Ruth Duckworth at Bellas Artes Gallery

by Harmony Hammond

Note: Originally published in Art in America, November 2010, BMP Media Holdings. More at Art in America.

Ruth Duckworth’s sculpture has never received the recognition it deserves. When Duckworth (1919-2009), considered a pioneer in the field of ceramics, came into her own as an artist in the ’50s, sculpture was largely male territory, and clay, her preferred medium, was not taken seriously. There were a few exceptions to the gender rule—Barbara Hepworth, Louise Nevelson and Louise Bourgeois come to mind—but they worked primarily in metal, wood and stone.

Sharing a vocabulary with sculpture by Picasso, Brancusi, Moore, Nicholson, Noguchi and Ernst, in addition to Hepworth, Nevelson, Bourgeois and O’Keeffe, Duckworth’s abstract, nature-based forms are reductive, condensed and refined, with an air of unapologetic elegance. There is no clutter, no sentimentality or nostalgia—qualities often associated with clay—but rather a stripped-down clarity and confidence that deepened over a creative practice of 60-plus years. The work, whether intimate or large-scale, and sometimes site-specific, is deceptively simple.

This show presented a selection of Duckworth’s sculptures and reliefs from the last two decades of her life, and included never-before-exhibited work from her personal collection. The emphasis was on porcelain. It was essentially an exhibition of white monochrome pieces, punctuated by two black sculptures: a large, hand-built porcelain pot suggesting a female torso (2006), and a smaller, stylized bronze figure (2002). Together they staked out Duckworth’s creative territory, located somewhere between the history of clay vessels and that of figurative sculpture.

Three tiny sculptures from Duckworth’s ongoing porcelain “Cup and Blade” series, begun in the early ’70s, sat on a small shelf. Each thrown cup, approximately 6 inches high, is bisected by a wafer-thin, tapering slab “blade” that slots loosely in notches carved into the cup’s sides. An unglazed vitreous cup and double-edged blade from 2009 evokes both a Cycladic figure and a vertebra—cultural and natural artifacts—at the same time that it engages with and disrupts the history of clay vessels. In Duckworth’s sculpture, one form frequently supports or rests on another—a strategy that suggests coupling and other human relationships.

The porcelain reliefs, some glazed, some not, are made in sections that abut, creating a grid that visually anchors the surface forms. There are references in them to nature (clouds and birds, for example), but some also hint at hidden spaces and landscapes of the body—a flap of skin or cloth partially peeled back to reveal an abstracted breast and nipple.

It’s an impressive body of work. Had she sculpted primarily in a medium other than clay, Duckworth would have undoubtedly received greater attention in her lifetime. This exhibition contributes to a long overdue reevaluation of her work, firmly situating it in the narrative of modernist sculpture.