Sculptor Ursula von Rydinsvard has many reasons for making art.
“Because there’s pleasure in it.”
“Because there’s pain in it.”
“Because I see life as being full of abominations.”
“Because life is full of marvels close to miracles.”
And, mostly, “to survive.”
Philadelphia’s Fabric Workshop and Museum is hosting a major exhibition, Ursula von Rydingsvard: The Contour of Feeling, through August 26, with 32 sculptures and 10 works on paper. The title comes from a line from Rainer Maria Rilke, von Rydingsvard’s favorite poet: “We don’t know the contour of feeling; we only know what molds it from without.”
Rilke’s words “emphasize that the starting point of a work of art is in an artist’s struggle to give outward form to an emotion,” says guest curator Mark Rosenthal. And von Rydingsvard’s work—she won the International Sculpture Center Lifetime Achievement Award in 2014—is laden with emotion.
For more than 30 years von Rydingsvard has kept a studio in Brooklyn where she incises her monumental cedar forms using a hand-wielded chainsaw. The building in Brooklyn’s Bushwick that is her studio today once served as a facility for making coffins. It had been run into the ground by the previous owner, an ambulance dispatcher. Von Rydingsvard says she was able to get it for “not a lot” but had to deal with the thousands of pigeons who made their home in the torn-open roof. “It was a tremendous amount of work.”
Not surprisingly, the space is redolent of cedar. Surrounded by other low brick and concrete industrial buildings painted with graffiti art, this one has leafy vines trailing up its facade. The 76-year-old runs up and down a flight of steel stairs, as well as climbing ladders to look inside the caverns of her sculpture. It’s a workout even for the much younger studio assistants. (And even with all those studio assistants she’s still very much hands on.)
When visiting von Rydingsvard’s studio in 2015, I was captivated by an entire wall comprised of smaller works—doodlings on paper, abstract forms of copper mesh, threads, beads, cut-out paper, lace, cast paper and photographs. On this wall she is working out ideas and establishing her own visual vocabulary. She calls them “little nothings.” This remarkable wall of “little nothings” has been re-created at FWM, getting its proper due.
Von Rydingsvard does not start with a scaled-down model. She starts by sketching the outline on the ground. Once that is cut, she draws the profile for the next layer, and so forth, building up layer by layer. It’s a process she’s developed over 35 years. She has an image in her head and is guided by instincts and dreams.
As the texturized vessels take form, von Rydingsvard is there with her pencil, making registration marks, continuing to build up from the ground. Each piece is screwed together as it rises, then unscrewed, reverse stacked, and glued—a numbering system helps to keep track of where everything goes—so the final sculpture has no screws.
A special work was created for the Fabric Workshop and Museum during von Rydingsvard’s residency. PODERWAĆ looks like an enormous leather jacket, sewn from more than 90 deconstructed jackets the artist had collected from used clothing stores and flea markets. Like her sculpture in public places it has been touched by many hands. The finished piece required 900 hours of sewing by FWM technicians, one of whom was “embedded” in von Rydingsvard’s studio.
“When I commented that there was something wonderfully tortured about this work, her response was ‘Good—that’s what I wanted,’” says FWM Executive Director Susan Lubowsky, in her preface to the exhibition catalog.
Von Rydingsvard wants people to touch her sculpture and interact with it, making their mark on the already distressed patina. She compares it to rubbing the Buddha’s belly. “That part shines from all the rubbing,” she says.
Adam Weinberg, director of the Whitney Museum of American Art, says her work is about that sense of touch.
Unlike most of von Rydingsvard’s work, which is exhibited outdoors (her work can be seen in sculpture gardens from the Museum of Modern Art and the Storm King Art Center, to Barclays Center in Brooklyn, the campus of M.I.T, New York’s Battery Park and many other museums and institutions), The Contour of Feeling focuses on “the interior Ursula… the half of her that is born in the sphere of feelings, poetry and personal touch,” says curator Rosenthal. Concurrently, an installation of two of the artist’s outdoor works is on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Anne d’Harnoncourt Sculpture Garden through April 2019.
With spiky boy-cut hair and often clad in signature black pants and turtleneck, even when the weather soars to the 90s, von Rydingsvard looks a bit like Laurie Anderson. Von Rydingsvard lives in Manhattan with her husband, neuroscientist and Nobel Prize winner Paul Greengard. She was born in Germany in 1942 to a Polish mother and a Ukrainian father, farmers who were forced to work as laborers under the Nazis during World War II. Between 1945 and 1950, Ursula and her family—she was one of seven children—cycled through eight displaced person work camps in Germany, living in raw wooden barracks. “Everything was made of wood,” she recalls. She could feel and smell the wood, and felt a safety from the outside world when she was cocooned in the wood.
When she was 9 years old her family emigrated to the U.S.
“One’s childhood affects one profoundly and it can never be erased, but I could not be specific as to how it manifests in my work,” she says, adding that in her family, using too many words made one suspect. “I drank from the world in visual means,” she says. Von Rydingsvard learned to ration smiles, and only laughed when “really appropriate… Working hard was the answer to life.”
Arriving in Plainville, Connecticut in 1950, she remembers being amazed at the way the earth looked from above. “There was black tar covering the earth, and homes on top of rectangles of measured plots. I had seen very little grass before. The three story brick buildings—we always had out houses and outdoor fires. I didn’t think ‘how lucky,’ I thought it was jarring.”
The only money the family came to this country with had been attached to the lining of their coats. When the story of an immigrant Polish family with seven children was featured in the local newspaper, their porch filled with boxes of donated clothing.
Von Rydingsvard’s father found work in a factory and her mother baked commercially. “The Polish National Alliance knew immigrants paid back so they loaned us money to buy a house. My father was terrified. He worked eight hours in a factory under the smelliest conditions, cutting metal, then cycled to another town to work another eight hours. On weekends he worked as a gardener.”
In her journals von Rydingsvard describes her father as filled with anger; “he would beat the hell out of us” thinking his cruelty would teach the children lessons; he called her “lazy, stupid and worthless,” making Ursula, in turn, an angry person.
“Somehow my intense hatred for him helped me figure myself out as something other than lazy, stupid and worthless.” She inherited his work ethic—her work is described as labor-intensive and technically demanding.
Von Rydingsvard majored in art education at the University of Miami, taught art in high school, and in 1968, married her high school sweetheart, taking his name and moving to California as he pursued a medical residency. But after their daughter was born, he suffered a psychotic breakdown and von Rydingsvard moved back east with her child.
“I came to New York City when I was 33 years old and I felt like this is where I was born,” she says. A single mother, she was “totally poverty stricken.” Collecting food stamps, she delivered meals to people in Times Square. Her first studio was on Spring Street, where her daughter, Ursie, in a room on the other side of a wall, slept to the sounds of chain saws and clanging.
While earning an MFA from Columbia University (1975), von Rydingsvard discovered working in cedar. She taught at five metropolitan colleges and at Yale before being able to work full time on her sculpture. It was while teaching at Yale that she met her husband, Paul; they married in 1989.
Getting to know other women who were artists helped her believe that making art really was something important—“it was an awakening.”
Today, she feels that her studio “is my sanctuary, the only real place where I can speak,” she says. “My assistants never respond to the work in terms of saying, ‘Oh, it’s good,’ or ‘It’s not so good.’ Never. We don’t do chitchat; most of us have masks on while we work, so the only reason we’re there is for the art. I never needed to tell them this, as they feel it from the moment they start working in my studio.”