Ursula von Rydingsvard’s Monumental Sculptures at Denver Botanic Gardens

The artist Ursula von Rydingsvard in the gallery at Denver Botanic Gardens.

Courtesy of Denver Botanic Gardens.

The artist Ursula von Rydingsvard in the gallery at Denver Botanic Gardens.

Ursula von Rydingsvard’s monumental works found an ideal temporary home in the galleries at Denver Botanic Gardens.

Ursula von Rydingsvard’s monumental works found an ideal temporary home in the galleries at Denver Botanic Gardens.

Courtesy of Denver Botanic Gardens.

View of Ursula von Rydingsvard works installed in the Denver Botanic Gardens’ gallery space.

“When you work on that scale you want to be noticed.”

Guest curator Mark Rosenthal

Ursula von Rydingsvard’s monumental works found an ideal temporary home in the galleries at Denver Botanic Gardens. Her one-woman show titled Contours of Feeling—a phrase from Rainer Maria Rilke, one of the artist’s favorite writers—runs through September 11, 2022.

Von Rydingsvard is an American artist for our times. Born in Germany in 1942, to a Ukrainian father and a Polish mother, the sculptor shoulders the gravitas of a World War II upbringing fraught with violence, refugee camps, poverty, and immigration. She frequently titles her works in Polish left untranslated.

The current war in Ukraine weighs particularly heavy on von Rydingsvard, and she noted the importance of public art, particularly during times of human turmoil.

“In Ukraine, sculptures have had a presence. The large freedom sculpture in Independence Square, and also I heard recently about a statue commemorating friendship between Ukraine and Russia taken down,” the artist tells Art & Object.

“With what we saw during rioting associated with Black Lives Matter, we’re more aware that public sculpture has extraordinary presence, meaning, emotion. Public art is powerful,” says von Rydingsvard, “especially monumental works.”

Von Rydingsvard’s oeuvre consists mostly of monumental works.

“She’s exceedingly unusual as a woman artist working on that scale,” says guest curator Mark Rosenthal. “She grew up as an artist surrounded by men who worked on that scale. She knew no barriers, since she had broken so many barriers. The word ‘fierce’ comes to mind. When you work on that scale you want to be noticed.”

The large-scale works look and feel at home in the Denver Botanic Gardens galleries, the proportions practically perfect.

Courtesy of Denver Botanic Gardens.

Ursula von Rydingsvard, Zakopane, 1987.

“Monumental work is hurt in spaces too big. Those spaces can dwarf the work,” Rosenthal says. “It looks good in those spaces.”

The sculptures transform all three indoor galleries into something of a shrine, a holy place with a hush enveloping the artist’s unusual works in cedar, dried animal intestines, and her Ukrainian father’s leather aviator hat. The installations are simultaneously strange and familiar.

“That piece Zakopane is unbelievable to me, unlike anything I’ve ever set eyes on. It’s weird and awkward in its way and so powerful,” says Rosenthal.

In addition to her trademark cedar sculptures, the exhibit includes works on handmade paper embedded with bits of textiles and her brother’s hair.

“Those works on paper are spectacular, to me,” the curator says.

The Denver exhibit, organized by the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia, includes one sculpture installed outdoors: A resin piece lit from within. The plastic, a drastic departure from cedar, holds up to Colorado’s elements. Von Rydingsvard also, of late, is working in bronze.

Rosenthal shares, “She has a lot of very recent work in bronze. She’s become very interested in likening the work to lace, having a see-through quality. She calls the work ‘she.’ She applies a pronoun: ‘She looks great in that space.’ Or ‘I made it so she has a crown.’”

Rosenthal described the Denver show as “muscular,” yet emphasized von Rydingsvard’s femininity.

“She’s a proud mother and loves her grandchildren,” says Rosenthal. “She loves being a woman.”

Ursula von Rydingsvard, BIG COŚ, 2015-22.
Courtesy of Denver Botanic Gardens.

Ursula von Rydingsvard, BIG COŚ, 2015-22.

Ursula von Rydingsvard, little nothings, 2000-15.
Courtesy of Denver Botanic Gardens.

Ursula von Rydingsvard, little nothings, 2000-15.

View of Ursula von Rydingsvard works installed in the Denver Botanic Gardens’ gallery space.
Courtesy of Denver Botanic Gardens.

View of Ursula von Rydingsvard works installed in the Denver Botanic Gardens’ gallery space.

The curator pointed out a tender moment captured in Ursula von Rydingsvard: Into Her Own, a documentary film about the artist. In the footage, von Rydingsvard is shown with her second husband, the Nobel laureate Paul Greengard, who died in 2019. Based on the clip, he evidently adored her.

“Her husband’s death was very difficult and hit her heart,” says Rosenthal, “and she’s been going through a lot.”

Also on display in the exhibit is a copy of Von Rydingsvard’s artist statement—eloquent and vulnerable enough that her words could serve as a statement on the human condition.

“Taking it as a whole, it’s a self-portrait about who she is,” Rosenthal shares. “She’s unashamed.”

To the contrary, von Rydingsvard has every reason to be proud. More than thirty major museums including NYC’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and the MoMA, the Walker Art Center of Minneapolis, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, and the Detroit Institute of Arts have included her art in their permanent collections.

Von Rydingsvard has also received a Lifetime Achievement Award for Excellence in the Arts from the National Museum of Women in the Arts. And she is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

“If you go to Storm King—the preeminent sculpture garden of the U.S. and one of the best in the world—Ursula has as many pieces out there as Henry Moore or anybody else,” says Rosenthal, who previously held curatorial positions at the National Gallery of Art, the Philadelphia Art Museum and the Guggenheim.

Rosenthal has curated exhibitions of high-profile artists such as Pablo Picasso, Jasper Johns, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. He recalls reading in a 1983 review published by a New York Times critic advising readers to “run not walk” to an exhibit of Ursula von Rydingsvard’s sculptures.

“I thought they were fantastic and like nothing else,” Rosenthal says of his first impression of von Rydingsvard’s work. “I arrived at the show too late to put in a bid for a piece for the Philadelphia museum. Everything was sold.”

Rosenthal, an immediate fan of von Rydingsvard’s talent, cites the enigmatic emotional quality of her art.

“There is something emotionally awesome about her work,” he said. “Her work is so impressive and so outwardly emotional without being figurative: There are no tears coming across a face.”

Von Rydingsvard estimates she’s made 150 to 200 sculptures over the course of her long and illustrious career. She compares her artistic process to jazz musicians or medieval artisans.

“It’s not like you have it totally figured out,” the artist said in a one-on-on interview. “That would be horrible to be locked in because you don’t have possibilities.”

For younger women yearning to create art, particularly monumental sculptures, von Rydinsgvard has this advice: “Don’t be afraid. Just do what you need to do.”

About the Author

Colleen Smith

Colleen Smith is a longtime Denver arts writer and the curator of Art & Object’s Denver Art Showcase.

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