Accessing Matter and Spirit: The Public Art of Stephen De Staebler

On Saturday, Matter + Spirit: The Sculpture of Stephen De Staebler opens at the de Young. Matter + Spirit represents the first major museum exhibition of the artist’s work since his death last year.

Stephen De Staebler

Stephen De Staebler in his Berkeley studio, 2009. Photograph by Philip Ringler

Stephen De Staebler (1933–2011) came to artistic maturity during his graduate studies at UC Berkeley. Under the freeform tutelage of renowned ceramic artist Peter Voulkos, De Staebler developed a unique vocabulary that balanced the prevailing Abstract Expressionist ethos with his strong pull towards figuration. Drawing on the evocative Northern California terrain, particularly the undulating hills of Contra Costa County, De Staebler also created three-dimensional works reminiscent of the surrounding landscape.

Wall X Orange Scar

Wall X with Orange Scar, 1973. Pigmented stoneware with surface oxides. Promised gift of Danae Mattes. Artwork © Estate of Stephen De Staebler. Photograph by Scott McCue

During a career that spanned more than five decades, De Staebler received received many commissions for sculptures that are installed throughout the Bay Area. By way of an introduction to the sculpture of Stephen De Staebler, we’ve put together a tour of selected public works currently on view in and around San Francisco.

Students of UC Berkeley won’t have to go very far to search out De Staebler’s works, which can be found throughout the campus.

In 1967, De Staebler was commissioned to design the liturgical furnishings for the Holy Spirit Chapel in UC Berkeley’s Newman Hall. Paired with the stark, modern design of architects Mario J. Ciampi and Richard L. Jorasch, De Staebler’s contribution addresses the universal themes of life, death and spirituality.

Holy Spirit Chapel

Liturgical furnishings for the sanctuary of the Holy Spirit Chapel, Newman Hall, University of California, Berkeley, 1967–1968. Photograph by Scott McCue

De Staebler's Winged Figure is beautifully situated in the Graduate Theological Union's Flora Lamson Hewlett Library and impassively watches over scholarly and theological inquiries.

Winger Figure

Winged Figure, 1993. Bronze and patina. Flora Lamson Hewlett Library, Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley. Photography by Scott McCue

Based on the style of a classic Greek amphitheater, Oakland’s City Center features two large-scale figures and an imposing angel that together truly embody the concepts of matter and spirit.

Oakland City Center

Environmental installation with three figures, 1992. Bronze and patina. Oakland City Center. Photograph by Scott McCue

Any well-traveled San Francisco resident knows that the best way to get back from Oakland is via BART. De Staebler’s imposing Wall Canyon marks the re-entry into San Francisco at the Embarcadero Station.

Embarcadero Station

Wall Canyon, 1975–1977. Pigmented stoneware with surface oxides. Embarcadero Station, San Francisco. Photograph by Karl H. Riek

Continue on BART to the Montgomery Street station and head over to Dolby Chadwick Gallery, where you can just catch the last weeks of an exhibition that features De Staebler bronze works (through January 28). These large-scale bronze sculptures presented an interesting logistical challenge to the gallery, which resides in an historical building that does not easily accommodate monumental art.

Round out your tour of De Staebler at the de Young, of course! Winged Woman Walking VI is a perennial favorite in the Osher Sculpture Garden, which is free to all museum visitors.

Winged Woman Walking VI

Winged Woman Walking VI, 1990. Bronze. Gift of Morgan Flagg in memory of his mother, Mabel Flagg. 1994.185

Matter + Spirit: The Sculpture of Stephen De Staebler will be on display at the de Young January 14–April 22, 2012.