Museum  May 3, 2019  Chandra Noyes

Big Sculptures in Answer to Life’s Big Questions: Ursula von Rydingsvard

© Ursula von Rydingsvard, Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co.; Photo by Michael Bodycomb

Ursula von Rydingsvard, For Natasha, 2015; Cedar and graphite, 9 ft. 1 in. x 6 ft. 7 in. x 3 ft. 6 in.

Ursula von Rydingsvard is a master of translating the complex emotional world of the human condition into physical, sculptural form. Her most ambitious solo exhibition to date, The Contour of Feeling, now at the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA), showcases this talent. The sculptures on display, many of them monolithic and daunting at over 10 feet high, are small compared to monumental public sculptures she is best known for, many of which are twice as tall. At any size, her abstract sculptures are formidable presences, their heavy, organic forms both familiar and strange, their twisting shapes and rich surfaces offering a complex world of depth and texture to explore.

© Ursula von Rydingsvard, Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co.; Photo by Carlos Avendaño

Ursula von Rydingsvard, SCRATCH II, 2015; Cedar and graphite, 10 ft. 1 in. x 6 ft. 3 in. x 4 ft. 11 in.

Working primarily in cedar since 1975, von Ryvingsvard works almost entirely intuitively, never with drawings or mock-ups. The artist and her team of assistants lay out 4” x 4” cedar boards, mark them for cutting, carve them using circular saws, stack, reassemble and glue the planks together, and finally rub them with pigment or graphite to add further detail to the surface. The process can take a year or more for a single piece. The artist has recently created works in bronze and copper, for which a full-sized sculpture in cedar is made first, a process the artist insists on in order to retain the textural quality so important to her work. 

The results of this laborious process are stunning. Every inch of every surface has been examined and manipulated, likely by several pairs of hands. The dramatic pieces seem to be made by scratching or clawing at the wood, and the twisting organic forms have a haunted, desperate feel. Her use of natural materials and the fact that the large structures are made from innumerable smaller parts reminds us that nature is always simultaneously growing and dying, being built up and broken down.

Chandra Noyes

Ursula von Rydingsvard, Droga (detail), 2009; Cedar and graphite, 4 ft. 6 in x 9 ft. 7 in. x 18 ft. 3 in

The titles of von Rydingsvard's work, often in her native Polish, are intentionally obscure. She wants to allow the viewer full and open interpretation, saying that, “there is no title that explains the piece,” because there are no accurate words to fully describe the emotional state and urge to create behind them.

Ursula von Rydingsvard, Collar with Dots, 2008
© Ursula von Rydingsvard, Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co.; Photo by Carlos Avendaño

Ursula von Rydingsvard, Collar with Dots, 2008; Cedar and pigment, 9 ft. 7 in. x 11 ft. 5 in. x 7 ½ in.

Ursula von Rydingsvard, Ocean Floor, 1996
© Ursula von Rydingsvard, Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co.; Photo by Carlos Avendaño

Ursula von Rydingsvard, Ocean Floor, 1996; Cedar, graphite, and cow intestines, 3 x 13 x 11 ft.

Ursula von Rydingsvard, PODERWAĆ, 2017
© Ursula von Rydingsvard, Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co.; Photo by Carlos Avendaño

Ursula von Rydingsvard, PODERWAĆ, 2017; Leather, cotton, steel, and polyester batting, 10 ft. 9 in. x 8 ft. 6 in. x 3 ft. 9 in.; In collaboration with The Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia

Ursula von Rydingsvard, Zakopane, 1987
© Ursula von Rydingsvard, Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co.; Photo by Carlos Avendaño

Ursula von Rydingsvard, Zakopane, 1987; Cedar and paint, 11 ft. 6 in. x 22 ft. x 3 ft.

A newly released documentary, Ursula von Rydingsvard: Into Her Own, by filmmaker Daniel Traub, tells her fascinating life story and explains in-depth her unique and complex artistic process. Born in 1942 to Polish refugees of World War II, von Rydingsvard spent her early years in a Displaced Persons camp in Germany before her family of 9 emigrated to Connecticut. Overcoming an abusive father and the schizophrenia of her first husband, von Rydingsvard always knew she wanted to be an artist, and moved as a single mother to New York City in the early 1970s. The result of an incredible work ethic and drive that has not waned, even at 76, von Rydingsvard has found success through her relentless pursuit of achieving her artistic vision.

© Ursula von Rydingsvard, Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co.; Photo by Kevin Silary

Ursula von Rydingsvard [center] surrounded by studio assistants [left to right: Morgan Daly, Sean Weeks-Earp, Ted Wade Springer, and Francisco Ruben Muñoz] in front of Bowl with Folds (1998–99), Detroit, 2017

The Contour of Feeling shows the artist venturing outside of cedar to work on paper, with fabric, and with leather and cow intestine. These works, including a giant leather jacket created at a residency at the Fabric Museum and Workshop in Philadelphia, carry the same haunted quality of her wooden sculptures. All of them seem to have gathered strength from their delicate, smaller components to create a timeless presence.

© Ursula von Rydingsvard, Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co.; Photo by Etienne Frossard Photographer: Etienne Frossard

Ursula von Rydingsvard, Untitled, 2016; Thread, wool, and pigment on linen handmade paper, 38 x 22 in.; Produced at Dieu Donné, New York

In a poem included in the exhibition, the artist lists all the reasons she creates art. If it wasn’t apparent that von Rydingsvard is wrestling with the great existential questions of humanity, her words make it clear. Beginning with, “Mostly, to survive,” and ending with, “And also because I want to get answers to questions for which there are no answers,” she puts into words the often ineffable motivation behind the urge to create. For von Rydingsvard, true artists create only because "You have to really really need to do it." Her desperate need to create is apparent and has made for a deeply moving body of work.

The Contour of Feeling is on view at the NMWA in Washington, DC, through July 28, 2019.

About the Author

Chandra Noyes

Chandra Noyes is Managing Editor for Art & Object.

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