Deborah Butterfield is a “horseygirl.” Over 100 sculptures and an explanation of “dressage” make this clear in the book Deborah Butterfield. The retrospective includes nearly 100 “self-portraits,” sculptures of horses from the artists’ career 1971-2003.
Only two sculptures in this large book show a (slightly) different subject. These, two ceramic saddles, were some of Butterfield’s earliest works, created while the artist was facing resistance from critics and peers who deemed horses as a frivolous subject matter unbefitting of fine sculpture. Butterfield’s earliest horses resemble those of the Tang Dynasty and reflect pride, freedom, and nobility. In the book, you can watch her progression through the different materials used to compose each horse. Starting as a young artist, Butterfield first using mud, straw, and other natural materials, after which she pieced together industrial horses from found steel and aluminum. Her current technique references both methods. Since the 1990s, Butterfield has made horses first from driftwood, then by casting each piece in bronze, and finally recreating the final driftwood horse piece by piece from the cast sections. An afterword further explains the process. This afterword, which gives a basic overview of the lost wax casting process, is written in a much different tone than the rest of the book, perhaps written by someone from Walla Walla, the foundry used by Butterfield.
Robert Gordon, who has written books on such masters as Monet, Rodin, and Degas, introduces the book. Also included is an essay by “horsewoman” Jane Smiley, a formal analysis by poet and art historian John Yau, and poems by the late Vicki Hearne that “translate the world of horse-human dialogue.” Hearne passed away while working on original poems for the book, and the poems in this book were originally written by Hearne for a 1996 exhibit by the artist.
The book sticks to a consistent format – each horse gets its own page with one large, centered side-view picture. Although I would have liked to see some detail shots or alternate angles, the book’s simple, obvious layout asks the reader to look more closely at each horse. Doing so, one begins to notice subtle differences that could indicate unique characteristics, personalities, or breeds in each horse.
By Robert Gordon, Deborah Butterfield, and John Yau
180 pages, 75 color and 25 duotone black and white plates
Harry N. Abrams, 2003