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Matter + Spirit: The Sculpture of Stephen De Staebler at the de Young Museum
Stephen De Staebler's Albany, California, studio, 1974. Photo credit: Peter Brown.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA.- Approximately 55 ceramic and bronze works spanning the career of sculptor Stephen De Staebler (1933–2011) will be installed in the American art galleries at the de Young Museum from January 14 to April 22, 2012. Matter + Spirit: The Sculpture of Stephen De Staebler and its accompanying monograph commemorate the life and work of the renowned Bay Area artist, who died earlier this year in his Berkeley home.

For more than 50 years, De Staebler created figurative sculptures from clay—a medium that derives from the primordial earth. Drawing inspiration from childhood experiences with nature, a transformative adolescent encounter with human mortality, and adult studies in the history of art and religion, he explored and extended a tradition of human representation that includes the religious monuments of ancient Egypt, the Renaissance humanism of Michelangelo’s finished and unfinished figures, and the modern existentialism embodied in the works of Alberto Giacometti.

De Staebler’s diverse artistic ancestors were linked by their engagement with universal aspects of the human condition, including struggle, suffering, and the search for meaning. The validity of this engagement was seriously challenged during World War II, when the human body—and even humanity itself—seemed to be threatened with extinction. Maturing as an artist in the decades following the War, De Staebler thus confronted the challenge of whether art—and the human figure—retained any relevance in a world that had been forever altered by the Holocaust and by Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Compounding the problem, belief in the existence of a higher spiritual power was also called into question by these cataclysmic events.

In the ensuing decades, De Staebler devoted his sculptural practice in clay and bronze to resurrecting the human figure as the most natural vessel for humanity and spirituality. His figures embody modern existential experience, in which the solitary individual feels physically, psychically, or spiritually fragmented and alienated from the contemporary world. These sculptures offer equivocal rather than definitive statements regarding the human condition. They focus instead on the transitional or metamorphic states that lie between nature and culture, life and death, integration and disintegration, and matter and spirit.

De Staebler’s sculptures are individual acts of faith—and doubt—shaped by a spiritual seeker and questioning skeptic who is working to reconcile his intellect and experience with his emotions and beliefs. As he observed, the human figure, “is obviously the most loaded of all forms because we live in one. The figure obsesses not just artists, but human beings. It’s our prison. It’s what gives us life and also gives us death.”

Born in Saint Louis, Missouri, in 1922, Stephen De Staebler studied religion at Princeton University and fine art at U. C. Berkeley. An important contributor to the evolution of the California Clay and Bay Area Figurative movements, and a key figure who helped to sustain the relevance of figurative sculpture in the post-World War II period, De Staebler was an influential teacher at San Francisco State University and the San Francisco Art Institute. His work resides in numerous museum collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

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