Matter + Spirit: Stephen De Staebler

By Timothy Anglin Burgard, Rick Newby, and Dore Ashton

Over the course of a 50-year career, Stephen De Staebler (1933–2011) created totemic figurative sculptures in clay and bronze—powerful, elegiac forms that embody fragility and resiliency, separation and unity, and a yearning for spiritual transcendence. Extending an artistic lineage that includes Michelangelo, August Rodin, and Alberto Giacometti as well as the art of the ancient Americas, Egypt, and Greece, De Staebler assimilated the idioms of his diverse artistic ancestors into a sculptural vocabulary uniquely his own.

A resident of the San Francisco Bay Area since the late 1950s, De Staebler was among the first students of the legendary Peter Voulkos at the University of California, Berkeley. As a participant in the California Clay movement, he was a vital force in efforts to redefine ceramics as art and to innovate techniques for constructing, pigmenting, and firing clay sculptures. And in conjunction with the Bay Area Figurative movement, De Staebler helped to infuse the existentialist agenda of Abstract Expressionism with a profound humanism. Illuminating the significance of De Staebler’s practice as never before, a comprehensive essay by exhibition curator Timothy Anglin Burgard provides in-depth analysis of the artist’s major pieces. Poet and scholar Rick Newby sketches a biographical portrait of the sculptor, documenting how De Staebler’s life was remarkably reflected in his art. And renowned art historian Dore Ashton offers a moving tribute to the artist she met in the 1970s and with whom she remained a lifelong friend.

Matter and Spirit: Stephen De Staebler is a timely tribute to a pioneering artist and his enduring work. Produced in collaboration with the artist and his estate, this authoritative volume is published on the occasion of a major exhibition at the de Young. Lavishly illustrated with artworks and archival materials, many of them never before published, it traces De Staebler’s prolific oeuvre from his early anthropomorphic landscape sculptures, through his well-known standing figure columns and bronze angels, to late assemblage pieces created from fragments of earlier works in the artist’s “boneyard.” Offering an unprecedented glimpse into the sculptor’s studio and process, this catalogue is replete with new scholarship and fascinating discoveries.


Timothy Anglin Burgard is the Ednah Root Curator in Charge of the American Art Department at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. A graduate of Dartmouth College, he holds master of arts and master of philosophy degrees from Columbia University. His previous curatorial positions were at the Harvard University Art Museums and the New-York Historical Society. Among his many publications are The Surreal World of Enrico Donati, The Art of Dale Chihuly, and Body of Work: The Art of Al Farrow. He is a recipient of the Silver Medal of the Royal Society of the Arts in London.

Rick Newby is a poet and independent scholar whose essays and reviews have appeared in Sculpture, American Craft, and other publications.

Dore Ashton is an art historian and the author or editor of more than 30 books on modern art and culture, including The New York School: A Cultural Reckoning and A Fable of Modern Art.

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