Essay by Valerie Fletcher
Born in Alameda, California, Walter Dusenbery studied at the San Francisco Art Institute, and then received an MFA from the California College of Arts and Crafts. Contrary to the importance of welded metal sculpture in America at that time (see entries on Anthony Caro and Seymour Lipton), Dusenbery preferred the older tradition of direct carving.
Dusenbery worked for a time as studio assistant to the Japanese American sculptor Isamu Noguchi (1904–88), who was one of the most innovative carvers in the world, working in fine marbles, variegated granites, and rough basalt. Noguchi was a passionate believer in the “direct-carve” practice advocated by Constantin Brancusi (1876–1957) in the early twentieth century (Noguchi had worked as Brancusi’s assistant in Paris in the late 1920s).
Many direct-carve sculptors feel a strong physical and psychic link with the natural materials they use, as Noguchi once noted: “I love the use of stone, because it is the most…meaning-impregnated material. The whole world is made of stone.…Stone is the direct link to the heart of matter—a molecular link. When I tap it, I get an echo of that which we are. Then, the whole universe has resonance.”
Like Noguchi, Dusenbery often carved vertical, totemic abstract sculptures from a single massive stone. These monoliths intentionally convey an ancient aura, evoking sources like the mysterious dolmens of Stonehenge and the lingams of Shiva in India.
Dusenbery’s favorite material was travertine, a porous carbonate stone that is easily cut. In its pure state, travertine is white, but mineral or biologic impurities can infuse the stone with yellow, red, brown, gray, and green hues. Some travertine deposits are characterized by solid impurities, including tiny fossils.
The title of this sculpture refers to the secluded Pedogna Valley in Northern Italy that can only be reached by foot. The term “travertine” derives from the Latin name of the place in Italy where the ancient Romans quarried the stone used to build the Coliseum. Dusenbery was initially introduced to this material while working with Noguchi in the stone-working areas of Italy. Although Pedogna is travertine, it is made of a Persian variety that the artist often uses.
Geologically, Pedogna conveys a history much older than that of ancient Rome. The sculpture celebrates the wonders of the natural environment with striations formed over hundreds of millions of years. Interestingly, the artist chose not to arrange Pedogna’s segments in geological order. Like in many of Dusenbery’s sculptures, he enjoys playing with questions of time.
Although known for his direct-carve sculptures, Dusenbery did not make Pedogna in the direct-carve method. He explained that sculptures of this scale are too large to carve directly; they require considerable geometric calculation and planning.
Pedogna manifests two kinds of articulated surface: a smooth, round, and bell-shaped base with a rusticated side. The contrast between rough chiseling and a sensuous smoothness provides visual interest and emphasizes the intrinsic qualities of the hard, finely grained stone.
Valerie Fletcher is Senior Curator at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC. Her research on groundbreaking aspects of international, globalized, and transnational art have resulted in numerous exhibitions and publications.