“I don’t think I have a lot of philosophy in my work,” says Ursula von Rydingsvard. At 76, riding high as one of the most celebrated sculptors at work today, she speaks quietly and deliberately. She bears comparison to her most famous works — both elegant and strong, warmly accessible yet unabashedly direct.
“But there are beliefs,” she says. “Philosophy just sounds high end. I sort of think of myself as not being so fancy. I like the word humble.”
After growing up the daughter of a factory worker in Connecticut, she spent an unhappy time in the Bay Area in the late 1960s. She left a failed marriage and went to New York to pursue a graduate degree in sculpture at Columbia University where, she says, the faculty consisted of bitter men who “were so angry, because they didn’t have the notoriety that they wanted.”With works in the collection of virtually every major American museum — her 2006 piece “Czara z Bąbelkami” is prominent in the fifth-floor sculpture plaza at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art — her simple roots might not be readily apparent. Born of a Polish mother and Ukrainian father in Germany during World War II, she and her family were shunted from refugee camp to camp in Poland after the war, before they were finally allowed to come to the U.S.
“But I’m just so happy I came to New York City. It was my awakening,” she says. She lives there still with her second husband, the Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist Paul Greengard.
Von Rydingsvard is seated in a small conference room at Denning House, a lovely wooden ark of a new building set among hillside oak and olive trees on the campus of Stanford University. Her latest commission, an unsteady 17-foot-tall pillar of bronze, marks the building entrance. It was unveiled Oct. 11.
The artist is known for works cut and assembled from cedar timbers, though for outdoor settings she often chooses to make bronze casts from the wooden forms. The difference, she says, is a life expectancy of “2,000 years, as opposed to maybe 50.”
Denning House, as it happens, is clad in fresh-cut cedar, powerfully aromatic in the morning sun. The sculpture’s red-gold patina harmonizes with the color of the wood, even as the metal is a hardness that shoulders into its softer host.
Cedar, as pleasantly astringent as it may smell to some, contains oils that can be toxic. Stacks and stacks of it, in 4×4-inch beams that the artist has forced to submit to her will over some four decades, have made her sick. “I wish I didn’t have to use the wood for the bronze, but apparently I do. I’ve tried to figure out a way. It’s just that I can’t get the sculpture that I want from the bronze with clay or with other materials. I’ve wanted to quit cedar for the last 20 years, since I’m wearing this ‘zoot suit’ that’s like something they go off to space with. It just takes in filtered air from the back, and it weighs like nine pounds, so I have to lug this thing around.”
The new work is titled “Mocna.” The word means “strong” in von Rydingsvard’s native Polish. “But it’s ‘strong,’” she says, “with feminine ending. ‘Mocna’ is a woman, ‘mocne’ is a man.”
The sculpture is capped by a lacy crown of sorts. “That happened in the last, maybe, five years or so, and it took me a long time to come to it,” she says. “As you probably saw in this piece, those patterns are not loosey-goosey patterns. Each one belongs to the next, belongs to the next, and so on, and then belongs to whatever it is — the wave or the protrusion that comes out. And she probably has a couple of thousand of the openings in herself. She is a she.”
Von Rydingsvard’s hands are soft, not all scarred and calloused. She has been asked about them before, and has a ready answer. “What I do is I draw on the wood, for my cutters to cut exactly what I draw. I have, like, 30 pencils in my back pocket. And then draw on all four sides, and they’re not ever straight lines — they’re very organic lines that meet. If I draw this here, that here, this last one meets with the first one that I started.”
So, she is her own CNC router — she’s the computer and the assistant is the cutter, is that it?
“Nooo!” she says, looking a bit shocked. “The only thing we do with a computer is our engineering. Any surface that I try to do with a computer, it just looks like a computer did it.”
Asked about the challenges that she must have faced being a woman in a “man’s world” of sculpture, she says, “I feel like I have such a strong will to do what I need to do, that I don’t even try to assess who’s doing it, what the styles are. Because there is a need, and this need brings me through a lot of trials, but also a lot of wonderful explorations, a lot of evolution. I don’t think about politics. I don’t think about men or women, or the difference.”
Have men stood in her way as she tried to move forward?
“I’m sure that might have been the case, or must have been the case. I just didn’t really notice.”
There are two kinds of success. One is that you feel internally that you’re being successful at what you’re trying to achieve. And the other is when the rest of the world recognizes your genius. Has she achieved that recognition?
“I’m just on the cover of Art in America,” she says proudly, “and you go to work the next day. Like, I leave my home at 7 a.m. And you don’t think about it. I think if the world anoints you as being successful, I don’t really believe it.
“That’s kind of stupid, and I know it. I keep thinking that the more I flagellate myself, the more I’m going to come up with the better thing. The more I’m going to get that which I’m going after, which isn’t even that clear in my head.”
She speaks about her early upbringing in the camps for war-displaced persons, and her immigrant parents. “My parents never understood what I was doing. My mother would say, if somebody asked her about my art (here, von Rydingsvard speaks in Polish, then translates), ‘She’s like the chicken that forever goes into the mud and looks for a seed.’
“When I stopped being an art teacher, I fell on a lower level, I was a blue-collar worker to my father. Because there was nothing for him to respect,” she says. “We had Christmases where we gave one another oplatek. Oplatek is the holy wafer — we would get these wafers from Poland. They were part of our family, so it was meaningful. So, all of us got a piece of the wafer, and then we gave it to one another. And my father gave it to me, and he said (she speaks Polish again, then English), ‘May you suffer.’”
Asked about a memory she recalled in another interview, about being in a bombardment during the war, when her father protected her with wooden boards, she says, “We had six kids at the time, and he dug a trench. And he lined us up in this trench and then put boards over us, which of course wouldn’t help at all. But he tried.”
She remembers wood stacked high for fuel in the refugee camps, and the place of wood in her father’s struggle with Alzheimer’s. “To almost the day that he died he had an axe,” she recalls, “and he had wood that he would cut. And he still did that, no matter how much the disease started taking over. He was cutting it with an axe in order to cut the circular wood out and put it into the furnace.”
And those remembrances of wood — bound, as they are, to her childhood and her father — she’s talked about them enough that, clearly, they’re a big part of her emotional memory. “That’s true,” she says.
And is that what the work is partly about?
“I don’t know,” she says, her voice lowering. “I think the work is partly — I don’t even want to say this — about how much I hate him, and the damage that he has done to everyone in our family. Real damage. This is a part of the strength of my will, in terms of doing that work.”
So, as much as people find these works beautiful or attractive or compelling to look at, there’s a fair amount of anger in them.
“Yes, there is,” she says. “And there is nothing like putting a circular saw in your hand when you’re angry. It is such a healer — it so does the trick.”
The idea of the anger that is embodied in some of these sculptures — does she think people get that from the sculpture when they see it?
“I hope not,” she says. “Or I hope yes. In other words, I think these pieces are not so tame, really.” As she speaks, she is pressing with her hands against her own chest and stomach. Many of her forms are torso-like. The one that’s out in front is a whirlwind, it’s a tornado. But it’s also a human, almost dancing form, a figure pushing against the wind.
She tentatively agrees, ever polite, but she makes clear that she does not want people to dwell on such allusions. “I don’t want them to get any of the specifics,” she says.
“How I believe that one should look at art is to have a kind of trust in that work, and submit yourself to it. And if it works, you’ll know it, and if it doesn’t, that’s fine, too.”
San Francisco Chronicle Datebook, October 24, 2018