National Museum of Women in the Arts: Ursula von Rydingsvard, “The Contour of Feeling”

by Elaine A. King

Ursula von Rydingsvard is a notable sculptor whose work ranks high among women artists of her generation including Jackie Winsor, Mary Miss and Alice Aycock.  Rydingsvard was born in Deensen, Germany of a Polish mother and Ukrainian father.  During the German occupation of Poland, she along with her six siblings underwent the suffering of World War II, and lived in German refugee camps for banished Poles.  In 1959, because of the U.S. Marshall Plan and the assistance of Catholic agencies, her family came to the United States where they re-located to Plainville, Connecticut.  Her early tumultuous history persists to inform her immense work resulting in an intimidating beauty.  Resembling landscapes ravaged by external forces, von Rydingsvard’s art evokes the abstraction of Cubism and possesses an irresistible magnetism.

In the mid-seventies Rydingsvard began her artistic career and over the ensuing four-decades has created an impressive body of work including major public art commissions, freestanding sculptures and drawings.  Rydingsvard along with other artists of the seventies was influenced by Minimalism yet disgruntled with its sterile appearance and its rejection of a world beyond form. Minimalists sought viewers to respond only to the form presented and content was irrelevant.

The influence of Minimalism is most pronounced in her early piece Untitled (Nine Cones), 1976.  The serial repetition of the nine monochrome conical shapes, carved out of cedar depicts the reductive aspects of modernism and calls attention to the materiality of the work. However, a departure from the barren character of Minimalism is observed in the uneven cracks and protuberances of form with each disrupted by a rough top resembling a volcano’s caldera.

Rydingsvard sought more in her art, desiring to bring touch and an individual narrative to her work.   Nevertheless the language of Minimalism remains at the core of her textured sculptures with allusions to the exterior world.  Her monumental sculptures fabricated from cedar beams bear a resemblance to bowls; vessels and farm tools; and some also suggest the architectural vernacular of barns, barracks, and fences.  Unceasingly each piece discloses the mark making of a human hand. Even though she has worked in diverse mediums ranging from bronze, textiles, and handmade paper, cedar remains her primary material.  In the production of her meticulously crafted pieces, she slashes, builds and coats her surfaces before finally rubbing a graphite patina into it.  It is evident throughout her oeuvre that she favors producing enormous sculptural forms made from cedar beams that are applied individually to create an enormous structure.

The exhibition’s title, The Contour of Feeling, comes from a line in Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem Fourth Duino Elegy: “We don’t know the contour of our feeling; only the thing that molds it from without.”  It features 26 sculptures, focusing on signature works, a large wall installation and nine paper pieces. The multi-media drawings, with their calculated marks, evince subtle poetic explorations into her creative process that inform her large sculptures.

The exhibition is not envisioned as a retrospective nor displayed chronologically.  Instead it focuses on key works that demonstrate the breath of her thinking as well as the diversity of her art.  Mark Rosenthal, the former curator of 20th-century art at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, guest-curated this exhibit that was organized by the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia.  Rosenthal, states that von Rydingsvard’s work, like any good art, beckons us to find “meaning in form.” As with Rilke who sought deeper truths, this artist persists in delving into her thoughts, feelings and observations.  According to von Rydingsvard, “I make art to “get answers to questions for which I know there are no answers and mostly, to survive.” At first glance her art appears to be forceful and violent, however upon further inspection it is very deliberate, subtle and even painterly.

The most striking work in this exhibition is Zakopane, 1987, a massive wall installation that stands more than 11 feet tall and 22 feet wide.  This imposing wall of painted cedar contains 22 fused vertical units resembling a charred ruin from perhaps a large barn or ancient church.  Along its dark top are bulky wooden beams that jut out into space and at its base is a row of hollow timbered containers akin to farm watering troughs.  It is a daunting sculpture just by its size and weight yet the work’s graded tonal surface and altar-like imposing presence invites close scrutiny.  Rydingsvard often uses Polish words or names of places for titles but opts not to give any translation.  Zakopane is a town in the far south of Poland, at the foot of the Tatra Mountains and is her mother’s hometown. In 1940, representatives of the Soviet NKVD and the Nazi Gestapo met there for one week in to coordinate the pacification of resistance in Poland and throughout World War II this quiet town served as an underground staging point between Poland and Hungary.

Another memorable work is the wall installation “little nothings,” 2000-2015 that reads like a curio cabinet.  Shown are small diverse objects including cedar objects, ink drawings, wire, photographs, shells, rope, animal intestines, tools, and threads.  It is a very personal piece evinced by a photograph of her granddaughter, a lock of her brother Stas’s hair when he was 3 and her father’s winter hat. The artist invites us to examine these seldom seen artifacts that adorn her Brooklyn studio.  Both the scale and range of the unlike pieces generates a definite contrast to her massive wooden forms.

A more recent work titled “Book with no words II”, 2017 is a departure from her massive cedar sculptures.  This colossal, ancient looking tome evokes Anselm Kiefer’s dark lead volumes however unlike his that function as a metaphor for human tragedy von Rydingsvard’s uplifting book is soft in tone with beautifully crafted thin, pliable cascading cedar pages. This construction made from cedar, linen, and leather is devoid of language or narrative; it affords one’s imagination to take flight.  As with much of von Rydingsvard’s art it is to open any and every interpretation.

A distinctive form throughout her oeuvre is the bowl, a shape she admires because of its simplicity and variety.  An exquisite example is the intriguing sculpture Ocean Floor, 1996, made from cedar, graphite and cow intestines.  This shallow basin shape was originally created as a “sound piece” for New York’s Exit Art Space.  It evokes a somewhat prehistoric sensibility with its circular, dark gray outer ring made from cow intestines, stitched by the artist and stuffed with peat moss.  Characteristic of her other enormous cedar pieces, it teems with aggressive rough cuts, uneven edges, multiple edges and textural surfaces.  Peering into this ocean-like cauldron calls to mind archetypical forms one might recollect from complex dreams. Carl Jung would appreciate this enigmatic work!

The new work, PODERWAĆ, [meaning to lift violently or rouse] resembles a gigantic motorcyclist’s leather jacket that gives the impression of a hefty Claus Oldenburg soft sculpture. It was made during her 2017 residency at the Fabric Workshop from 90 deconstructed leather jackets and other materials found in thrift shops.  It weighs an estimated 400 and 450 pounds and it took Rydingsvard some 900 hours to construct.  Although it clearly demonstrates her willingness to experiment, this Pop art cartoon-like form is indistinct and strangely out of place within the context of her more serious wood sculptures which acutely demonstrate the\ process of making, the tactility of cut coarse wood and the fragrant aroma of cedar.

The most off-putting element of this exhibition is its presentation.  Why did the curator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts paint several gallery walls in black?  Coupled with the dark charcoal floor, the space felt like a tomb and the gloomy galleries distracted Rydingsvard ‘s exquisite work.  On the other hand, Ursula von Rydingsvard’s wall text placed at the entrance to the exhibition provides noteworthy insights into her art and mind.  I conclude with her direct unguarded passage.

“Mostly, to survive.

To ease my high anxiety, to numb myself with the labor and the focus of building my work.

Because I invariably, especially with my monstrous pieces, run into intense anxiety moments from which I have to unravel myself.

Because there’s a pleasure in it.

Because there’s pain in it.

Because I endure a hefty load of self-doubt.

Because I have confidence in the possibility of seeing this work through.

Because I see life as being full of abominations.

Because life is full of marvels close to miracles.

Because I still don’t get who I am.

Because I will never get who I am….” 

Ursula von Rydingsvard: The Contour of Feeling
National Museum of Women in the Arts
March 22–July 28, 2019

Artes Magazine, May 1, 2019