1 Sculpture in Collection
(1919-2009) Germany / United States
Ruth Duckworth: Modernist Sculptor, Retrospective, Museum of Arts and Design, New York, NY, 2005 Traveled to: Chicago Cultural Center, IL; Daum Museum of Contemporary Art, Sedalia, MS; Cranbrook Art Museum, Bloomfield Hills, MI; Hoffman Gallery, Lewis & Clark University, Portland, OR; Minneapolis Institute of Arts, MN; Long Beach Museum of Art, CA; Renwick Gallery, Smithsonian American Museum of Art, Washington, D.C., 2005-2007
Color and Fire: Defining Moments in Studio Ceramics, 1950-2000, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, CA , 2000
Ten World Masters, Museo Internazionale delle Ceramiche, Faenza, Italy, 1999
Contemporary Ceramics—Selections from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY, NY 1998
Jewish Museum, Rendsburg, Schleswig-Holstein, Germany, 1994
The Eloquent Object, Philbrook Art Museum, Tulsa, OK, 1988
Ruth Duckworth: Modernist Sculptor, by Jo Lauria and Tony Birks, Lund Humphries Publishing, 2005.
Masters—Porcelain: Major Works by Leading Ceramists, by Richard Burkett, Lark Books, NY, 2008
Color and Fire: Defining Moments in Studio Ceramics, 1950-2000, by Jo Lauria, Rizzoli International, New York, 2000
Contemporary Ceramics, by Susan Peterson, Watson-Guptill Publications, NY, 2000
American Ceramics: 1876 to the Present, by Garth Clark, Abbeville Press, New York, 1988
World Ceramics From Prehistoric to Modern Times, by Marjorie and Hugo Munsterberg, Penguin Studio, NY, 1998
A Century of Ceramics in the United States, 1878-1978, by Garth Clark, E.P. Dutton, New York, 1979
Art of the Modern Potter, by Tony Birks, Van Nostrand Reinhold Co., New York, 1976
Interview with Ruth Duckworth by Kenneth Trapp, Archive of American Art, Nanette L. Laitman Documentation Project for Craft and Decorative Arts in America, April 27, 2001:
Born 1919 Hamburg, Germany
Died 2009 Chicago, IL
Ruth Duckworth was an important modernist sculptor whose lifetime of work demonstrated that clay was a viable medium for both sculpture and modernist abstraction. Known best for delicate works made of unglazed porcelain, she also created large scale ceramic murals and monumental works in bronze. Duckworth’s medium of choice was clay. Piecing together abstract and organic shapes out of earthenware, porcelain and stoneware, she explored balancing hard-edged order with sensuous organic form.
Born Ruth Windmüller in Hamburg Germany, she was the youngest of five children. Her father was a successful lawyer who was by heritage but not practice Jewish and her mother a Lutheran woman. Duckworth was frequently ill as a young person and her doctor suggested that she take up drawing to occupy her time. She enjoyed the practice but was forbidden from studying art because of her Jewish background. As conditions worsened for Jewish people in Germany, Duckworth left and joined her sister who was living in Liverpool. She began her formal study at the Liverpool School of Art (1936-1940). In the U.K. Duckworth met potters Lucie Rie and Hans Coper whose Modernist approach to ceramics was in contrast to highly respected British potter Bernard Leach who embraced functional pottery, a utilitarian aesthetic and high fired glazes.
Encouraged to pursue her art by Rie and others, Duckworth’s early works were stone and wood carvings. Her income during the 1930s and early 40s came from various sources--making grave stones, carving puppet heads, performing as a puppeteer, and working in Rie’s studio making molds for buttons. When WWII began it was important to Duckworth that she be part of the war effort. She went to work at two munitions factories cleaning the dies in which bullets were cast. After the war, the anti-German sentiment had taken its toll on her spirit. She moved to London with friends and began psychoanalysis. In 1949, she married sculptor and industrial designer Aidron Duckworth.
It wasn’t until the mid 1950s that Duckworth’s future as a sculptor was solidified. She saw a large vessel at an exhibition of art from India that so moved her she decided that sculpture would be her path and it was then that she returned to school and began to work in clay. Phoning Lucy Rie for advice on glazing, Rie directed Duckworth to the Hammersmith School of Art. Duckworth studied there for a year (1955) learning traditional techniques of throwing and making functional work on the wheel before moving on to the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London (1956-1958) where she began to do slip casting in porcelain and explore free form sculptural work. After two years Duckworth began teaching at the Central School where she stayed for the next five years.
By the early 1960s Duckworth had her first one woman show and was recognized as taking an innovation approach to clay. She was hand building stoneware forms and continuing her experiments with porcelain. Biographer Tony Birks notes her unique and organic approach: “Her porcelain forms had a rightness about them although they were small and weird. Her large coiled pots were majestic. She was truly original. She thought easily in three dimensions—a sculptor with the equivalent of a musician’s perfect pitch.”
In 1964 Duckworth was invited by the University of Chicago to come to the U.S. to teach for a year. They offered her a faculty position two years later. She moved permanently to Chicago in 1966. This move proved the beginning of the end of the marriage and, even though Aidron found a position as a visiting professor at the University of Illinois, the couple divorced in 1967.
By the 1960s Duckworth was wholly dedicated to sculpture and Chicago proved a supportive environment for the artist. She created four major murals in the area, as well as a large bronze for the state. Her first mural Earth, Water and Sky (1967–68) was commissioned by the university for its Geophysical Sciences Building and included topographical designs based on satellite photographs with porcelain clouds. In 1976 she completed a 240-square-foot mural of the Lake Michigan watershed. Clouds Over Lake Michigan is installed at the Chicago Board Options Exchange Building. These murals are abstracted interpretations of landforms, using the clay to build up texture and define the relief. Later murals have abstract as well as more realistic elements. Duckworth employs glazes and stains minimally and thoughtfully, emphasizing the textures of the built surfaces.
For her more intimately scaled works Duckworth was interested in opening out the vessel form, juxtaposing curved planes with blade like shapes. Delicate hand built forms are created out of porcelain and larger objects out of sturdier stoneware clay. Her small sculptures are often pieced together from incompleted forms that she began and then they suggest something new. The porcelain works, like Untitled in the Jeri L. Wolfson Collection, emphasize the clay’s delicate property of luminosity.
Form is the focus of these smaller works. In rejecting any decorative marks or glaze patterning, she emphasizes the shape, proportion and surface of the object. The soft, luminous surfaces are achieved by sanding the clay to the desired patina and translucent depth. The strong clean lines take their inspiration from nature. In Untitled two blades or wings rise from the base and join in a small globe suggesting a figure or bird. Freed from the seduction or distraction of color, the monochromatic work is smooth, sleek and sensuous. She left her work untitled all of her life, wishing for the viewer to find in the objects their own story and perspective.
Part of Ruth Duckworth’s legacy is her tremendous facility with porcelain. Porcelain clay does not hold form well, it is fragile and its surface is unforgiving—showing any marks or flaws. These characteristics make it less than ideal for sculpture and many ceramists steer away from using it. Duckworth took her use of porcelain to the next level by applying glaze minimally and working the surfaces until they were ultra-smooth. She appreciated the challenge stating it is “a very temperamental material. I’m constantly fighting it. It wants to lie down; you want it to stand up. I have to make it do what it doesn’t want to do. But there’s no other material that so effectively communicates both fragility and strength.”
This desire to create emotional tension and defy expectations is part of her legacy as well. In emphasizing the shape and form of the design and employing refined, slim planes to build the objects, she poses a direct challenge to the expectation that only delicate tea cups and fine dinnerware is the appropriate use for this material. In fact, her cup-and-blade series, a much celebrated series of works, plays off of the traditional vessel/ cup form. Interrupting slabs cut through bowl like forms, defying the utilitarian nature of the pots and challenging us to reconsider a familiar form.
Duckworth retired from teaching in 1977 but remained in Chicago. From the early 1980s on she lived and worked in a converted pickle factory on the city’s north side. The 6000 square foot facility allowed room for a vast working studio. Committed to her practice she worked well into her eighties and took breaks from her ceramics only to garden. A long time environmentalist, Duckworth found inspiration in nature and its processes. While she cited many influences including Constantine Brancusi, Isamu Noguchi and Henry Moore along with Pre Columbian and Cycladic sculpture, it was the figure and nature that informed her works most profoundly.
Throughout her career Ruth Duckworth made smart choices about where to exhibit and with whom. Mindful that works made from clay often get relegated to the realm of craft, she was keen to have the works be seen and understood as part of a modernist lineage. She exhibited at galleries and museums throughout the world and was specific about the context in which her work would be seen.
In 1993 she received a Lifetime Achievement Award from National Museum of Women in the Arts and in 1996 Gold Medal from National Society of Arts and Letters. In 2003 The Museum of Arts and Design in New York gave her the Visionaries Award. In 2005 when Duckworth was 86 that same museum organized a major retrospective of her work. Ruth Duckworth: Modernist Sculptor traveled to museums throughout the United States and presented over eighty of her works alongside maquettes and photographs of her murals and public sculptures. Ruth died at age 90 after a brief illness.