The University of Chicago
5550 S. Greenwood
Chicago, IL 60637
The Smart Museum of Art presents the first monographic museum exhibition devoted to Ruth Duckworth in nearly twenty years, foregrounding the artist’s sculptural production across a prolific period in Chicago and at the University of Chicago. Ruth Duckworth: Life as a Unity (September 21, 2023–February 4, 2024) brings together a diverse array of nearly sixty objects made between 1966 and 2005—earthy vessels, large-scale clay-tile murals in high relief, bird-like stoneware figures, and nearly translucent porcelain sculptures—and traces the influence of geomorphology and the nascent environmental movement across Duckworth’s work.
“Like many women working in craft media at mid-century, Ruth Duckworth did not receive the critical consideration her work merits,” said Laura Steward, Curator of Public Art. “This exhibition and accompanying catalogue are the result of the growth of ‘eco-criticism’ in the field of art history. This novel critical framework allows us to center the artist’s relationship with the natural world, which in Duckworth’s case was profoundly influenced by the ‘Satellite Era’ and her engagement with the geophysical sciences at UChicago.”
Life as a Unity also marks the arrival of Duckworth’s Clouds Over Lake Michigan to its new home in the first floor reading room of the University’s Joseph Regenstein Library. This monumental, 240-square-foot, 1976 ceramic slab wall sculpture is a recent gift of Cboe Global Markets and was a fixture of the Cboe headquarters in Chicago’s Loop for decades.
“Libraries like Regenstein are simultaneously places for intense study and research, as well as sources of inspiration and community,” said Torsten Reimer, University Librarian and Dean of the University Library. “The creation of knowledge and the inspiration of art have always been closely linked, and we are delighted to highlight this connection by displaying Ruth Duckworth’s Clouds Over Lake Michigan prominently at the entrance of the Regenstein Library. We are also pleased to know that the archives of the Hanna Holborn Gray Special Collections Research Center proved useful to the creators of the Smart Museum exhibition as they were researching Duckworth’s connections to UChicago.”
On campus, Clouds Over Lake Michigan joins Earth, Water, Sky, from 1968, an environment in clay that covers four walls and the ceiling of the foyer of the Henry Hinds Laboratory for Geophysical Sciences. Both works will be accessible to the public throughout the exhibition, and beyond.
“The Smart is honored to present Life as a Unity, celebrating Ruth Duckworth’s expansive life, career, and deep connections to Chicago and the University,” said Vanja Malloy, Dana Feitler Director of the Smart Museum of Art. “This exhibition reintroduces Duckworth as a critical and compelling visual artist and reexamines her practice and research through interdisciplinary scholarship. Duckworth’s impact can be seen and experienced in every aspect of this presentation: from partnership opportunities with UChicago students and colleagues, to programming that engages the community, and in the public installations of the artist’s work across campus. As the Smart approaches its fiftieth year, it is important that we share and reflect on the significant history and cultural exchange at UChicago and the Museum itself. Life as a Unity embodies the Smart’s mission, as well as its vision for the future.”
Life as a Unity features several objects on loan from close friends of the artist that have never been publicly exhibited. Other objects are on public view for the first time in decades, including a 1974 ceramic wall relief from the Smart’s collection. The exhibition also presents other more well-known works in new contexts, such as the mural Clouds Over Illinois (1985), which was on permanent display in the State of Illinois James R. Thompson Center prior to the building’s sale last year.
About the exhibition
“I think of life as a unity. This includes mountains, mice, rocks, trees, women, and men. It’s all one big lump of clay.” —Ruth Duckworth
When Ruth Duckworth arrived in Chicago from London to teach at the University of Chicago’s Midway Studios in 1964, she planned to stay for a year. Instead, she lived in the city for nearly fifty years until her death in 2009—half her life. It is strange, then, that she is still primarily known as a “British studio potter,” rather than as an innovative Chicago sculptor, deeply engaged in the natural world and responding to artistic developments in the United States in the 1960s and 70s.
This monographic exhibition makes use of art historical advances of the last several decades to examine Duckworth’s Chicago work in a new light. Duckworth referred to herself not as a potter or ceramicist, but as a sculptor with clay. The exhibition takes her at her word, foregrounding her sculptural practice, fascination with geomorphology, and contemplation of the interconnectedness of nature.
The exhibition begins with a presentation of nearly thirty works across a series of gently curving tiered platforms in a large central gallery. Combined on these open-air plinths are varying sculptures made between the 1960s and 2000s: spherical Mama Pots with fractured surfaces, tall abstract forms in stoneware, and other clay objects. Large-scale murals and wall sculptures are presented throughout, highlighting reoccurring geological and meteorological motifs and showcasing the influence of geomorphology on Duckworth’s overall practice. Another section of the exhibition is dedicated to a series of small, pristine “cups and blades,” which the artist returned to at different points in her career.
As a coda, the exhibition also presents archival material that documents the dawn of the Satellite Era, the emergence of a more unified approach to the natural sciences, and the new environmental perspectives and activism of the 1960s. Through archival materials from the Hanna Holborn Gray Special Collections Research Center at the University of Chicago Library and other sources, it connects Duckworth to key figures at the University of Chicago and Hyde Park, such as Professor of Meteorology Tetsuya “Ted” Fujita, whose photographs of clouds the artist first encountered when working on the commission Earth, Water, Sky; Martyl Langsdorf, who designed the iconic Doomsday Clock for the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists; and Laura Fermi, who founded the Hyde Park Committee for Cleaner Air.
The 58 objects featured in the exhibition are drawn from public and private collections in the Midwest, including the Smart Museum of Art, the Illinois State Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, the Racine Art Museum, and the Schweikher House and Studio, as well as the artist’s estate.
Life as a Unity is the first exhibition devoted to Duckworth since the 2005 touring retrospective Ruth Duckworth: Modernist Sculptor.
About the artist
Born in Hamburg, Germany in 1919, Ruth Windmüller Duckworth fled to England in 1936, where she built a career as a ceramicist during the post-war period. As a young artist in the 1940s and 50s, she struggled like so many others, working as a tombstone cutter, button-maker, and puppeteer, trying several art schools before finally graduating from the Central School of Arts and Crafts.
In 1964 at the invitation of the University of Chicago, Duckworth immigrated to the U.S. to teach ceramics at Midway Studios. In 1966, she had her first solo exhibition in the U.S. at the Renaissance Society, where she attracted the attention of Julian Goldsmith, Dean of Geophysical Sciences. Goldsmith, an avid collector of pre-Columbian ceramics, commissioned Duckworth to create a ceramic installation for the Hinds Geophysical Laboratory, then under construction. This experience had a profound impact on the artist throughout her long career.
She died in Chicago in 2009, at the age of 90, having significantly expanded the possibilities of her chosen medium.