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Ursula Von Rydingsvard. Photo: Deanna Sirlin

A Visit with Ursula Von Rydingsvard 


By Deanna Sirlin

There are some works of art that, when you first encounter them, fill you with the kind of emotion that can knock you over. When I first saw ancient Greek Kore and Kouros figures standing upright with such power and presence, a surge filled my body in an intensely physical reaction. When I first climbed the stairs at the Louvre and saw the Winged Victory of Samothrace, I experienced an equally strong emotional charge. The first time I saw Ursula von Rydingsvard’s sculptures, I felt the same way: I felt the work in my body before I really saw it with my eyes.

I first saw von Rydingsvard’s work when I was living in Queens, NY in the late ‘70s, and an artist friend told me about an artist whose work they thought I might be interested in. I am sorry to say I do not remember whose suggestion this was, but I followed it and went to see von Rydingsvard’s exhibition at 55 Mercer, a cooperative gallery in New York’s Soho.

At the time, of course, there was no Googling to see if I was really interested this artist’s work, so I went to the exhibition with no advance knowledge. I remember walking upstairs to the gallery, which was kind of dark. When I reached the top of the stairs and saw von Ridingsvard’s work, I felt immediately as though the air had been sucked out of my lungs, so primal was the work’s impact. This artist used wood in a way I had not seen before. To this point, all of the contemporary sculpture I had seen was made of metal, stainless steel, plastics, Lucite, bronze, stone, or marble. Whereas these are cold mediums I felt that in von Rydingsvard’s work the material and the artist were locked in a warm and loving dance; the sculptor’s sympathetic relationship to her medium was palpable. Needless to say, there are many other sculptors whose work reflects harmony with their mediums, but there was something different here, something more. There was an immediacy whose parallel in painting is alla prima or direct painting. When I recently met Ursula, she did not recognize the term but confirmed that she works directly in wood with no models, drawings, or studies: just planks of cedar, the graphite of her pencil and the power-tools she uses to carve the wood.

Ursula Von Rydingsvard, Five Lace Medallions, 2001-7. Courtesy of the Artist. Photo: Deanna Sirlin

Needless to say, when I received an emailed press release from the Sculpture Center in Long Island City, NY, which is just across the bridge from Manhattan, announcing von Rydingsvard’s recent show there, I decided to make a pilgrimage. I called Ursula; she was delighted to meet with me. We made plans to meet first at the gallery and then travel to her studio in Brooklyn.

Right before setting out on this journey I went over to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta to see the Vogel collection, a series of works, most on paper, from the 70’s, including two lovely medium-sized drawings (always the most difficult size) by von Rydingsvard. The drawings are of light articulated with lines that get more or less dense as the light falls across the space. The High also owns a sculptural work of von Rydingsvard’s. Five-Fingered Comb, 1994, made of cedar and graphite, hangs on the wall. Purchased for the High Museum’s collection by Susan Krane, who was the curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the time, it is a wonderful relief sculpture of medium scale that elegantly evokes both a comb and fingers.

I made my way to the Sculpture Center, arriving before the artist to have some time alone with the work. I was immediately struck by the cast resin work in the courtyard that marked the entrance to the exhibition. Elegantka, 2011, has a translucent bluish hue, and at 98 inches, was just taller than us. A group of college students from Oregon was visiting the exhibition, and an older student boldly and loudly announced that she had no need for anything else they had seen in NYC: this show was it! Ursula arrived and quickly realized that I was the traveler meeting her. I told her about the students; they smiled rapturously as she spoke with them. And it was a show that demanded rapture. The works were placed with an eye to creating a dialogue with each other and the viewer. I stood close up and ran my eyes over the multitude of carved marks made with either a saw or a graphite pencil. As I moved back, I stayed in the works: their forms just opened up to me, revealing their scale and volume.

Ursula Von Rydingsvard, Five Lace Medallions (Detail), 2001-7. Courtesy of the Artist. Photo: Deanna Sirlin

The works speak to one another. Wall Pocket, 2004, made of cedar and graphite, is over 12 feet tall and stands upright in the gallery like an ancient tree trunk where all that is left is the crevassed base large enough for a person to stand inside. It is made of cedar planks that von Rydingsvard glued together, drew on, and then cut with a saw so the facets read as if Mother Nature had made them, though this Mother Nature has power tools! The process is complicated: the selection of the cedar trees, the cutting of the planks, the gluing of the layers, the drawing and notations on the wood, the artist’s reading of these notations like musical notes to be played with her tools. Krasavica II 1998-2001, six feet tall and twenty-two feet long, stands along the wall like a row of the proud, beautiful women to which the work’s title refers in Russian or Ukrainian. 

In the center of the space is Droga, another large work, from 2009. Fashioned from cedar and graphite, it lies in the center of the gallery like the fallen torso of a great tree or some large animal stretched out into the space. Droga means “dear one” for a female in Polish, and this is how Ursula means to title her sculpture. But “Droga” also means “drug” in many languages (including Czech, Italian, Polish, German, Spanish, and Swedish) and it also refers to intoxication or spice. Droga is an intoxicating work; the twists, turns, and mass of this great form made me want to lie beside it and absorb all I could from its presence. 

Ursula Von Rydingsvard, Wall Pocket, 2004
Collection: MOMA. Courtesy of the Artist

On the right side of the gallery when you enter are five massive wall pieces, Five Lace Medallions, 2001-2007,  each just under ten feet high and four feet wide, in cedar, graphite, and chalk, each a rectangle containing a strong horseshoe shape and a structure below it. Ursula shows them side-by-side, filling the gallery wall with a powerful structural presence.

Arriving at the studio, Ursula tells me what I as an artist do not want to hear, “this does not get any easier”! Her downstairs studio is massive, filled with works in all states of completion, many lovely even unfinished. Upstairs is a large drawing studio, a light and airy place populated with paper pieces being thought over and created. Ursula introduces her assistants; they understand so clearly who Ursula is as an artist that they can perform for her as parts of herself, like the Hindu goddess Kali’s multiple arms. 

Ursula Von Rydingsvard, Droga (Detail), 2009 Courtesy of the Artist. Photo: Deanna Sirlin

I comment on the beautiful light outside the studio, and she says proudly that this is a part of New York City where the buildings are low so you can see the sky. I see the weavings and pots she has collected over the years, but she does not speak of them; perhaps she knows that I can see the connection between them and her work, and that is enough. We talk of being an artist, how hard it is, yet how necessary it is to go on. Since meeting von Rydingsvard, I have been reflecting on this person who not only makes work of the highest caliber but also runs a studio with multiple assistants. Her assistants have all been with her for some time; they do not speak while they are working, but do a dance of movements and gestures they nevertheless understand. They eat together, they work together, they make art possible together. Only she makes the art, but her assistants help bring her ideas into being.

What are the qualities that make a person be able to do this thing, to make art? For Ursula, I think it is an intense kind of sympathy that you can hear in her voice, a unique voice that expresses great certainty but also great empathy for the world around her. I want to describe this rhythm but I am unsure how to explain the intonation, the sympathy  and empathy, in which you can hear the compassion that is, I think, where she finds the quiet place within from which to make her work.

Ursula was born in Germany, one of seven children, to a Polish family during World War II, a traumatic time. After the war ended in 1945 she and her family lived in post WWII refugee camps for displaced Polish people in Germany from the time she was three years old until she was eight.  Her family then moved to Plainville, Connecticut. You can tell Ursula has spoken of her background many times, and that it is not her favorite way of talking about what she does or how she came to be who she is. Her parents were hardworking, uneducated but not unintelligent immigrants whose primary goal was survival through hard work.  Ursula, too, works very hard to create her art. Although Ursula’s past does not provide a full explanation of how she has come to make this work, having had so little as a child, and having had to take inspiration from the barest of circumstances, helped her to develop both the strength and the empathy that she uses to create her art and that are reflected in it.

Ursula Von Rydingsvard in her Studio. Photo: Deanna Sirlin

Deanna Sirlin is the Editor-in-Chief of The Art Section. She is an artist and a writer.  

This essay is part of a project on living American women artists she is working on under the art writers' mentorship program of Creative Capital and the Andy Warhol Foundation.

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