Looking Sharp

In 1977, after a brief teaching stint, Butterfield moved to Bozeman to join her husband, then teaching at Montana State University. Eventually they wound up working out a pioneering job-sharing agreement. "It required the state legislature to pass a law," Butterfield recalls. But Butterfield's and Buck's art careers soon took off, and they both retired from teaching in 1987.

Butterfield's big break came in 1978, when her work was included in the trend-setting exhibition The Presence of Nature at New York's Whitney Museum. Her sculptures of horses made of mud and sticks were an immediate sensation. Soon Butterfield began to create horses out of welded metal, often painting them in bright tones, like the fire-engine-red "Orion," one of the most popular and readily recognizable pieces in the DAM's permanent collection.

With "Argus (P.J.)," Butterfield has come full circle. She's not using mud and sticks anymore, having switched to bronze instead. But the three individually titled horses that compose this new piece do look as though they're made of wood. Two of them--"Lucky," a reclining horse, and "Willy," a standing horse--are made of patinated bronze that Butterfield has cast from pieces of actual driftwood. Even close up, it's hard to believe that "Lucky" and "Willy" are made of metal.

The central element in the piece is the third horse, "Argus," for which Butterfield made castings from birch sticks. Interestingly, those sticks were taken as trimmings from the same birch tree that looms over them on the DAM's sunken lawn (newly dubbed the Kemper Court).

Using horses as subjects is a risky move for contemporary artists: Many old masters used equine themes, so new efforts lead to inevitable comparisons; and many of today's worst artists pony up nothing more than sentimental kitsch. "There's always the danger the sculptures will wind up looking like those straw reindeers you see at Christmas," Butterfield says.

But the artist's modesty notwithstanding, Butterfield's "Argus (P.J.)" is a triumph. It's also the most exciting public artwork to come on line since the last time Lewis Sharp helped engineer a deal--the nearby diSuvero. Now if only we could get him out to the airport.

"Argus (P.J.)," by Deborah Butterfield, on permanent display at the Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, 640-4433.

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