De Staebler show opens de Young post-Buchanan era

Courtesy photoRetrospective view: Sculptures by the late Stephen De Staebler

A new exhibit of works by sculptor Stephen De Staebler at the de Young Museum is running smoothly even as the staff mourns the death of John Buchanan, the director of the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco who died Dec. 30 at age 58.

The main reason: Fine Arts Museums Board of Trustees President Dede Wilsey has taken charge. Wilsey, who had a close working relationship with Buchanan — “we were Barnum & Bailey,” she said Friday, the day the exhibit was  previewed for the press — was one of only a few who knew about the gravity of Buchanan’s illness.

Although his cancer was diagnosed a year ago, Wilsey says, “He had such good spirit, determination and the will to live — almost nobody knew about the seriousness of the illness. He would have chemo on Friday, and come to work a few days later saying hello cheerfully to everyone, as always.”

A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. Wednesday at Grace Cathedral for Buchanan, who, in just six years as the head of the museum, working with Wilsey, brought an unprecedented series of big shows to The City. They include impressionist and post-impressionist paintings from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris; “Picasso Masterpieces” from the Musée National Picasso, Paris; and the current “Masters of Venice,” which closes Feb. 12.

Wilsey said exhibit schedules for the next two years were drawn up before Buchanan’s death. She appointed a committee of seven administrators to govern the museums (the de Young and the Legion of Honor), headed by Chief Financial Officer Michelle Gutierrez. Wilsey also named Julian Cox as chief curator of the museums.

“Matter + Spirit: The Sculpture of Stephen De Staebler,” which opened Saturday, includes some 55 bronze and clay works by De Staebler. The Berkeley sculptor, who died last year at age 78, was known internationally for his iconoclastic clay figures.

Exhibit curator Timothy Anglin Burgard, who worked with De Staebler during the artist’s last years, says the prospect of the retrospective “kept Stephen going.”

De Staebler, whose sculptures are in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, studied religion at Princeton University and fine art at UC Berkeley, and taught at San Francisco State University and the San Francisco Art Institute.

His large sculptures and masks — impressively simple, stark and dramatic — were, according to curators, inspired by nature, his transformative encounter with mortality as a teen and his studies in the history of art and religion.

Using not only clay, but materials such as stoneware, engobe (clay paint) and earthenware, his sculptures, exhibit organizers say, “extended a tradition of human representation that includes religious monuments of ancient Egypt, the Renaissance humanism of Michelangelo, and the modern existentialism embodied in the works of Alberto Giacometti.”


Matter + Spirit: The Sculpture of Stephen De Staebler

Where: De Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco

When: 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, closed Mondays; exhibit runs through April 22

Tickets: $6 to $10

Contact: (415) 750-3600,

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