Ruth Duckworth was born in Germany in 1919, where, as a young woman of Jewish descent during the Nazi regime, she was not permitted to attend art school. Thankfully, she moved to England for art school where she discovered her great passion: sculpting abstracted line and form with clay. Early on, Duckworth exercised an independent mind by using a medium that was not recognized within the pantheon of “high art.” In doing so, she pioneered a new way of thinking about ceramics and the formalism of pure abstraction. Clearly influenced by the Romanian modernist sculptor Constantin Brancusi, as well as deeply moved by the ancient art of the Cycladic culture that preceded that of classical Greece, Duckworth developed her own abstractly elegant language. As Harmony Hammond noted in her review in Art in America (November 2010), “There is no clutter, no sentimentality or nostalgia…. The work … is deceptively simple. Had she sculpted primarily in a medium other than clay, Duckworth would have undoubtedly received greater attention in her lifetime.” Nonetheless, she hardly went unnoticed: Bellas Artes has been exhibiting work by the artist for nearly three decades. Beginning in 2005, a museum retrospective toured Duckworth’s art in seven US cities.
In 1964, Duckworth moved to Chicago from England. She settled in Chicago and lived there until her death in 2009 at the age of 90—her indomitable spirit had her sculpting into the last year of her life. Duckworth’s art never settled into one genre; it continued to evolve and change throughout six decades of practice, though she confined herself to three-dimensional work in clay, stone and bronze—creating commissioned wall reliefs, primarily in porcelain and stoneware, at such sites as government and university buildings, and for banks, private individuals, churches and synagogues. Her maquettes, which she made as models for many of these commissions, will be shown at the upcoming exhibition, including the last piece she made. These maquettes have never been offered for sale until now.
Duckworth said, “Play is the essence of creativity—creative play and gut reaction, instinct…. You have to be spontaneous and trust yourself.” Her spontaneity was based on a sharply honed sense of her art. Soon after arriving in England to study art, Duckworth worked as a stonemason. Carving into stone or clay, using a reductive process that would come to reveal the underlying forms she desired to expose, she employed a highly tactile and organic style that was always abstract, no matter how much it referenced the natural world. She played, with great success, with the tensions inherent in paradox—volume gives way to negative space, light to shadow, and solidly functional surfaces slip into a deliciously sensuous tactility.
Duckworth’s exhibition record, both nationally and internationally, is extensive.
Among the museums that have collected her work are the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC; the Art Institute of Chicago; the Moderns in Chicago and Tokyo; the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; the Museum of Arts and Design in New York; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the Fine Art Museums of San Francisco; Boston’s Museum of Fine Art; the Philadelphia Museum of Art; the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam; the Victoria and Albert in London; and Germany’s Kestner Museum.
For additional information visit the Bellas Artes Gallery website.