Walter Dusenbery, Pedogna

Walter Dusenbery, Pedogna, 1977. Travertine marble 102-1/2 × 25-1/2 × 21-1/2 inches. Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art Gift of Doris and Jack Weintraub, 1979 (1979.300a-h). Photo by Paul Bardagjy.

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Valerie Fletcher: Walter Dusenbery started his career as a sculptor working as a studio assistant to the Japanese-American sculptor, Isamu Noguchi. Noguchi was one of the great practitioners of direct carving, working in a variety of materials, but best known for his carvings in stone. Noguchi himself had been a studio assistant to the great Constantin Brancusi who was one of the founding fathers of the direct-carve movement. The ideas underlying this movement is that by working directly with natural materials like wood and stone, the artist remains in direct contact with nature and Noguchi was one of the most sophisticated practitioners of this. Dusenbery learned from Noguchi not only the sophisticated techniques of carving and of selecting fine and beautiful stones to work with, but also the Zen concept – that by working with materials that come from the Earth, you remain in contact with the Earth. Noguchi once said that working with stone was like being in contact with all of ancient pre-civilization going back to the formation of the earth.

Dusenbery’s piece called Pedogna from 1977 is carved from exquisite Italian travertine marble. Travertine is a very porous stone. It’s also one that can have a variety of colorations. In its natural state, it tends to be white, but mineral and other biological impurities can cause stones ranging from pale yellow to deep burnt amber. In this case, a kind of rosy autumnal color pervades this massive piece of stone. In some cases, you can see even the striations of the stone itself showing the layers of antiquity that it took to form this stone.

The title of the sculpture refers to the quarry in Tuscany, Italy, from which the stone came. With striations that you can see in this piece, it is a manifestation of the great eons of time that it took to form this world and may remind us of the wonders of our natural environment.

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Walter Dusenbery, Pedogna, 2015.

American, born 1939

Born in Alameda, California, Walter Dusenbery has an artistic lineage that follows an impressive line of masters. After studying at San Francisco Art Institute and the California College of Arts and Crafts, Dusenbery assisted Japanese American sculptor Isamu Noguchi (1904–1988), who had studied under modernist master Constantin Brancusi (1876–1957), who, in turn, had worked in Auguste Rodin’s (1840–1917) Parisian workshop.

Dusenbery preferred the tradition of direct carving to the popular method of welding metal sculpture that was prevalent during the 1950s and '60s. His larger forms on the scale of Pedogna, however, required considerable geometric calculation and planning; thus, they could not be carved by hand. Many direct-carve sculptors feel a strong physical and psychic link with the natural materials they use, a sensitivity that Dusenbury shared with Noguchi. However, whereas Noguchi worked in fine marbles, variegated granites, and rough basalt, Dusenbery favored 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 various hues, such as the reddish color seen in Pedogna. With a footprint in the shape of a horse's hoof, the sculpture contrasts two kinds of articulated surfaces: a smooth, round, and bell-shaped base with a rusticated side. The juxtaposition between rough chiseling and a sensuous smoothness provides visual interest that emphasizes the intrinsic qualities of the hard, finely grained stone.

The title of this sculpture refers to the secluded Pedogna Valley in Northern Italy that can only be reached by foot. 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, a play on the question of time. Dusenbery often carves 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. 

Walter Dusenbery, Pedogna, 1977. Photo by Ben Aqua.

Location: MAI, Life Science Library Reading Room

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