From Head to Hand: Art and the Manual: Sculpture and Sanctuary, Laborare Est Orare

by David Levi Strauss

One of my oldest memories involves neither images nor words, but rather a certain sensation arising from a sculptural instant. I remember the feeling of running my fingers over the ends of a bundle or stack of wooden sticks. The feeling is very strong and very old, certainly prelinguistic, and extremely intimate and charged. I remember the delicious claustrophobic sweetness of compaction, enclosure, and repetition, and the sense of being cornered or hemmed in by something, like a confessional, a coffin, or a womb.

“Ursula von Rydingsvard: Sculpture” at Storm King Art Center in the Hudson Valley was the first full-scale museum exhibition of this important American sculptor’s work. Fourteen wood sculptures (two from 1978 and 1979, the rest from 1986-92) filled the Art Center’s interior galleries, while four new site-specific pieces occupied the green hilltop grounds just outside the museum building. In managing to effectively survey at least a part of Rydingsvard’s abundant oeuvre in a limited indoor space and also break new ground and open up new possibilities for outdoor work, the Storm King show reflected some of the most persistent lines of inquiry in Ryingsvard’s work: the reciprocal tension between past and future, interior and exterior, intimacy and monumentality, sanctuary and history.

Since 1975 Rydingsvard has worked most often with milled four-by-four-inch cedar beams, laminated and carved into abstract human-scale sculptures of great emotional weight and resonance. Limiting her material means in this way allowed Rydingsvard to concentrate a tremendous energy into her forms, and to produce a remarkably coherent body of work over two decades. The restraints are also consistent with the ethical base of Rydingsvard’s work, a peasant ethic of economy and resourcefulness born out of her earliest memories growing up in forced-labor and refugee camps in Germany at the end of World War II.

Rydingsvard’s Ukrainian-born woodcutter/peasant father and Polish mother were driven out of Poland into Germany in 1938 and spent the next 12 years moving from one labor camp to another. Ursula, the fifth of seven children, was born in 1942 in Deensen, Germany. Life in the camps was austere and frugal, but not torturous. The family and the Catholic Church provided sanctuary from the barbarism of history. The isolation of the camps caused each detail of daily life-the grey timbers of the barracks-like dwellings, the look and feel of household utensils and simple furniture, the rustic interiors of the buildings used for worship– to become highlighted in a child’s memory. This contained but nomadic existence came to an end in 1950 when the family emigrated to the United States, but the images and textures of that period remained vivid in memory, eventually to be transformed into a durable and flexible sculptural vocabulary.

The Storm King exhibition contained a number of works especially marked by this history. Zakopane (1987) is a wall-sized piece that weds figuration with abstraction and manages to be both menacing and reverential. It takes its name from a town in the Carpathian Mountains in southern Poland (the word in Polish means something like “to be buried under snow”) and may recall a row of bowed, kneeling, kerchiefed worshipers backed by the grey weathered walls of a barracks sanctuary, except that the canopy of bowed heads looks more like defiant fists, and the whitened knees of the supplicants metamorphose into heads of reptilian burrowers.

As the vernacular architecture of the camps is charged in Rydingsvard’s theater of memory, so are common household implements and utensils, and the line between these objects and liturgical devices disappears. Paul’s Shovel (1987) is clearly a shovel laced with frost, but it is also a religious icon as potent as a crucifix, and Mother’s Bonnet (1990) is swelled by devotion (and fear?) into the spiky headgear of a demigoddess. The five stretchers (cradles?) of Urszulka (1986) are transformed into ritual objects marked by a sort of scarred script written in pain. Even the near-Oldenburgian knives in a rack in Dreadful Sorry (1987-88) casts shadows of sacrifice and cloistered piety.

This is not to say that Rydingsvard’s work deals in symbols, but that her way of working appreciates these connections among objects and their effects. Joseph Beuys used to say that he did not work with symbols, but with materials. Rydingsvard’s relation to the symbolic is effected by her relation to nature. She has often spoken in interviews of her abhorrence of competing with or imitating nature. She eschews mimesis in favor of reciprocity, aiming to get the objects she makes “to echo things that nature might say but doesn’t.” Her organicism is always a meditated organicism, arising from the religious imagination as defined by W. S. Piero: “The religious imagination is a respondent, form-making act of consciousness, back toward and into that which it believes has shaped it-the force of otherness. It replies to the givenness of existence by reshaping the forms of nature into the forms of work.” In going “back toward and into that which . . . has shaped” her, Rydingsvard releases the correspondence among and within objects of memory, their symbolic and combinatory properties. Humble household utensils and tools are both materialized and consecrated.

This wedding of the sacred and mundane found precedent and inspiration when Ryingsvrard traveled to Italy in 1979 and 1980 to study Giotto’s paintings in Assisi, Florence, and Padua. In addition to his incorporation of familiar Italian landscapes into depictions of biblical scenes, Giotto’s break with the abstraction of Byzantine art, his firm drawing of contours, and the sculptural compactness, economy, and integrity of his forms made a lasting impression on Rydingsvard’s work as a sculptor. Though completed just before her Giotto pilgrimage, For Weston (1978; the earliest piece in the Storm King show) already evokes the gentle modeling of Giotto’s Tuscan hills. This group of seven rounded conical forms begins to project a sort of emotional landscape that was then projected into an actual landscape, site-specifically, in Song of a Saint (St. Eulalia) (1979, at Artpark in Lewiston, New York), Koszarawa (1979, at Wave Hill in the Bronx), and St. Martin’s Dream (1980, in “Art on the Beach,” Battery Park City Landfill). In Song of a Saint (St. Eulalia), a field of 180 18-footh-high cedar posts sprouting carved growths or appendages spread out over the slope of a hill like pale cacti. The carving of the appendages was less rounded, sharper, and more faceted than previous carving, since these appendages on on level signified the mutilated body or body parts of St. Eulalia hanging on trees, as lamented in Federico Garcia Lorca’s “Martitio de Santa Olalla” (The Martyrdom of Saint Eulalia): “Here lies the undulating snow. / Eulalia hangs from the tree.” The violence of the act is transformed in Rydingsvard’s threnody into constitutive detail.

In that same year, Song of a Saint (1979), a small rectangular field of sharpened upright cedar stakes hemmed in by 12 uncarved stakes, succinctly stated another theme central to Rydingsvard’s work—the ecstasy and horror of confinement—that would also find expression in large outdoor works such as Tunnels on the Leve (1983), and later be incorporated differently into the facture of Rydingsvard’s work following the breakthrough of Untitled (Seven Mountains) (1986-88). The formal breakthrough in Seven Mountains was the assertion of the grid. Eva Hess was perhaps the first post-minimalist sculptor to break the geometric-versus-organic-form dualism, but the dilemma is perennial. By accepting the grid formed by her four-by-fours and allowing it to come forward, Rydingsvard was freed to work against this underlying mathematical regularity in any way her hands led her, working always into the compelling tension between stasis and change.

In the “wall” pieces such as Lace Mountains (1989) and Undo (1992), the violence of change (like that which could uproot a poor family, send them wandering form one labor camp to another, and then transformed by Rydingsvard’s incessant lacerations, a form of mark-making that defines a constantly changing surface. The constant is the grid, the cuts are change. The gestural impact of this mark-making is never obscured by surface treatment.

This was the overall method of three of the four outdoor sculptures installed at Storm King. Five Cones (1990-92) is a variation on a well-developed theme. Five inverted cones, perched precariously on their vertices, grow together and shift their stances, achieving a hard-won solidity and stability. A view from above (the second-floor gallery at Storm King) revealed the hollowed communal sanctuary the separate cones concealed. They stood like scarred sentries, defending their form.

Directly related to the more separated Three Bowls (1989) and the flipped wide-based cones of Untitled (Seven Mountains) (1986-88), Five Cones also related to the wall pieces, in which forms grow out of and away from the wall in undulating waves, as in Lace Mountains (1989).

Beginning with her first large-scale outdoor sculpture, Song of a Saint (St. Eulalia) in 1979 at Artpark, Rydingsvard has exhibited an uncommon willingness and ability to respond generously to a given landscape, without sacrificing autonomy or intensity. This approach is much riskier than oblivious assertion. Land Rollers (1992), especially constructed for the Storm King hilltop grounds, attempted to tie the trees and ground together kinetically. Viewed from the museum building, the fow of 14-foot-long carved rollers lined up perfectly with a maple-tree-lined road at the bottom of the hill. Perched on their ramp-like base, the rollers were all potential.

A more successful work in this mode is Iggy’s Pride (1990-91), at Oliver Ranch in Northern California. This piece is so integrated with the Sonoma Valley landscape that it appears more as an extension than an intervention. Nine craggy carved fingers grow out of the hillside as if in benediction of the valley below. Dedicated to Rydingsvard’s father, Ignacy Karoliszyn, the piece embodies and enacts the “packed pride” and “containment of emotions” that Rydingsvard has admired in Giotto’s forms.

The two remaining outdoor sculptures installed at Storm King, Ene, Due, Rabe and For Paul, broke new ground in Rydingsvard’s work, and achieved a monumentality out of all proportion to their physical size.

The largest single sculpture the Rydingsvard has ever made, Ene, Due, Rabe (1990) (the Polish title refers to the first words of a children’s rhyme) was actually produced in San Francisco, during Rydingsvard’s six-week residency at Capp Street Project in the winter of 1990. To complete the massive project in the allotted time, Rydingsvard employed six full-time assistants and 150 part-time volunteers, who worked around the clock in eight-hour shifts, grinding, cutting, gluing, rubbing, and brushing graphite into the wood. The piece was built from the ground up, with Rydingsvard marking each of thousands of individual cuts and fitting the pieces together to form an 18-by-45-foot honeycomb of 98 body-size cavities in an irregular 7-by-14 grid.

The many observers of this process marveled at the duration and intensity of the work required, and especially at Rydingsvard’s endurance. But Rydingsvard herself has a peasant’s attitude toward labor: labor is simply that one does, what it takes. Although Ryindgsvard is clearly influenced by process art, in her work the process is always directed toward visual and sculptural needs.

Rydingsvard is equally pragmatic about her tools and materials. She uses grinders, circular saws, and hammers forcefully, but has not fetishistic attachment to them. “I am not involved,” she says, “in getting the best of tools and tending to them with loving care. I think this is true for a lot of women especially. I get whatever I need to get done what I need to do—what the image needs, what the idea needs.” Wood, also, is stricktly a means to an end. Milled cedar wood has certain properties—the right solidity and “give,” clean cut lines, lack of grain—that serve the sculptor’s purpose. But she has no sentimental attraction to wood and has always said she would switch to another material in a minute if she found something more useful or fitting. This she shares with Louis Bourgeois, who told Donald Kuspit, “You do not make sculpture because you like wood. That is absurd. You make sculpture because the wood allows you to express something that another material does not allow you to.”

Ene, Due, Rabe marked a passage in Rydingsvard’s work toward the monumental. While previous large-scale works were sequential and extensive, Ene, Due, Rabe drew the sequential into one unified, monumental form. The separate tubelike receptacles placed in a grid in the forest clearing in the untitled work of 1988-89 for Laumeier Sculpture Park in St. Louis were integrated in Ene, Due, Rabe into a mass of “welded, organic vessels [moving] in an anchored yet charged way as giant pores might.”

Weather one views Ene, Due, Rabe as a funerary sculpture (a sepulchral bed or perhaps the raft carrying the mutilated body of Osiris to its sepulcher at Abydos) or as a matrix of birthing chambers, the endless hollows beg for bodies. In this way the piece reifies the double sense of monument as both memory and warning, recollection and prophesy.

Clearly the breakthrough piece of the Storm King show, For Paul (1991-92) had an overwhelming presence. It seemed to rise up out of the ground like some lost Eolithic monolith, or like a conglomerate butte formed by eons of subterranean pressure. Taking over two and a half years to complete, it became known to the workers in Rydingsvard’s studio as “The Fortress,” and its articulated walls do resemble those of a castle keep in more ways than one. At Storm King, swallows nested in the south face of the structure, and its walls concealed and equally intricate interior sanctuary that could not be seen from the ground. Its exterior is forbidding but not menacing, since its strength is protective of the hidden sanctuary. The dismembered body, the absent father, the displaced childhood, the lost origins-all must be brought into being sculpturally. For Paul is a monument to the strength of sanctuary.

In the chapter “The 1980s and Beyond’ in her encyclopedic survey American Women Sculptors, Charlotte Streifer Rubinstein placed Ursula von Rydingsvard in a special section (also including Mia Westerbund Roosen and Ida Kohlmeyer), describing their work as “an odd new kind of eccentric abstraction, somewhere between animal, vegetable, mineral and geometric form.” The term “eccentric abstraction” recalls the influential show of that name organized by Lucy Lippard at Fischbach Gallery in 1966 included the works of Eva Hesse, Alice Adams, and Louise Bourgeois, among others. Lippard almost immediately regretted her title, as women sculptors have so often been deemed ”eccentric” to mark their distance from the canonical (male) center from which they are excluded. The term would be more accurate if male sculptors of comparable originality were referred to as “concentric.” In explaining her appropriation of the term “eccentric,” Lippard later wrote that she was trying “to indicate that there were emotive or ‘eccentric’ or erotic alternatives to a solemn and deadest Minimalism which still retained the clarity of that notion,” and that these works built on a post-minimalist sensibility possessing “an aspect of visceral identification that is hard to escape.” In the sculpture of Ursula von Rydingsvard, this inescapable visceral identification acquires a new spiritual urgency.

Laborare Est Orare

Ursula von Rydingsvard’s sculptures have often engaged and activated the relation between a tool or implement-Something used to make something else-and the thing made. She’s found the clarity of this relation most present in the most primitive examples of it, where on rude object impacts another to make an impression. Working into the physical reality of that prime encounter, she uncovers a certain incommensurability of cause and effect: there is always something left over when the work is done, a remainder that may in fact be the beginning of the aesthetic.

I’ve often heard this sculptor speak of the honesty of a given material: the way a certain kind of wood or type of viscera holds up under pressure and over time; the way it takes a cut or weeps when it dries, but especially the way it bears and shows its transformation through labor. She constantly tests the integrity of her materials as she pushes them beyond their defining limits. She is alert to the indwelling potency of organic materials, but insists that they be transformed through work. She understands the cult of relics (being irrepressible collector of old, odd remnants), but recognizes these things as raw material to be worked, rather than merely contemplated.

In its Greek beginnings, the tool of implement was the organon, “that with which one works.” From there we get to bodily organs as instruments of sense or faculty, and the organic as the entire category of organized bodies (plant and animal), but always in the sense of them acting as an instrument of nature or art, to a certain end. All this from the root of work.

Her incorporation of actual organs-the stomachs of ruminants-as sculptural material happened in the late 1990s. When I visited her studio in 1999, Rydingsvard showed me the cow stomachs stored in her refrigerator, packed in salt and shrunken into velvety white wads. As she held the tripe under a faucedt, massaging it and filling out its form with water, she described the “exotic landscape” of almost unbearable beauty she had found inside the carcass of a freshly killed cow, “like what one might find under the sea.”

Rydingsvard isolates particular sculptural effects—the way skin of organs draws tight over striae, or the laminate, sexual (adhering) embrace of a malleable substance after being compressed between two more ridged surfaces—in order to open up the sensuous rapport of a made object to its utility: a waffle iron impresses a grid pattern on cooking batter; a farmer’s plough cuts furrows in the ground; wet laundry is rubbed over the ribs of a washboard; animal hides are stretched on racks to dry. All of these acts have effects based on the zero point requirements of necessity and candor.

The present work can be seen in the context of a number of other sculptures Rydingsvard made after returning from her first trip to Poland in 1985. Though she was raised in a Polish Catholic home, it was never in Poland, but always on the tortured edges of it, always in exile, where memory was both sweet and painful, love was bound up with loss, and labor was always mixed with violence. In these works, especially Ignatz Comes Home (1986), Zakopane (1987), Dreadful Sorry (1987-88), Oj Dana Oj Dana (1989), and Dli Gienka (1991-93), individual repeated members or columns (sometimes alluding to household implements) are distressed, stained, leaded down, even whitewashed. In the latter two works, Rydingsvard’s signature cuts into milled cedar beams line up into series of striations.

But the most direct precedent or seed for this work is Maglownica (1995), in which a 12-foot-high flat paddle formed of four laminated four-by-four milled cedar beams is sheathed in stitched cow intestines. The edges of the cedar paddle are cut into spines or ribs so that the membranous covering is stretched taut as if over bones. The piece was inspired by the rasp-surfaced paddles traditionally used by Polish farm women to soften linen sheets after laundering. As Rydingsvard recalled to Martin Friedman, “the linens were so harsh, it was often difficult to sleep on them, for fear of bloodying yourself.”

Maglownica is a work of tremendous compression, of contained violence and pent-up energy. The critic Michael Brenson has observed that it “suggests the attentiveness of a solitary child observing a world to which he or she does not belong, or perhaps the last moments of a man in front of a firing squad. But this object maintains its ability to react. In fact, like most of Rydingsvard’s creations, it seems ultimately unconquerable.” This resonates with what Rydingsvard said when Dore Ashton asked the artist what her earliest artistic experience had been: “I remember something about unbleached, coarse linen. It would almost take its own form. I remember its being on me. Almost like a nightgown—something about light on my body. Maybe I was three or four. . . outdoors, on the steps.” This image I can’t get out of my head, looking at this piece. A row of little girls, standing up straight in their coarse linen wraps before the world, unconquerable.

These sculptures have always seemed to me to arise from a kind of diastrophism, twisting and turning in different directions around a solid core. Whether these repeated inset columns of viscera over cut boards makes one think of snow fallen on furrowed fields or dressings on wounds, they definitely form an embodied passage from one state or condition to another. I see it as a passage leading from the memory of innocence to experience, where the unjust torments of matter and memory are transformed through inspired labor, and where, in the final judgment, laborare est orare, labor is prayer.

New York: Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 8-21.