Essay by Valerie Fletcher
Born in San Diego, Deborah Butterfield attended the University of California, Davis, with the intention of studying veterinary medicine. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Davis campus was a lively center for innovative new art. Butterfield decided to become a sculptor instead of a veterinarian and received her MFA in 1973. Three years later she moved to Montana, which was not a typical destination for a young artist.
Funded by National Endowment for the Arts grants in 1977 and 1980, Butterfield was able to work productively on a series of sculptures depicting horses. Within a few years, these works were exhibited at major art museums in Dallas, Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco. The artist is an accomplished equestrian, skilled in the formal style known as dressage. Her life-sized sculptures, though not realistic representations of horses, convey her expert knowledge of equine anatomy. “I ride and school my own horses and feel that my art relies heavily upon, and often parallels, my continuing dialogue with them,” she once said. Butterfield continues to live in rural Montana with her husband, artist John Buck.
Horses have been a motif in art since the ancient Greeks and Romans. Unlike most historical examples, however, Butterfield’s horses do not support a human rider: no victorious king or general, no chap-clad cowboy, not even a diminutive jockey has dominion in her compositions.
Neither does Butterfield depict racing or rearing horses, which typically have symbolized fierce competitiveness, rebellious independence, aggression, and violence. Butterfield’s horses stand, graze, muse, sniff the breeze, or occasionally rest on the ground, as if they were at home in their own pastures. This decidedly undramatic approach reveals something of the artist’s identity: “I first used the horse image as a metaphorical substitute for myself—it was a way of doing a self-portrait, one step removed from the specificity of [me].”
At first Butterfield sculpted her horses in a realistic style, using the traditional medium of plaster. But her goal was not realism, so she counteracted the precise anatomy by painting the surface in arbitrary colors like pink, yellow, and blue. Abandoning plaster, Butterfield sculpted horses from an earthy compound of mud, sticks, and straw—materials from their natural environment.
After a Visiting Artist residency in Jerusalem in 1980, the sculptor tried materials even more removed from tradition and environment. She cut, tore, bent, dented, hammered, and welded scrap metal around a support armature. In this respect she built upon the modern tradition established in the 1950s and 1960s, when American and European sculptors made “junk sculpture” a new category of art. Artists such as John Chamberlain and Jean Tinguely tended to work in abstract styles, whereas Butterfield used crumpled metal and old pipes to capture a marvelously accurate impression of the anatomy of living horses.
After a decade of constructing her sculptures from scrap metal, Butterfield found a more durable way to suggest the natural environment of horses. She composed their bodies from wood twigs and branches, then sent them to a foundry in Walla Walla to be cast in bronze. The skilled technicians at the foundry captured the delicate surfaces of the wood in bronze and applied variegated chemical patinas to simulate the natural color of the weathered wood.
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.