 72 x 16.5 x 11.5 in.

The fractured human figure in De Staebler’s 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 XI, 2001. Fired clay, 73.5 x 10.5 x 17 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 craftsman’s 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 cotta—Latin 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 Staebler’s medium of choice for many years.

Figure Column III, 2001. Fired clay, 72 x 16.5 x 11.5 in.

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 earth.

Figure Column VIII, 2001. Fired clay, 66 x 9.5 x 13 in.

In the 1970s De Staebler’s 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 quietude.

Peter Selz is Professor Emeritus of Art History at the University of California, Berkeley.