German-born American sculptor, Ursula von Rydingsvard, is known for her large-scale, monumental, abstract wood sculptures whose shapes refer obliquely to objects in the real world. She sculpts massive chunks from cedar beams to create dramatic compositions with textured, faceted surfaces. Her ragged configurations loosely suggest fossils, rocky canyons, open-mouthed beasts, body parts, cresting waves, or mythological creatures.
Von Rydingsvard spent the first five years of her life in a forced labor camp in Germany where her father was conscripted to work for the Nazis during World War II. After the war, the large family lived in eight different displaced persons camps throughout Germany before they were able to immigrate in 1950 to a working-class town in Connecticut. She graduated from the University of Miami and became a teacher to support her husband attending medical school. After their divorce in 1973, she moved to New York City as a single mother with a daughter to support.
The 1970s New York art scene was a fertile place for her, and she began an M.F.A. in sculpture at Columbia University. There she initially worked with welded steel but found the metal too rigid. She didn’t like the coldness of Minimalism associated with metals nor their smooth finishes. So she turned to wood and wood’s textured surfaces near the end of her studies in 1975. She mostly uses cedar, a wood that is pliable and allows for varied compositions. She uses precut industrially milled cedar four-by-fours, that are associated with construction work. She stacks them up and saws into them leaving each beam gashed, scarred, and scrubbed with powdered graphite. Her sinuous shapes are on a massive, primal scale, achieved through her labor-intensive work helped by her team of assistants.
Her first mature work was her 1979 “Song of a Saint (Eulalia)” now dismantled. It consisted of 180 cedar poles scattered over a hillside at Artwork in Lewiston, New York. This was the first of several pieces where she was able to work outdoors on an ambitious scale. “I love working with the land, making relationships between my piece . . . and the curves of the earth.”
While Rydingsvard rejected Minimalism, she did adopt one aspect of it: serial repetition as seen in her 1987 breakthrough work “Zakopane.” She considers this among her most significant sculptures because it alludes to her personal history since its title refers to the town in Poland where her mother lived. Her 1996 “Ocean Floor” is a mixed-media work ornamented with protuberances made from stitched cow intestines. Her 2008 horror piece “Droga” looks as if it might crawl across the floor – head down and gaping mouth open – ready to devour anyone. One of her latest and most unusual works is the 2017 “PODERWAC,” made in collaboration with a team of technicians. It is a gigantic leather motorcycle jacket, stitched from the dissembled pieces of nearly two hundred garments from thrift stores. It was shown at the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia.
Rydingsvard’s work has been shown in many group exhibitions: the Venice Biennale; New York’s Museum of Arts and Design; New York’s Storm King Arts Center; and galleries in Great Britain, California, New Jersey, and other states. Recent solo exhibitions include the 2019 “The Contour of Feeling,” exhibited at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington D.C. and in 2018 at the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia; Art Institute of Chicago; Princeton University Art Museum; New York’s Sculpture Center; Portland Art Museum; United Kingdom’s Yorkshire Sculpture Park, and others.
Her awards are numerous. Some of these include the Lifetime Achievement Award for Excellence in the Arts in 2019; Skowhegan Medal for Sculpture; Artist in Residence, American Academy in Rome; Joan Mitchell Award; Guggenheim Fellowship; Grants from the National Endowment for the Arts; and Fulbright-Hays Travel Grant, to name a few.
Her work is in the permanent collections of more than four dozen museums and pubic collections worldwide. Some of these are the Brooklyn Museum, Warsaw’s Centre for Contemporary Art, Cincinnati Art Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Miami’s Museum of Contemporary Art, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, National Gallery of Art, Portland Art Museum, San Diego Museum of Art, Minneapolis’s Walker Art Center, Whitney Museum of American Art, and others.
A 57-minute documentary on her life, “Ursula von Rydingsvard: Into Her Own,” began streaming on Friday, June 5, 2020 through bampfa.org, roxie.com, cafilm.org and the Laemmle virtual cinema.