Essay

RICHARD DEUTSCH

by Bruce Guenther

While at the American Academy in Rome in 1987, Richard Deutsch visited the ruins of Hadrian’s Villa. There he experienced the equivalent of the Buddhist satori — a sudden enlightenment that changed the course and very nature of his work in the years that followed. Having been invited to spend a year at the American Academy in Rome by James Melchert, then its director and a fellow ceramic sculptor, Deutsch was encountering the riches of Italian art and the landscape of antiquity for the first time.

Richard Deutsch was born in Los Angeles, in 1953, into a cultured, middle-class Jewish family. He had traveled as a child, and between the ages of ten and twelve had lived in Israel. These early experiences eventually moved him to turn to making art. But he also grew up in Los Angeles within that phenomenon of change peculiar to the post–World War II years, when the incessant drumroll of the new surged across the landscape of California, transforming it from a bucolic agrarian state to the freeway-laced heart of the new American suburbia. Living in California’s pervasive presentness, outside the deeper flow of history, Deutsch discovered that he was little prepared for the impact of his mature encounter with the complex physical layering of Italy’s history and the resonance of its art.

Deutsch trained as a ceramist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and began exhibiting his protosculptural forms on the West Coast in the late 1970s. Inspired by the traditions of Japanese Bizen and Shigaraki ceramics, and encouraged by Peter Voulkos to explore radical shifts of scale in the workshops he attended, Deutsch soon joined the ranks of ambitious young artists attempting to extend the material limits of clay toward a new sculptural presence. Deutsch made his own clay bodies and used wood-fired kilns, which enabled him to exploit clay’s rich physicality as well as the unpredictable nature of the firing process to create a variety of forms that emphasize their material weight and surface in fresh ways. Evolving as a sophisticated colorist in this period, Deutsch enjoyed great success in playing off his raw exploratory process, with its resulting awkwardness, against the highly designed forms and handsome color tonalities of his then-signature stelae.

Deutsch’s clay work of the 1970s and early 1980s was often grounded in the form vocabulary of non-Western artifacts and primitive tools that combined strong silhouettes with an intense materiality. A series of clay monoliths produced in 1983 were to mark the last and largest of the strictly ceramic-based works in Deutsch’s oeuvre. Ultimately finding himself frustrated by the physical limitations of clay, and seeking more permanent materials for his work, Deutsch began experimenting with combinations of various materials in a purely sculptural vocabulary. He had worked with a wide variety of clay processes, from wheel-thrown to coil and slab construction and even mold casting. Thus it was logical for him to look at materials that could be worked in similar ways and that offered possibilities for greater physical permanence and size. Using clay, concrete, and terrazzo (a cast material composed of marble or stone chips mixed into mortar, which can be polished when set), he began to assemble and cement together forms made from these different materials into works of a larger, more ambitiously public scale. It was during this period of experimentation with forms, materials, and surface finish that Deutsch accepted Melchert’s invitation.

From the very beginning of his career, Richard Deutsch has focused on the materials of his work — what each medium is, and what can become of its limitations and possibilities — and the material completely informs his method and shapes the final artwork. Italy provided him with another layer of possibility beyond the decorative aspects of obdurate matter; there he discovered a new reference point for the exploration of meaning and poetic association. Like generations of aesthetes before him, Deutsch found, in the layering of history revealed in the excavations and reconstruction of Pompeii and Hadrian’s Villa, a sobering meditation on time and the fragility of self.

For Deutsch the Californian, Italy engendered a deeper sense of life’s passages and revealed, as he said, “what age looks like.” He realized, for perhaps the first time, that the physical erosion of time and the forces of change could be the source of sculpture and could suggest emotional meaning in his work. He reveled in the visceral surfaces of the ancient stones and the sculptural qualities of the architectural fragments in ruins that had survived or had been reassembled in another epoch. In earlier restoration efforts, the seemingly whimsical reconstruction of marble columns from fragments in which drums of different diameter and finish had been combined to reinvent an imagined whole, fascinated Deutsch. He studied the ways that an unfinished stone archway, jutting out into the air, could appear as sculpturally complete in its partiality as a Henry Moore bronze figure might in its abstraction. He found echoes of his continuing experiments with concrete and terrazzo in the manner by which some of the bits of architectural detail and the ruins had been reassembled with mortar, stone fragments, and cast concrete by anonymous workmen. Now removed from California’s predictability, Deutsch experienced an epiphany that gave him “a source for a lifetime’s work” and clarified the direction in which his art would move.

In his earlier use of primitive tools as a source of imagery for his ceramic work, Deutsch had already developed a fine sensitivity to the mysterious power of simple things. In the Italian interlude, he found an intensification of that core experience in a purely sculptural vocabulary. The manner in which the archeological assemblages resonated with an entirely different state of being from their original one gave Deutsch an important key to his next body of work.

In the Restoration series of the late 1980s, Deutsch introduced marble and various stones into his material vocabulary. These works reveal a new attitude of working that suggests equally the additive tradition of modern assemblage with its source in cubist collage and the more reductive, semi-abstract one that begins with Constantin Brancusi. A series of sculptures between five and eight feet high, the Restoration pieces incorporate cast terrazzo with carved and found-slab stone sections that were made, then broken, and then reassembled with the terrazzo into eloquent columnar works.

Initially, Deutsch found a ready source of inexpensive marble and granite slabs in the salvaged doors and toilet partitions from turn-of-the-century commercial buildings being torn down in San Francisco in the late 1980s and 1990s, though eventually he abandoned them for ever-larger blocks of stone. He pinned and glued the thin, salvaged slabs to build up larger volumes of stone, which could be carved, or to create striped light and dark patterns to play against a plain stone section in a finished work.

A series of multisegment stacked columns in a single material followed directly on the Restoration series in 1993. These abstract works, in their interlocking purity and almost hedonistically sensual materials, explore in a more direct way the form of Brancusi’s Endless Column; they suggest Deutsch’s familiarity with similar work of older artists as diverse as Isamu Noguchi, Paul Feeley, and Carl Andre. Their interlocking forms — in stone, wood, or found metal such as ships’ turnbuckles — gently suggest the softening segments of columns stacked on their sides, or vaguely bolsterlike shapes whose suggestion of softness belies the hard materials. Having previously built or constructed his forms, Deutsch became intrigued with objects such as the turnbuckle, which had a preexisting shape and dimension, and he began to search out materials with a past or a poetic possibility to reinvent or recontextualize as artwork.

At the end of the 1980s Deutsch, like many sculptors, found numerous opportunities for large-scale public and private commissions, and his artistic practice began to migrate away from the production of large bodies of studio work into the seductive realm of the public plaza. It is a now-familiar trajectory for many American artists of the post–World War II generations. The Art in Public Places movement offers the chance to work in collaboration with other artists, architects, and engineers on site-specific projects of an even larger architectural scale. Deutsch found this path to be of interest, and he has competed successfully for such commissions. He has presently realized some eight major public commissions in California in the 1990s and a series of significant private commissions for corporations and individuals in California, New Mexico, Tennessee, and Utah.

From 1989 through 1992, Deutsch was part of a seven-person design team charged with developing a plan to integrate art into a major commercial site in downtown Oakland, California, for what was then Bramalea Pacific Corporation. In the course of this process, Deutsch was to create two important sculptural works for the City Center development, along with a series of nine carved granite benches and a cascading water element. Unity (1991), a pair of granite sculptures sixteen feet high, marks either side of the main entrance to the tower building and comprises a multipart composition of horizontal and vertical stones. The stelae of Unity incorporate the full vocabulary of working stone — from drill holes for quarrying to rough, broken edges to mirrorlike, polished surfaces. They suggest both the rugged prehistoric raising of stones to mark a spiritual site and the post-apocryphal fragments of some demolished monumental past.

The second work, Voyage (1991—1992), occupies a wall thirteen feet high by thirty-two feet long in the building’s West Plaza Garden. This work is constructed of massive, solid bronze ship propellers from the mothballed feet of World War II Victory ships. Voyage is a relief of elegant rhythm created from the parsed sections of the enormous propellers. Though completely abstract, the work nonetheless suggests through the heroic associations of the material from which it is made the maritime history of the port of Oakland and the dynamic seagoing traffic of San Francisco Bay.

The Oakland Museum of California commissioned Deutsch to create a sculpture in 1994 to commemorate the museum’s twenty-fifth anniversary and to celebrate its focus on the art, history, and ecology of California. Choosing as his theme the state’s rich agricultural history, Deutsch incorporated granite and cast bronze elements into a complex and poetically evocative work titled Harvest. A massive, bladelike granite form that suggests an adze or a plow anchors the work to the earth. Building from it, Deutsch arranges and cantilevers a series of bronze forms cast from tractors and harvesting implements of the early twentieth century. Isolating their parts — a set of plow discs or a radiator cover — he emphasizes the abstract nature of the forms while still balancing the reference to their specific historic function. In Deutsch’s complex composition, the bronze elements have been brought into an entirely different state of being from that of their source object. The sienna brown tonalities of the bronze patination was inspired by the rusted reality of the abandoned farm equipment that marks the landscape of California from the Klamath River Basin in the north to the last vestiges of the Irvine Ranch in southern California.

Whereas Harvest emphasizes its identity as a singular work of the artist’s hand, Deutsch’s commission for Stanford University in 1996 subsumes his unique vision into the larger ordering of the site and its furnishings. Located between two engineering buildings on the Palo Alto campus, Axis is a landscape of incident, a pure environment that seeks to reconcile the space between the disparate buildings of the Terman and Thornton Engineering Centers as a multiuse landscape. In Gibbons’s Grove, Deutsch created a symbolic center for the site with a shallow basalt-paved dome, twenty-five feet in diameter, from which radiates a series of granite seating areas and a large stone table split through both its top and pedestal. Echoing the workings of the wheel — that monumental achievement of the earliest engineering technology — the artist’s forms range from the massive table to the half-wheel-shaped benches. They also suggest elegant sculptural elements as furniture, in the tradition of the work of the late American sculptor Scott Burton. Although Axis lacks the artist’s poetic voice as it is expressed in Harvest, it serves to intensify experience of the space and opens the mysterious power of simple, beautiful things to the casual participant.

Different in intention and effect are the works that Deutsch created in 1999 for the headquarters of the Applied Materials Corporation in Sunnyvale, California. Celebrating the importance of the silicon wafer to the advancement of high technology, Etude is a complex, highly symbolic work that incorporates carved and etched granite discs and cast bronze tools for measuring and calibrating. Leonardo da Vinci and his perpetual motion machine inspired the artist and led him to appropriate, for use on the stone discs, various motifs and drawings that suggest historic breakthroughs in humanity’s efforts to understand the dynamics of the world in which we exist. With components located on either side of the driveway that is the main entry into the site, Etude provides an inspiring and inspired metaphor for the wonder of ideas and the business of high-technology research.

In 1999, Deutsch also completed one of the largest sculptures of his career, the magisterial Seven Stones, for a private residence in Napa Valley, California. Measuring a heroic twenty by thirty-six by seventeen feet, the granite work is inspired by the artist’s memories of his travels in Italy and represents a new level of attainment in the formal language of his sculpture. The work is a synthesis of the technical prowess that Deutsch has achieved in working with stone, and of a formal vocabulary shaped by memory and the architecture of loss. Arcing across space, the massive stones seem almost weightless as they balance and intersect briefly in their tumble above the lawn. Like half-remembered fragments of Hadrian’s Villa, or the echoes of his ceramic slab sculptures of 1983, Seven Stones gathers in the diverse experiences and sources of Richard Deutsch’s life to project a dynamic new scale and tension for his sculpture. As one circles the work, the granite slabs, held together with stainless steel pins, exhibit a sophisticated rhythm of smooth and rough. Approaching the sculpture uphill from the entrance road, we see a series of ragged edges and rough-hewn surfaces absorbing light and evoking the ruggedness of the Sierra Nevada range. Circling back behind the work to stand on the terrace by the house to see the obverse is to experience for the first time its dazzling, mirror-polished planes defining and redefining the perceptual edges of the stone fragments and the surroundings. If it evokes for the artist the fragmented, soaring arches and crumbling porticos of Roman ruins, for me the work suggests the raw power of the Earth to throw up its mountains and shatter in a moment its peaceful plains. Seven Stones is a brilliant tour-de-force of the sculptor’s art. It evinces a new quality of concentration and clarity for Deutsch that renders pictorial line and shape into physical fact.

The works in progress for the site-specific installation at the Museum of Art and History in Santa Cruz, California, promise to be some of the most beautiful of Deutsch’s career and portend great things for the next phase of his production. With a handful of public commissions well in the works, Deutsch is moving back into the studio to struggle once more with the possibilities of the solitary object, to bring forward the majestic sobriety of stone, fusing mass and delicacy in a yet-to-be-seen paradigm of the spirit.