New York

View of “Ruth Duckworth,” 2021. Photo: Dan Bradica.

View of “Ruth Duckworth,” 2021. Photo: Dan Bradica.

Ruth Duckworth

Satellite imagery has evolved significantly in the decades since the first photographs of Earth were taken from space. Earthrise, captured in 1968 by astronaut William Anders, and The Blue Marble, snapped in 1972 by the crew of Apollo 17, would help catalyze the environmental movement—how revelatory and alien those initial renderings must have seemed at the time. This developing technology had a profound impact on sculptor and ceramicist Ruth Duckworth (1919–2009), who pored over weather-satellite pictures and topographical maps to create some of her seminal works, such as the monumental four-hundred-square-foot mural Earth, Water, and Sky, 1967–68, an overhead illustration of Mount Fuji constructed from more than four hundred stoneware tiles. The work graces the entryway to the University of Chicago’s geophysics building.

In 1964, the German-born Duckworth moved from England to the United States—where she would live out the rest of her life—for a one-year teaching position at UChicago’s Midway Studios. At that time, she immersed herself in the then-emerging field of geomorphology. She was fascinated by the planet’s rocky physical structures, and the art she created, which resembles the simple abstract forms of ancient Cycladic sculpture, was intimately connected to the landscape. Displayed in “She’s Clay,” Salon 94’s exhibition of ceramic vessels and pinched-porcelain sculptures the artist made mainly during the second half of her life, were three untitled stoneware “mama pots” (as Duckworth called them), each from a different decade: 1975, 1980, and 2009. Hand built in overlapping slabs, then reduction fired, the curvy vessels have a raw texture and a natural brown hue, with inconsistent green tints and holes at the top outlined by jagged rims. Each irregular orb is split by a deep cleft, evoking variously shadowy valleys, the brain-like hemispheres of a walnut, or vulvae.

Duckworth drew upon the fructuous shapes of the natural world to highlight their deep interconnectedness. Although the artist claimed there was no specific sexual or political intent to her work, one must consider her life and practice in feminist and environmental terms, as Laura Steward, UChicago’s curator of public art, suggested in the show’s accompanying text. Duckworth was both a lover of the land and a lifelong nonconformist. Though she began her career showing carvings in wood and rock (she was employed as a tombstone engraver for a time) and would later create towering bronze sculptures on commission, she was dedicated to dirt, even at a time when clay was considered an inferior “crafty” material.

On Salon 94’s second floor, Duckworth’s mama pots were arranged atop a low platform beside an assortment of unglazed porcelains the artist made between 1989 and 2009, some of which sat upon taller plinths on the same platform. The icy sculptures were deathly white and pristine, with round, smooth surfaces frequently topped by sharp, bladelike fins suggesting heads. By comparison, their clean, modernist lines made the pots feel utterly primeval, with their wan earthen textures and crude facture. The overall arrangement called to mind a forest-floor ecosystem: One untitled sculpture from 1989 looked like a mushroom turned on its side; a piece of painted porcelain, created the year of Duckworth’s death, appeared to feature a pair of disembodied bird’s feet standing atop a stone.

Self-Portrait, ca. 1950, the earliest work on view, is a tender rendering of the artist embracing herself, arms folded over her chest. The chunky geometric sculpture is carved from dappled-gray Hopton Wood limestone. It was stationed on a tall pedestal before a grand set of French doors, as if it were a sentinel for the exhibition. Even as Duckworth found inspiration in pictures of our planet taken from the heavens, what really enlivened this work was a tension between Earth as uncanny image and earth as a tactile haptic material. Indeed, there is much to be found in the mud.