From the dark and mangled Stephen De Staebler sculpture that stands at attention near 251 Third St., just 20 seconds of walking will bring you to the Keith Haring dancers on the opposite corner of Howard Street. Haring's work lifts people. On a recent evening, I witnessed a couple saunter toward Haring's giant figures and then stop directly in front, where they kissed and sweet-nothinged each other for minutes. In front of De Staebler's Man with Flame, meanwhile, no one kissed, laughed, or demonstrated anything resembling joy.
De Staebler doesn't usually inspire mirth and merriment. Awe, yes. Admiration, yes. And maybe discomfort with the work's eeriness. De Staebler's figural works are semi-abstract monuments to the human form and the human condition — two things that constantly unsettled De Staebler, who died last year at age 78 of complications from cancer. His career retrospective at the de Young Museum, “Matter + Spirit: The Sculpture of Stephen De Staebler,” is a chance to reassess an acclaimed Bay Area artist who infused his creations with a sense of both strength and fragility, both optimism and fatalism. Bodies decay in real life. Bad things happen. De Staebler's mother died in a plane crash when he was a teenager, and his series of winged human figures — two of which (Winged Woman Walking I and Winged Figure with Three Legs) greet visitors at the de Young exhibit — was partly his way of re-imagining a different outcome for the woman who gave him life. Wings allow escape and freedom.
“At some deep psychological level,” De Staebler once said, he had to “try to change [the plane crash]. You can't, but you try in your imagination. The angel is the vehicle for saving her life.”
Still, De Staebler put limits on his winged figures, saying they are essentially tethered to the ground — “a manifestation of the earth itself,” as he put it — so that even their flight beyond pain is problematic. This tense duality makes De Staebler's sculpture riveting for some and puzzling for others, especially those who miss the subtext of his sculpture. To people in this latter camp, De Staebler's figures seem unfinished. Arms are frequently missing. Heads, if they're there at all, are frequently without eyes and other facial features, giving them a resemblance to Harry Potter's nemesis Lord Voldemort.
In San Francisco, De Staebler's most visible permanent work is at 720 Market, close to Third Street, where a Voldemort-faced Angel rests on a high pedestal in the entrance to an office building and art gallery. At 475 Sacramento, De Staebler's Torso with Arm Raised II is on display near an office entrance and a bar-restaurant called Sapphire. It was there that I met Sam Butero, a 35-year-old Sapphire devotee who regularly eyes Torso with Arm Raised II and whose verdict says everything about De Staebler. “I think it's a little dark. It looks like someone's been mutilated,” Butero told me, adding that he thinks the sculpture embodies “something that is evil.” But then Butero added something that De Staebler would have appreciated: “You feel it.”
That's the thing about De Staebler: You do feel his work. Whenever I walk by 720 Market, I look forward to seeing Angel again. (It's been there since 1989.) “Matter + Spirit” showcases De Staebler's full body of work, including a series of odd ceramic heads that would fit perfectly in Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth; a series of tall vertical slabs that contain what look to be fossilized human remains; and a series of semi-abstract standing-figure columns that were influenced by the ancient Pharaonic leaders carved into stone at Egypt's Abu Simbel.
De Staebler, who studied religion at Princeton, adopted classical art forms from different historical periods. As much as his work is a mishmash of those influences and an homage to nature — to the way mud and other elements create their own labyrinths — he said his work was meant to convey the full arc of the human experience, including joy. De Staebler would laugh in interviews. A lot. This side of him comes out at the de Young with Moon Throne, a large clay seat from 1977 that museum-goers are being encouraged to sit on. When I visited “Matter + Spirit,” I saw two women taking turns and putting their bodies into Moon Throne. The women were friends, and they joked and smiled as they got up from resting on De Staebler's work. The effect was contagious: The security guard watching in that gallery also seemed to crack a smile. Smiles all around.