Grounds For Sculpture | 18 Fairgrounds Road
This exhibition of Karl Stirner‘s sculptures is focused on the sculptor’s decades-long focus on welded steel as a sculptural medium. It also marks an important milestone in the career of an artist who has had a tremendous impact on his students, his fellow artists, his community of Easton, PA, and the art world in general which has benefited by his lifelong dedication to his art and his mastery of the medium of steel sculpture.
Born in Bad Wilbad, Germany in 1923, Stirner’s parents Pauline (nee’ Gun) and Karl were jeweler’s and precious metal smiths. The family immigrated to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1927, at the time Pablo Picasso was about to create some of his most important welded steel sculptures with the invaluable collaboration of metal sculptor Julio Gonzalez. While these events are coincidental they are linked by the crucible of art history and Stirner’s ascension as a sculptor of steel.
By 1941, the young Karl was already working as an industrial designer and mechanical engineer. At the outset of World War Two, Stirner served in the U.S. Army in Pacific combat zones. Returning home at war’s end, he opened a machine shop in 1946 and began developing unique precision machines while exploiting the possibilities of welded steel fabrication. This led to the opening of a metal arts studio in 1948 where he designed and produced custom metal furniture and screens, architectural sculpture, ornamental panels, and sculptural forms. In 1955, he became an instructor at the Moore College of Art and in 1957 became the Director of the Metal Department at Tyler School of Art, Temple University. He then opened Karl Stirner Ornamental Ironworks in Germantown, Pennsylvania in 1956. Stirner’s first major solo exhibition at the Delaware Museum of Art in 1960 launched his career spanning the following years with a series of major solo and group exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and others. He became engaged in world travels, ran an art gallery, began collecting art, encouraged development projects for artists, but overall was more and more empowered toward his goal of making sculpture full-time for the next 55 years. Stirner’s move to Easton, PA in 1983 launched his most prolific and important body of sculptural work which continues to grow to the present day. Decades in Steel explores the artist’s masterfully welded and manipulated steel sculptures which are inspired by the industrial forms and huge sections of steel Stirner reclaims from manufacturing and scrap yards.
The sculptures of Karl Stirner have grown from his experience of the medium and his deep immersion in his sculpture. His knowledge of the properties of metals including aluminum, iron, bronze, and steel, coupled with his ability to manipulate these materials into distinct objects signifies his talent and determination to overcome the traditional constraints imposed by these materials. Ductile steel in Stirner’s hands result in sculptures that baffle the fact that much of it was once scrap steel that he had purchased at a yard down on the other side of town. He understands the malleability of steel to twist, fold, hammer, contort, and cast. He seemingly draws in space with the material as if it might be paint. His work suggests greater depths beyond its distinctive formal attributes and there is a sense of an underlying mystery. However, this is unlike the overt preoccupation with mystery by the Surrealists. Stirner is not interested in creating illusions for the viewer. There are no illusions. His work stands undeniably in front of you in hardened industrial steel. Darkness, playfulness, sexuality, confrontation, are among the observations which converge in this body of work that is viscerally powerful and projects a truly enigmatic presence.
Looking at the volumetric works first, in Untitled (2006), Stirner has taken what could be industrial pipe or tank sections and exploited the highly distressed skins and capped off the ends in beautifully polished steel rivaling the finest Minimalist or Post Minimalist works of that movement. Stirner has tapped a contemporary nerve of disparateness of surface and an uncanny sense of scale with these works. They are among his best.
Stirner’s flat steel works take many forms including cubes and open box forms. However, Untitled (2012), a split steel inverted “T” shape, coined the “split breast,” is one of the strongest of in this category of large-scale flat steel works. Its sensuously chased surface glistens in the light while a honed oval-like nugget of steel sliced in half, one section held upright on one inverted plane of steel, pauses upright for a moment perhaps, while the other equal half rests atop another plane on the floor.
Also in flat steel, Untitled (2010) is an upright table form with three cut-outs of what appear to be tongues or phallic references. The forms flip or curve up in a regimented cartoon-like fashion through the surface in unison from the flat steel top and seem to be laughing, or simply on display in an upright curve shared by each one. This piece most certainly is one of the most humorous, deliberate or not, of Stirner’s work.
In his similarly named works Untitled, both from 2012, there are large ingots or chunks of steel placed atop planes of cut steel, hanging from thick sections of chain, provoking us to touch them to see how heavy they might be. This goading is once again Stirner’s provocation, but they are very heavy nonetheless, confirming that looks don’t always deny reality and that Stirner is not interested in presenting us with illusions.
One of Stirner’s most populated body of works are the small sculptures. They each consist of magical combinations of shape, line, recognizable things, and puzzling abstractions in a beautiful symphony of mass, texture, and artistic exploration.
There is nothing prosaic in Stirner’s sculptures. He includes the most unusual elements, either found or from discarded industrial detritus of all sizes, weight, and shapes, taking something familiar to someone perhaps, but then transforming it into an expression of form that demands explanation where there is none. Each work is a visual poem embedded with a shamanistic-like rite of passage by the artist in the studio, three and four pieces underway at one time. He changes elements, refines surfaces, and looks at them again years later as still unresolved in his mind. It is a struggle that defies explanation but is not unusual to the artistic temperament.
A self-confessed collector of many things, Stirner’s most essential collections consists of industrial scrap-metal which he unapologetically relies on for his sculptures. It should be no surprise that Stirner owns a baseball-sized piece of a meteorite. He also collects primitive art. Taken one at time, these two areas are of extreme interest. Stirner so transforms his industrial scrap that it appears at times in his work as an exotic material. Unlike prominent Modernist sculptors, most notably Richard Stankiewicz and John Chamberlain, who used scrap metal including identifiable automobile and machinery parts in their works, Stirner so transforms such items by forging, chasing, bending, and heating them, that identification is almost completely negated.
When asked about his connection to primitive art, Stirner acknowledges that it could play a role in his sculpture but only at the subconscious level. He is clear that his overall concern is more rooted in the direct process of making sculpture. So while there may be elements in Stirner’s sculptures that imply a primitive influence, the artist is so successful in challenging us with the material, its industrial associations, its composition, and often its seductive beauty, that he has achieved the sophisticated “blurring of the edges”, leaving us to perceive objects which truly deny us from being able to fully interpret or describe beyond their relative “there-ness” and “beauty.” Looking back at Picasso, one of the biggest proponents of primitivism, namely of Iberian and African art as a source in his work, he once told the celebrated French art critic, Dora Vallier, “African masks opened up a new horizon for me. They enabled me to make contact with instinctive things, with direct manifestations, which ran counter to the false traditionalism that I abhorred.”1
The principal difference in Stirner’s steel sculptures which stand him apart from Modernist thought is his choice to work primarily with the industrial color palette that steel presents solely by its inherent materialness. Picasso, di Suvero, Caro, and at times, David Smith, and many others maintained a strong link to painting by employing painted surfaces on their works. But Stirner is not interested in the relationship between the two, preferring to use his acquired skills at creating surface patinas. Heat treating, and grinding and polishing, as well as other techniques have played a role in defining his approach to the coloration of steel. Stirner’s sculptures employ choices of raw or manipulated steel elements which are joined together almost kinesthetically to project a painterly sensibility with implied compositional gesture. Donald Kuspit in his 2013 essay points out, “Stirner’s sculpture brings the paradoxical quality of steel into clear focus. No painterly additives for him, but steel sculpture in all its material and abstract purity.” 2
Over a long and active career as a sculptor of steel, Karl Stirner stands alone in the creation of formidable body of work that is unreplicated by anyone else. His is a long journey to be recorded in the annals of the history of sculpture and we can only look forward to what awaits us in his studio next.
1. Richardson, John. A Life of Picasso, 1907-1917, The Painter of Modern Life. 1996. p. 244.
2. Leidich, Dave. Karl Stirner. Ex. Cat. 2013. p. xviii.
Tues - Thurs 10:00 AM - 6:00 PM
Fri - Sat 10:00 AM - 9:00 PM
Sun 10:00 AM - 6:00 PM