DEBORAH BUTTERFIELD (B. 1949) Bluebird, 2006

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Lot 16W ¤
(B. 1949)
Bluebird, 2006

Sold for US$ 134,600 inc. premium
Bluebird, 2006

found steel, welded

46 x 59 x 14in.
116.8 x 149.9 x 35.6cm

This work is unique.


  • Provenance
    Gallery Paule Anglim, San Francisco.
    Acquired from the above by the previous owner in 2006.
    By descent from the above to the present owner.

    San Francisco, Gallery Paule Anglim, Deborah Butterfield, New Sculptures in Steel and Bronze, 4 May-10 June 2006.

    "The great and immediate power we experience when in the presence of her heroic forms attests to a natural and sympathetic collaboration of spirit."1

    Equine imagery is one of the earliest known and most powerful motifs throughout art history, tracing its roots as far back as ancient rock and cave paintings. In more recent times, however, sculptures of horses with gallant warriors astride have most often been commissioned to celebrate illustrious leaders and victories in momentous and triumphant battles as a more monumental form of propaganda. In an entirely different take on the age-old imagery, Deborah Butterfield presents the world with her own view of the majestic creatures. Past depictions of gigantic horses stand not as pure animals, but rather as symbols of the machinations of war. In removing the rider, Butterfield's horses are free to live a life of their own - void of human influence and consequence - reflecting the innate beauty and placidity of nature.

    Butterfield grew up surrounded by horses:riding them, taking care of them, drawing and painting them. Her initial scholastic studies in art took her away from the subject as it was not fashionable or deemed serious enough a subject matter, but by the time she was in her twenties, the current political environment of the Vietnam War had darkenedher outlook on artistic expression and agency. With the violence and confusion of war ever present in her mind, Butterfield could not help but see the intrinsic link between man, horse and war – from ancient battles of Alexander the Great, to Napoleon crossing the Swiss Alps, to the deadly battles of America's Civil War. Hoping to disrupt this constant association, Butterfield began to conceive of her first equine sculptures.

    These first beings were decidedly and distinctly contrary to the imposing bronze warhorses we are familiar with from stately plazas and parks. Alternatively, Butterfield presents earthly renditions of gentle mares constructed from mud, sticks, plaster and papier-mâché. As Jane Smiley recounts, "One of her first installations was a group of six mares in a room, all looking toward the door. The visitor had to brave the gaze of the life-size mottled brown and white animals and then squeeze among them once inside. Lots of viewers looked in, but declined to enter, even though the mares' ears were pricked and their demeanor calm."2 As Smiley rightly asserts, this was a defining moment in Butterfield's career, where she fully realized the power her subject holds over the viewer and how she can explore it further.

    It was not long before Butterfield realized to her frustration the impracticality of her medium, as some of her early works began to fall apart and required constant attention and repairs. The armature, or literal backbone of her early plaster and mud horses, was made of steel - so it was somewhat natural that at the very end of the 1970s, Butterfield began working more closely and exclusively with steel, and in particular found steel. At the same moment, the pervasiveness of war and destruction would again play an important role in the development of her work as a new decade began. During this time period, the media was incessantly showing the destruction and chaos occurring in Israel and the West Bank as a result of the heavy conflicts in the Middle East. At the time, the artist notes of the imagery portraying torn apart cars and metal structures, "You wouldn't believe how excited I get, looking at all of that material... and how guilty!"3 This interpretation of medium reveals the core of Butterfield's ideology in that where we see death, chaos and disintegration in images of war and strife, Butterfield sees the possibility of rebirth and reintegration.

    In 1980, Butterfield had a unique opportunity to take an extended working trip to Israel though a John Simon Guggenheim grant. Once on the ground, surrounded by an excess of working materials, Butterfield was able to create an extraordinary body of work utilizing only the scrap steel and other detritus of war she encountered. Working so intimately with these found materials, Butterfield realized that the elements themselves carried their own highly charged emotional content which she could bend and repurpose to compliment and augment her own vision. In doing so, the viewer encounters Butterfield's work not as a pile of metal or even simply a horse, but as an entire experience of engagement. It is this somewhat perplexing and contradictory experience that so poignantly expresses Butterfield's magic. That is, by cobbling together all of the reclaimed bits of destruction that she obsessively collects, Butterfield breathes new life into inanimate stoic creatures, generating an abundance of potential energy and a sense of hope and serenity. As Eleanor Heartney writes, "Whether constructed of discarded pipes, fencing and corrugated aluminum, or from once living matter, her sculptures celebrate a universal life force. Butterfield expresses a sense of the energies hidden within the material world. In her sculptures, prosaic elements are transformed and given life without losing their original identities. As a result, we simultaneously perceive them as configurations of recognizable objects and as potentially animate beings."4

    By the middle of the 1980s, Butterfield again embraces a new medium - bronze. In manipulating this media, Butterfield finally discovers the perfect solution to her initial dilemma of stability and longevity. Her solution was simple - to create a simple bronze skeletal armature for the work and then ply it with fallen sticks and vines until the perfect balance and form is reached. After being carefully packed, the amalgamation of vegetation and metal is transported to the Walla Walla Foundry in Washington where it is then cast in bronze. The beauty of the process and the finished work, is that as the raw organic materials burn away, liquid bronze permeates throughout the structure, resulting in the precise reproduction of the natural materials in perfect metal form.

    With both her found steel works and her bronze works, Butterfield's process and intent appears to remain the same, that is, to take the dead, the fallen, the destroyed and make it new and whole again, albeit in a different form in order to show that there is always life in death, order in chaos and hope in despair. Butterfield aptly and eloquently demonstrates the simple physical truth that matter can neither be created nor destroyed, it may change in shape or form but it will always exist. The horse is simply the vehicle that Butterfield uses to express this notion, and while this choice is deeply personal to the artist, it is more generally a fitting choice as the horse is something that we can all intimately relate to and appreciate in a sense not only of utility and practicality, but also in natural beauty and harmony.

    1. D. Gerson, Horses: The Art of Deborah Butterfield, exh. cat., University of Miami, Lowe Art Museum, Coral Gables, 1992, p. 10.
    2. J. Smiley, "Deborah Butterfield", in R. Gordon, Deborah Butterfield, New York, 2003, p. 13.
    3. Ibid., p. 13.
    4. E. Heartney, Deborah Butterfield, exh. cat., Zolla/Lieberman Gallery, Chicago, 2007, p. 2.
DEBORAH BUTTERFIELD (B. 1949) Bluebird, 2006
DEBORAH BUTTERFIELD (B. 1949) Bluebird, 2006
DEBORAH BUTTERFIELD (B. 1949) Bluebird, 2006
DEBORAH BUTTERFIELD (B. 1949) Bluebird, 2006
DEBORAH BUTTERFIELD (B. 1949) Bluebird, 2006
DEBORAH BUTTERFIELD (B. 1949) Bluebird, 2006
DEBORAH BUTTERFIELD (B. 1949) Bluebird, 2006
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