By Mac Taylor
Looking at Deborah Butterfield’s 1980 sculpture, “Horse,” I feel August in Colorado, big sky, wet grass on my thighs, clouds forming castles above my head. And I close my eyes, humming …
The melody driving my nostalgia is one of John Denver’s: “I’d rather live on the side of a mountain than wander through canyons of concrete and steel. I’d rather laugh in the rain and sunshine and lay down my sundown in some starry field.”
John Denver (1943-1997), icon of American music, was born a child of the American West. Linking the enormity that is the lands left of the 100th meridian to lyric song, Denver carved out a permanent home for himself in the wide open places (His own verse: “He left yesterday behind him, you might say he was born again … When he first came to the mountains”). Many of his songs are a testament to this fact, as they linger on a persuasively American longing or space (“And I’m looking for space and to find out who I am, and I’m looking to know and understand”). With this longing, as Denver notes, comes a search for self-formation, for self-construction and for pursuits grounded in the soil of something wild, untouchable.
The sculptor Deborah Butterfield (1949) is a child of the American West, too. Born, raised and educated in California, the artist spent her childhood developing a lasting love for horses. This love, a muse to the point of supreme singularity, became her primary artistic focus early on. Encouraged by her mentor, the influential American sculptor Manuel Neri, to experiment with form, she began to sculpt various figures with a diverse array of materials. In 1973, Butterfield completed her first sculpture of a horse using plaster over a steel frame. With this, Butterfield began a natural progression down a road devoted to the allure and joy of representing the figure of this animal.
Yet, in her 1980 piece, “Horse,” which is housed here at the Anderson Collection, you do not seem to recall this joy. Composed of rag paper pulp, bamboo leaves and pigment on rebar and chicken wire, the piece does not reflect an idyllic daydream of a Western youth; rather, it feels bleak, reminiscent even of a land unloved, a forgotten field, an uncollected harvest (Denver: “There’s a storm across the valley, clouds are rolling in, the afternoon is heavy on your shoulders”). The horse itself appears almost sickly. Its external hide is not smoothly finished, but instead is rough and scratched. The legs are spindly, lacking any musculature detailing. The tail is one thick form, awkward and drooping. The animal’s head hangs heavily, its chicken wire skeleton felt, though not seen. This horse dreams of fields, but perhaps experiences none — its bamboo-struck pelt is left, strewn across its compositional form. The creature droops, almost sickly, its long withered leaves exposed to too much sun, too much wind. The tail stands as one amorphous lob, thick and un-textured (“When I think that I’m moving, suddenly things stand still. I’m afraid cause I think they always will”). As a whole, the work is unrefined; it lacks a delicacy and a call to grace that other works by Butterfield seem to emulate.
However, with such an interpretation comes a further call to remembrance — this is a work of Butterfield who, after leaving California taught in Madison and Bozeman and then went on to live on a ranch in Montana. Despite the appearance of malformation, in “Horse” there also exists the artist’s American West sentiment. This is a product of her own hands — look! As viewer, I can see what she has done, how she has done it. I can follow with my gaze where her hands have traveled, how they have molded, shaped, created. I can picture Butterfield (a child born into the culture of the American West grown into a matured sculptor, still in love with the muses of her childhood) firmly shaping the chicken wire, forcing it to resemble the creatures of her adoration. You can feel her fingers stabbing at the clay of the forelock, the backbone, the long angular legs (“Oh, the time that I can lay this tired old body down, and feel your fingers feather soft upon me”).
Though not energetic in typical fashion, “Horse” breathes a Western wind into the Anderson Collection. Plodding in frozen fragments, the animal enacts an extension of John Denver’s own search — to look for that land before the coastline, to look for space. As the lyrics of Denver continually sprout a tender song of landlocked love, “Horse” is a monument to the Western vitality and experience as much as any of Butterfield’s works are.
As two artists of ingrained importance in the canon of Western American art, Denver and Butterfield articulate a rejection of urban space (“But the dawn is breaking, it’s early morn, the taxi’s waiting He’s blowing his horn. Already I’m so lonesome I could die”) in pursuit of a continual return to an iconic homeland — the wide plains, the open sky, the mountains. Crucially, this collective call (most especially when read in tandem) reverberates into the cracks of the canyons of Utah, of Arizona. It paints the New Mexican agave plants, the Montana fences, the rainy Northwestern coastline. As Denver croons a hymn of Western vastness through vocal chords, so too Butterfield does through sculpted fingers. In doing so, both carve out a singular space among the quieter shades of the American landscape. Both strive to have their art seek existence in the physicality of a monumental landscape. In a time of increasing capitalistic and metro-centricity, it is the act of looking for wide, free space that resonates for both (“Country Roads, take me home… to the place I belong”).
I am also a child of the American West. And this West is not fly-over territory. This West inhabits the solar daydreams of my girlhood. It is extensive, ample, all but unopened; a mountain to be occupied, explored; a field to be run through; a horse to be ridden, onwards. It is about a pursuit of space, of clean space. Butterfield: remember the route homeward despite the chicken wire and rebar (Denver: “The radio reminds me of my home far away, And drivin’ down the road I get a feeling, That I should have been home yesterday, yesterday”).
Looking at “Horse,” Denver humming in my ear, I can’t help but smile. For the three of us, there is only one danger, and it is clear — “In the end up in his office, in the end a quiet cough is all he has to show, he lives in New York City. I guess he’d rather be in Colorado.”
Contact Mac Taylor at ataylor8 ‘at’ stanford.edu.