Deborah Butterfield, Vermillion

Deborah Butterfield, Vermillion, 1989. Painted and welded steel, 75 × 108 × 25 inches. Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art Gift of Agnes Bourne, 1991 (1991.424). Photo by Paul Bardagjy.

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audio transcript

Valerie Fletcher: When Deborah Butterfield attended the University of California, Davis, she intended to become a veterinarian. That goal was inspired largely by her love of horses. Instead, she translated that love of horses into art. After she graduated and moved to Montana, she began making plaster sculptures of horses and yet she knew she didn’t want to make realistic depictions of horses. She was not out to look like a Remington sculpture where you have a bucking bronco or a beautifully sleek racehorse. Rather, she was trying to get at something more fundamental. Eventually, she realized she couldn’t do that with plaster. She decided to turn to scraps of metal. This is not quite as surprising as it might seem because she, in the 1970s, was building upon a tradition that had emerged strongly in American sculpture in the 1950s. It is known by a number or names, one of them is simply to call it junk sculpture – that is, sculpture made from found objects usually junked machinery.

Well, she would find old scraps of metal and construct them to resemble horses and that is the work that we have here. It’s called Vermilion, after the color, a very intense reddish color. But primarily this is a depiction of a horse made of junk scraps of metal and what’s remarkable is that you could view it as just construction, that is it’s got an implication that this is part of modern life, it’s all junk, it’s all used up, it’s being recycled. But rather, when you look at her horse, you realize it has a phenomenal sense of anatomy and posture and how it holds itself exactly like a real horse.

Butterfield herself is an accomplished horsewoman and she indeed not only raises and trains her horses, but she rides them professionally in a style known as dressage. So when you walk around her sculpture, take a look at how it morphs back and forth from being an abstract construction to being the evocation of a living, breathing horse and it is that paradox, that contradiction and ambiguity between the two that makes her pieces so magical.

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Deborah Butterfield, Vermillion, 1989.

American, born 1949

Born in San Diego, Deborah Butterfield attended the University of California, Davis, with the intention of studying veterinary medicine. In the 1960s and '70s, the Davis campus was a lively center for innovative new art, and Butterfield eventually turned her attention toward art, receiving an MFA. Three years later, she moved to a ranch in Montana where she raises horses, the inspiration behind her series of sculptures.

Butterfield is an accomplished equestrian, skilled in the formal style known as dressage. She has stated: “I ride and school my own horses and feel that my art relies heavily upon, and often parallels, my continuing dialogue with them.” Initially Butterfield sculpted her horses in a realistic style using plaster. Later, she turned to materials found in the animal’s natural environment, sculpting horses from earthy compounds such as mud, sticks, and straw. In 1980 she began to cut, tear, bend, dent, hammer, and weld scrap metal around a support armature to capture a marvelously accurate impression of the anatomy of living horses. Vermillion is life-sized; although abstract, it conveys Butterfield's expert knowledge of equine anatomy.

Horses have been a motif in art since antiquity; however, unlike most historical examples, 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. Butterfield also eschews traditional depictions of racing or rearing horses, which typically symbolize fierce competitiveness, rebellious independence, aggression, and violence. Her horses stand, graze, muse, sniff the breeze, or occasionally rest on the ground, as if at home in their own pastures. This decidedly subdued 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].” 

Deborah Butterfield, Vermillion, 1989. Photo by Ben Aqua.
Deborah Butterfield, Vermillion, 1989. Photo by Christina Murrey.

Location: POB Atrium

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