- The Washington Times - Friday, September 1, 2006

In making art, is it better to stick to a recognizable signature or roam in different directions? Sculptor-ceramist Ruth Duckworth obviously prefers variety, no matter how thinly spread her creative ideas may be, as evident in the wide-ranging retrospective of her work at the Renwick Gallery.

From dainty teacups to room-size murals and monumental sculpture, Mrs. Duckworth has shaped them all in her favorite medium, clay. The 87-year-old Chicagoan is adept at merging art and craft and is so versatile in style that it’s hard to come away with a clear message from her work.

Reflective of most shows at the Renwick these days, the Duckworth exhibit originated outside the Smithsonian and lacks curatorial energy. Some of the 87 works are spaced too far apart, while others that need more room — photos and mock-ups of architectural murals — are shoved to a back gallery.

This is the last stop for the six-city show, organized by the Art Options Foundation and first displayed in January 2005 at the Museum of Art and Design in New York. The exhibit casts the artist as a “modernist sculptor” and, like the recent exhibits of 20th-century silver at the Renwick and of potter Eva Zeisel’s work at the Hillwood Museum, taps into the current fascination with midcentury design.

Most of Mrs. Duckworth’s creations fit comfortably into the modern tradition established by better-known male sculptors Henry Moore, Constantin Brancusi and Isamu Noguchi, and their influences on her sculpture are all too apparent. A chunky female half-figure from 1946 draws upon Mr. Moore’s early figural works. Several avian-themed sculptures from the 1990s riff on Mr. Brancusi’s “Bird in Space.” Others recall Mr. Noguchi’s organic, nature-based shapes.

Mrs. Duckworth also draws inspiration from ancient Egyptian, Greek and pre-Columbian art. Several tall abstracted figures in the show — virtually all of her works are untitled — reinterpret the elongated figures and featureless heads of Cycladic sculptures from the early Bronze Age.

Derivative, yes, but there is much to admire in many of these sensual ceramic pieces pushing the very limits of the medium. Black totems recalling both human figures and wrought-iron tools convey a primeval quality. They look as if they are made of bronze but turn out to be stoneware.

Textured, split orbs called “mama pots” exude an earthy voluptuousness directly reflective of kneading and poking the clay. (The name was inspired by a 4-year-old boy who threw his arms around one of them, saying, “Nice mama, nice mama.”) Elegant porcelain constructions assembled from wafer-thin blades and cups impart machinelike precision.

Mrs. Duckworth learned her craft at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London during the 1950s after training to be a fine artist. Born Ruth Windmuller in Hamburg to a Jewish father and Lutheran mother, she left Germany in 1936 to live with her sister in Liverpool, England, and study at the local art school. She worked at a munitions factory during the war and after moving to London got a job carving gravestones.

Marriage to sculptor Aidron Duckworth followed after the artists collaborated on carving stone reliefs for a Catholic church. (The two divorced in 1966.) In 1964, Mrs. Duckworth accepted a one-year teaching job at the University of Chicago’s Midway Studios, where she remained for 13 years.

One of the reasons for staying in Chicago, where she works in a former pickle factory, was to create a room-size mural within the university’s geophysical sciences building. “Earth, Water and Sky” covered walls and ceiling with craters, ridges and rippling patterns suggestive of natural phenomena. A trio of footed bowls made about the same time provide an idea of the textures and colors applied to the mural, which, unfortunately, isn’t represented by photos in the exhibit.

These commissions obviously had a profound effect on Mrs. Duckworth’s subsequent work; of all the diverse creations in the exhibit, the wall plaques and murals are the most richly rewarding in their play of shapes, layers and colors. Several superimpose ribbons and slabs over scribbled, graphite-drawn backgrounds to painterly effect. Others incorporate balls, teardrops, hands, arches and crevices to suggest both geological and human terrain.

In the last gallery, larger, more theatrical murals created for specific buildings are documented in photos and maquettes. “Clouds Over Lake Michigan,” sculpted for a German branch bank in Chicago, resembles a topological map with raised swirls and clumps surrounding a Windy City from ancient times. “The Creation,” completed for a synagogue in Indiana, portrays realistic scenes from the Book of Genesis within an outwardly spiraling shape.

The exhibit closes with an engaging 30-minute film on Mrs. Duckworth, who reminisces about her childhood in Nazi Germany and career beginnings in England, including a brief stint as a puppeteer. “I wanted to paint like Rembrandt, draw like Durer and sculpt like Michelangelo,” the artist says. As is apparent from this all-too-varied show, she lacked not talent or ambition, but the single-mindedness to become a truly original modernist.

WHAT: “Ruth Duckworth, Modernist Sculptor”

WHERE: Renwick Gallery, Pennsylvania Ave. at 17th Street Northwest

WHEN: Through Jan. 15; 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily

ADMISSION: Free

PHONE: 202/633-1000

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