Outlasting Eternity: A Reflection on the Figures of Stephen De Staebler

Guest-blogger Tim Svenonius is the interpretive media producer at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and an artist in his own right. Here he shares his insights and reflections after seeing Matter + Spirit: The Sculpture of Stephen De Staebler on view at the de Young through May 13.

Three Figures

From left to right: Man with Broad Chest, 2010. Bronze with patina. Courtesy of Dolby Chadwick Gallery, San Francisco; Winged Woman Walking I, 1987. Bronze with patina. Courtesy of Dolby Chadwick Gallery, San Francisco; Winged Figure with Three Legs, 2003. Collection of Peter and Beverly Lipman, Portola Valley, California.

Three figures stretch upward on long attenuated legs, assembled from roughly matched parts. Standing at the mouth of a hallway like sentries protecting a passage, they seem neither malevolent nor benign. Some are armless or headless, but they are animated by an unencumbered grace that the expressiveness of hands or faces would undermine.

One of these, a tall angelic form whose shoulder blooms into a single scapula-like wing, attracts me magnetically, its pose simultaneously balletic and warlike. I make a slow arc around it, witnessing the subtle torque of the body, the rapturously long stride, the dissolution of the torso into untamed elements.

Winged Woman Walking I

Photo courtesy the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. © Estate of Stephen De Staebler

In these bodies are complex histories—airs of remote prehistory mix with shades of dystopia. While they bear affinities to the work of Rodin and Giacometti, their ties to ancient sculpture are stronger still: fragments of classical and Hellenistic statuary, most specifically the Nike of Samothrace, are paid homage in these heroic and fractured figures.

In any of De Staebler's works, I find much to admire: a lyricism of form, the subtlety of a patina or the unexpected grace in a broken human form. The genesis of the artist's vision, his push against the orthodoxies in place when he took up his trade as sculptor, is encapsulated in the gallery that follows: between masks and torsos are bodies not described but implied, in rough masses of clay or metal.


Photo courtesy the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. © Estate of Stephen De Staebler

Recognizably anthropomorphic, or perhaps protohuman, these forms confront us bluntly with their earthy corporeality. They appeal to the body more than to the eye, perhaps evoking some of the more solemn connotations of earth: burial and excavation.

Wall X

Wall X with Orange Scar, 1973. Pigmented stoneware with surface oxides. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, promised gift of the estate of Stephen De Staebler © Estate of Stephen De Staebler. Photo by Scott McCue

I am most powerfully drawn to a work called Standing Man and Standing Woman (1975), positioned at the end of the exhibition. In a light-flooded gallery, this pair of figures presides over an assembly of human-scale clay sculptures. The standing man and woman lord over the room as though enthroned, but they are neither seated nor truly standing, their near-vertical forms embedded in tall wedges of clay. Sunken into these slabs, they bring to mind the tombs of medieval knights whose effigies are rendered in massive granite blocks, as though petrified in their beds.

Standing Man and Woman

Photo courtesy the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco © Estate of Stephen De Staebler

The pillarlike volumes of these pedestals bear the distinctive marks of wire-cut clay, a texture suggestive of erosion and wind-sculpted cliff faces. The figures themselves crumble like desert canyons, laced with fissures, aglow with vivid mineral colors. The nearer I get to the man and woman, the more they seem to dissolve into piles of stony rubble.

If the artist's winged bronze seraphs are modern echoes of the Nike of Samothrace, the Standing Man and Standing Woman surely descend from Egypt's Valley of the Kings. The Colossi of Memnon in Luxor are one likely inspiration: twin enthroned pharaohs, veined with fractures, crumbling and wind-eroded, like earthenware shattering in geological slow motion. And while our imaginations would struggle to restore these disintegrating monarchs of Egypt to wholeness, their majesty and potency is truly of a piece with their infinitesimally slow return to the dust. Certainly De Staebler understood the poetry contained there: his figures are born ancient, eroded and broken.

SDS Installation

Photo courtesy the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco © Estate of Stephen De Staebler

And however vividly they recall these ancient god-kings, the standing man and woman are not idealized by any measure: they show the ravages of time as only human bodies can: the draping of flesh over bones, sagging here and sinking there—the unrelenting liquefaction of beauty.

As it slowly came into focus, this entwining of the emblems of age, in stone, sculpture and flesh, struck me as achingly sad. When I'd first encountered it, this work had beckoned to me—I felt I could write volumes about it; then, on a second visit I nearly abandoned the notion: How could I do justice to its devastating spell? And furthermore, who would willingly read it, this encomium to broken bodies and human frailty?

But in conjuring these limbs and bodies from the clay, De Staebler understood that while the eons give stony dignity to mud and earth, mere years mock the conceit of human strength and render it to utter pathos.


SDS Studio

Stephen De Staebler's Albany, California, studio, 1974. Photo by Peter Brown

If each artist has one story, a personal creation myth which defines them, De Staebler's tale may be one of a nearness to mortality. He spoke of a broken ankle in his childhood as a formative experience of his youth—that moment the illusion of invincibility fell away to reveal the body's true fragility. His personal tragedy began with the death of his mother when he was an adolescent, and deepened with his father’s death from cancer and his first wife's struggle with multiple sclerosis. These experiences find expression in a powerfully emotional language of entropy, age and mortality.

Blue Mask

Blue Face with White Stripe, 1971. Pigmented stoneware and porcelai. Estate of Stephen De Staebler © Estate of Stephen De Staebler. Photo by Philip Ringler

And this, I suppose, is the artist's particular alchemy. His sculptural language fused not only classical and modern sensibilities but also wove in a vocabulary of geological entropy, and gave us figures that could seemingly outlast eternity. It is in this idiom that he shows us a portrait of our unfathomable selves, whose moment on earth is quickly passing.

Don’t miss your chance to experience the artwork of this evocative artist. Matter + Spirit: The Sculpture of Stephen De Staebler is on view at the de Young through May 13.