Stephen De Staebler, "Blue-Green Torso" (1977) Pigmented stoneware with surface oxides. Photo by DeWitt Cheng.
Nearly 60 pieces, including masks, maquettes, semi-abstract wall and floor landscape pieces, wedge-enclosed figures and free-standing figure columns, and bronze angels, are beautifully displayed in several medium-sized galleries. An excellent catalogue, edited by the show's curator, Timothy Anglin Burgard, features gracefully written, illuminating essays by critics Rick Newby and Dore Ashton that provide esthetic, historical and psychological perspective into the man and his art.
De Staebler is important both as an exemplar of certain postwar trends and as an anomaly, or, to reclaim a regrettably misused word, maverick. As one of Peter Voulkos' graduate students at Berkeley in the 1950s, where Hans Hofmann and others advocated a subjective and intuitive approach to nature, De Staebler was one of the pioneers who made clay the respectable art medium that it is now. Voulkos' and De Staebler's physical, intuitive approach to clay, a three-dimensional analogue to Abstract Expressionist painters' dripping and slathering, is well and comically expressed in De Staebler's account of how he abandoned his early impulse to perfectionism:
I didn't know what I was doing. I couldn't see the clay... And then I just jumped like crazy all over that thing. I just wallowed in the clay. I just mashed it, punched it. I didn't know what I was doing. I couldn't see the clay. You know, I had to do it by kinesthesia alone. And then finally, after I'd punched myself out, I peeled [the plastic] all off. And it was just incredible. It was really beautiful.
Stephen De Staebler, "Cross Torso" (1976) Pigmented porcelain with surface oxides. Photo by DeWitt Cheng.
There was this beautiful undulating flesh landscape. It was so much more beautiful than anything I had in my mind, just one of those great moments where what you're given is more beautiful than what you wanted... I began to realize that clay is earth... When it's wet and soft, it's very fleshlike... And when it gets stiff, it becomes like bones. And when it gets dry, it becomes brittle like old bones. And when it's fired, it's frozen.
Stephen De Staebler, "Wedged Woman Standing" (1985). Fired clay. Photo by DeWitt Cheng.
Stephen De Staebler, "Pointing Figure Column" (1985) (detail). Stoneware, porcelain and oxides, Photo by DeWitt Cheng.
Stephen De Staebler, "Standing Woman" and "Standing Man" (both 1975, at left) Pigmented stoneware and porcelain with surface oxides. Photo by DeWitt Cheng.
might stand for his own eroded, shattered fragments of classical statuary, exemplars of the existentialist sensibility that dominated the Cold War 1950s and symbols of heroic endurance.
...this magnificent twisting torso with no head, no arms, no legs. It just sits there, this gigantic statement of man's endurance.
"Standing Figure with Yellow Aura" (1985, at right) Pigmented stoneware with surface oxides. Photo by DeWitt Cheng.
Matter + Spirit reception.
Stephen De Staebler, "Seated Woman with Outstretched Hand" (1984) Stoneware, porcelain and lowfire clays. Photo by DeWitt Cheng.