A pile of distorted metal, a frazzle of cable — an artist finds beauty where others may not. Sculptor Karl Stirner — 92 and still working — salvages metal from Bethlehem Steel, the junkyard, shipyards, auctions, flea markets, or the street. Stirner is a master of transforming hulking pieces of metal; what he does has been described as drawing with steel. Rather than paint the surface, he allows the metal to oxidize naturally, or he may heat, grind, and polish a surface. Some of the abstract forms look like highly engineered design for an unknown function.
Stirner stands out as a sculptor who touches his work. Each piece was built with his own hands. He is a tactile man, and in a video on his website, he talks about fondling the cold smooth-and-rough surfaces. “He loves the raw quality of the material,” says Grounds For Sculpture chief curator and artistic director Tom Moran. “He is aware of art history but doesn’t seem to care about it. His preoccupation is with volume, flatness, and form.”
“Karl Stirner: Decades in Steel” is on view through September 20 in the Museum Building at Grounds For Sculpture. Upstairs is another exhibit, “Jonas Stirner: One” — in which one can observe how, even if the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, it branches out on its own.
Karl Stirner was born in Bad Wilbad, Germany, in 1923. His parents were jewelers and precious metal smiths. When Karl was 4 the family moved to Philadelphia. He was fascinated by frogs, birds, insects, crystals, and shells, and watching his parents work developed his interest in metal. “He has seen most of the modern period and beyond,” says Moran.
A self-taught artist, Stirner completed Dobbins Vocational School through eighth grade, then became an industrial designer. He studied mechanical engineering at Drexel for six months, and after serving during World War II, opened a machine shop and a few years later a metal arts studio, designing and making contemporary metal furniture and ecclesiastical items such as lighting fixtures, altar railings, architectural sculpture, and ornamental panels. Soon he was teaching at Moore College of Art and became the director of the metal department at Tyler School of Art at Temple University. From there he opened Karl Stirner Ornamental Ironworks in Germantown. Along the road, he ran a gallery and traveled — you get a lot accomplished in 92 years.
After a solo show at the Delaware Museum of Art in 1959 and a show of 52 engravings at the Philadelphia Print Club in 1963, Stirner’s sculpture was put on hold as he raised a family and pursued other business interests such as real estate development, but the interruption fueled his drive, he says, and soon he produced so much work, he needed new studio space.
In 1983, he bought an old 38,000-square-foot factory building in Easton, Pennsylvania. On the first floor is the shop where he works; the second floor is his “showroom”; and on the third floor, his living space, he is surrounded by a museum’s worth of collections, from pre-Colombian and ancient Chinese to Greek, Roman, and American Indian art. He developed a love for primitive art while stationed in New Guinea during World War II and has collected every since. Among his collections is a meteorite from Russia.
From the beginning, Stirner rented out half the building to help finance it. One tenant has described Stirner as a workaholic. In fact Stirner is credited with the revitalization of Easton. Called “the godfather of Easton’s art renaissance,” he brought artists by the bus load to see Easton’s prospective studios, affordable and close to scrap yards, where they could produce large works from recycled or found material. Easton’s 2.5-mile Karl Stirner Arts Trail was named in his honor. Winding along the Bushkill Creek and connecting to the stone stairs leading up to Lafayette College, the bike-friendly trail has art along the walkway.
Stirner’s first wife, Barbara Lund, took her life at age 21. In a video of him talking about it more than 50 years later, he still cries. In her honor he has created “Barbara in a Box,” in which her black-and-white wedding portrait is enclosed in rusted steel walls. Later, he married Heather Harland, with whom he had three children. In 2010 he married his third wife, whom he’d known for 25 years and who died suddenly two years later, at the age of 54.
Stirner is attracted to pits, cavities, and oxidation, and the contrast of smooth and shiny. Using tools to cut and shape it like butter or dough, he finds the diamond in the rough. New forms take shape as he rearranges metal — he can render the hardest of surfaces to take on the folds of flesh — and yet there’s still a call and response to the original object. “I love every kind of object,” he says, admitting a preference for things that are old, with history and patina. He is interested in the relationships between the parts and the whole, and hopes viewers will unravel the work’s message themselves.
The 35 works on view at Grounds For Sculpture can be divided into small (tabletop), medium, and large works. The smaller works have more detail, and the larger works tend to be smoother, shinier, and more supple. Some have undulating curves. One looks like a fish skeleton, another a dancer, and yet another like a bird with a long droodle of a trunk. Some look like the human body. “What you see is what you see,” Stirner says.
Both the painter Paul Matthews and poet Gerald Stern are friends of Stirner. “His work, as I see it, is work of the spirit finding itself not in clay but in steel,” writes Stern.
There’s a family resemblance between the sculpture of Stirner and that of his son, Jonas — they look alike but there are distinct differences. There are dancers and birds in the son’s work, but the metal is touched in a different way. When the two get together, they visit junkyards. They critique each other’s work.
Like his father, Jonas Stirner is self taught. He served as assistant to Robert Rauschenberg from 1997 to 2006, and from Rauschenberg he learned to include accidents as part of the process, says Moran. A steel canvas with rough ragged edges, from which hangs distressed but ordered chains, has more spontaneity than the work of his father — it is labored but not polished.
“He has these pieces everywhere in his yard in Fort Myers, Florida,” says Moran. “His home is on one level with a foyer that is a gallery, and the works are in his landscape, too. The Florida air gives it a speckled patina.” Like his father, the son has a talent for assembling things, and he visits the scrap yards of Florida, where the Florida building boom left behind interesting flotsam and jetsam in the form of rebar and concrete building fragments.
Another likeness Moran points to: Both father and son pick up a scrap and ask, “What do you think I should do with this?”
Jonas, who calls himself a “creative inventor,” grew up in Bucks County and in Maine (where his mother lived) and studied art in high school and college, but he felt drawn to architecture, design, and photography. He moved to Florida to make metal furniture before discovering himself as a sculptor and working for Rauschenberg.
“My father warned me early on that it’s a difficult proposition to be an artist,” says Jonas, 45. “He never suggested it. I think he’s very satisfied that I chose to be an artist. We can share thoughts about what we do. He’s worked with me before. I go up there and we collect metal together. He pretty much stands back and lets me work and then critiques it.” Rauschenberg collected Jonas’s works, and it is today in the Rauschenberg Foundation.
Here at GFS, we can recognize parts of road construction in his work. “He knows when to stop,” says Moran, keeping the original flaking, peeling rust and yellow and red paint. “The mystery of the Stirners is, you never know what the parts originally were.”
Karl Stirner: Decades in Steel and Jonas Stirner: One, Grounds For Sculpture, 18 Fairgrounds Road, Hamilton. Through Sunday, September 20. $10 to $15. 609-586-0616 or www.groundsforsculpture.org.