Artist Spotlight: Deborah Butterfield
Deborah Butterfield’s Equine Sculptures
One of the rare artists who seems to find endlessly fresh variations on a single subject, Deborah Butterfield has exclusively executed sculptures of horses for over forty years. In what Butterfield often cites as the predetermining factor of her career, the artist was born on May 9, 1949, the same day as the 75th annual Kentucky Derby. Noting that she has had a passion for horses since she “was old enough to think,” Butterfield expressed an early interest in becoming a veterinarian. However, upon the realizing that she could never bring herself to put an animal to sleep, Butterfield decided to pursue art instead.
While in graduate school at the University of California, Davis, she sought to articulate feminist themes in her sculpture, but conceded that her professor Manuel Neri, among others, had “already done what [she] would have done with the female form.” It was then that her long held obsession with horses offered an alternative subject matter. Recalling that the horse has long served as a symbol of determination, resolve, and freedom within Western art, Butterfield observed that the animal’s inner qualities were often situated in scenes of male aggression, and used as supporting devices for messages of conquest and manifest destiny.
The artist thus sought to craft an alternative visual narrative in which a mare’s strength and force, equivalent to that of a stallion, worked in harmony with her role as a creator and nourisher of life. Butterfield asserts that “it was a very personal feminist statement.” She found that she could examine her own identity by “crawling” into a different “creature’s shape,” and perceiving “the world in a different way.” At this more comfortable theoretical distance, she could then execute metaphorical self-portraits through her subjects.
Beginning with painted plaster, Butterfield alternated mediums, moving from mud and sticks, to scrap metal, and, in more recent years, bronze-cast wood. These material transformations have followed Butterfield’s evolving sense of self. She has used organic matter that emphasizes both grounding and ephemerality, as well more “sinister” textures salvaged from her “pile of junk.”
The artist turned away from natural materials in the early 1980s and began assembling found objects and discarded industrial waste. As illustrated by Derby Horse (Lot 38), these materials simultaneously reflected on the horse’s increasing irrelevance in the face of modern technology and the rise of “disposability” culture in America. This shift in medium opened Butterfield’s work to more visual diversity and spontaneity. The artist has said that it was “next to impossible” to find the precise shapes and contours she imagined when charting a work, so in turn she learned to recognize “a quality of line” and how to approximate it in her compositions.
Always seeking to coax out the personality of the horses she depicts, Butterfield has established a system of building up her forms from within to reveal a gestural interior space. She has said that in this way, “action becomes anticipated rather than captured,” and each horse introduces itself to the viewer with a “specific energy at a precise moment.”
Butterfield, Deborah, and Vicki Kopf. Deborah Butterfield: Artist-in-Residence Program Sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation: 25 February-17 April, 1983. Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, 1983.
Gauss, Daniel. “New Sculptures by Deborah Butterfield at Danese/Corey.”Arte Fuse, 18 Sept. 2014, artefuse.com/2014/09/18/new-sculptures-by-deborah-butterfield-at-danese-corey-123550/.
“Short Takes.” Woman’s Art Journal, vol. 21, no. 1, 2000, p. 62.
“The World of Deborah Butterfield.” Scholastic Art, vol. 33, no. 6, Apr, 2003, pp. 2-3.
#3 of 5
Commissioned by the Kentucky Derby Festival of Arts, Churchill Downs; fabricated by Walla Walla Foundry, Walla Walla
Retains incised signature, date, edition, and foundry mark
27″ x 39.25″ x 13.5″; (69 x 100 x 34 cm)
February 16, 2020 Modern Art & Design Auction