Ursula von Rydingsvard at YSP

Born in Germany in 1942, to a Ukrainian father and Polish mother, Ursula moved to America with her family in 1950. She received her MFA from Columbia University in 1975, and her work features in numerous permanent collections such as The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Guggenheim Fellowship numbers among the many awards Ursula has won and there have been several publications on her work including two monographs in 1996 and 2011. Major outdoor commissions include Storm King Art Center, Barclays Center, Princeton University, Microsoft Corporation, and a solo outdoor exhibition in Madison Square Park in 2006.

Yorkshire Sculpture Park with its sweeping views and international sculpture collection is currently hosting its first major Ursula von Rydingsvard exhibition. The acclaimed artist explained to PMSA that she immediately felt at home here, inspired by the sense of history and the generous nature of the Yorkshire landscape. Siting her works at YSP has been an enriching experience for Ursula, whose work is grounded in a strong emotional and visceral response to nature, evinced in both her gallery-based and site specific work. Amidst the bucolic idyll of YSP, elemental forces of nature are unleashed in works such as Bronze Bowl with Lace, (2014) which swirls precipitously by the drive and Pierwsza (2013-14) which looms over the viewer with its ominous vortex. By the park’s ancient gnarled oaks, her surfaces oscillate restlessly – familiar yet mysterious, akin to their natural surroundings yet distinctly not part of them, Ursula’s work challenges the viewer to question its exact relationship to nature. Outdoor works are set at key positions throughout the park, creating dramatic vistas and dominating their surroundings with a brooding, intriguing intensity. Although often large scale and powerful, the works are always a ‘giving’ rather than an alienating presence, their scale still inviting touch and intimacy and even refuge, which Ursula described as a sense of ‘humanity’. The Underground Gallery is eloquently hung with a wide variety of wall and floor based works, which demonstrate Ursula’s breadth of materials and confident command of texture, which encompasses both sculpture and drawings.

Ursula’s starting point is the raw material of wood, and she favours cedar because it is a soft wood that cuts easily and is durable and weatherproof. Her relationship to both nature and her chosen material of wood is complex and works on many levels. The idea of ‘the land’ is a deep rooted connection, as her father and mother were farmers, who came from a long line of Polish peasant farmers and Ursula has a deeply cherished respect for nature. Although the sculptor feels, ‘shy around nature’, she has an innate sensitivity to the potential the wood suggests to her, and reveals, ‘I like the wood that I use and abuse to do things that it never thought it could or wanted to’. Ursula explains how the wood has gone through a rigorous process of drying out in kilns to extract the moisture, so that the glue adheres better, and is then planed into four by fours. These have an exact measure, so fit perfectly together forming a grid. Ursula takes a playful yet combative stance to this grid, relating how she likes to, ‘show the grid I am in control, the visual control…and make it into something that really gyrates’. In her practice, Ursula also explores other materials such as lead and felt, stone, plaster and whitewash, but admits, ‘ In the end 98% of work is cedar – I can’t get rid of it!’.

One of the most enigmatic and haunting works at YSP is Elegantka II (2013), where Ursula engages with the ‘translucent quality’ of the man-made material resin, ‘and what the light does to it….it is very flirtatious, there is a magic there, and the idea of a colour that is almost no colour’. The sculptor points to the important bond between the piece and its full scale cedar model which was constructed for the foundry to cast. Ursula is fascinated by the innate dichotomy of the mould’s uninviting, ‘dark cave’ and the shimmering surface of the resin with its, ‘welcoming quality of light’. She indicates the subtle echoes of the mould on the resin’s skin, which are almost like, ‘scales, …. a recording of what the cedar did, which is so particular’.

Ursula’s process of working has developed organically over the years, but she relishes in continually pushing the process to its extreme. She builds up the wood in strata-like layers,‘Sometimes the destruction of something can be creative.’ Indeed David Levi Strauss described the sculptor’s process as ‘adding up to a wearing down’. Surface and texture are important concerns for Ursula, where the human touch of the viewer becomes part of the life of the tactile work, ‘I just built a work for the Barclay Center which people touch all the time. There is something special about that sand cast surface. One can draw one’s arm along silky surfaces that feel good and there are certain places that are nicer to touch than others. That quality is also in my Bronze Bowl with Lace (2014), it is like people rubbing the belly of a bronze Buddha and it reveals a gorgeous other patina that’s been made by people’s hands, as it takes the original patina off and excavates the actual bronze, coming closer to the body of the piece’.

Another important concern for Ursula is the human body. Expanding on ideas about the body’s ‘construction’ in works such as Right Arm Bowl (2009) she tells us how, ‘It is not only what’s underneath, the sense of life, but the links and the way the appendages join the body, the way certain parts like the hip come out’. The sculptor spends dedicated time studying and drawing the body, and thinking about the way people look at themselves. However, despite anthropomorphic undercurrents in some pieces, here Ursula’s attitude to the role of metaphor within her work emerges, as she strongly resists the obvious, ‘it is more of a subtle suggestion, as I would like the metaphors to spread wide on the horizon. I don’t want to point to a single thing’. Hence some pieces such as Droga (2008, Main image) seem to be in a state of flux and transition with no definite meaning, as if the tension of the metaphor yields many associations, but the form itself remains defiantly abstract. Asking if this is reflected in her often elusive and ambiguous titles, Ursula reiterates, ‘I really don’t want anything to be given away, so I often make my titles general descriptions’, and giving an insight into her affinity with her work, the sculptor reveals, ‘Sometimes they are on target with a feeling I have in connection with that piece, it might be personal, and they fit more closely, but never in a way that explains the piece.’ These ideas of transition and transformation also recall Bronze Bowl with Lace, (2014) where the work conveys a vacillating, agitated motion before finally metamorphosising into its filigree apex.

Indeed, when a piece comes back from a gallery, Ursula often takes it apart. As the forms and meanings are not fixed, the works are resonant with latent possibilities for her: perhaps also a slight self-critique, as if she may not be satisfied with that particular resolution, and there is an opportunity for further exploration. The process of dissembling a work is precarious yet vital and exciting, ‘as you are taking the piece apart’, Ursula says, ‘it is literally falling on you, so you can’t assess it’. However, although there is an element of risk and chance, she relates that ‘Before I start taking them apart, I have to have in my head the possibility that a decision might work out’.

When creating a work, Ursula’s starting point is always the image itself. With this springboard, she then delights in the intuitive decisions that the actual process of making challenges her with. Thus it is a compelling and unpredictable journey from her original conception of the work, and her instinctive responses to this process, ` it is easy to have an image in your head,’ Ursula notes, ‘but the difficult thing is to realise it, often it can’t be, and you have to change it constantly’. As the work evolves, these responses invigorate the sculptor. ‘There is so much anxiety and then surprise as to what has happened to it….a detour…and things you didn’t expect have a quality of groping and not being certain’. Importantly, this becomes a catalyst for the innate dynamism of the piece, ‘the more certain you are, the more pat and figured out it looks, and the more boring. The life that it has….of not being figured out, is an important part of the energy of that piece, to that piece being alive’. Significantly one of Ursula’s favourite artists is Joseph Beuys, of whom she says, ‘he is not one of those artists who is certain of their direction’.

Ursula’s Polish background has played an essential part in shaping her vision. She readily acknowledges the importance of objects such as tools in works like Paul’s Shovel (1987), and texture and materials such as wood, felt and lace are intrinsically linked and interwoven with memories of her past; wood for example is associated with the refugee barracks where she grew up. Although the powerful simplicity of her works are often imbued with an abstract suggestion of emotion, this is always subtle and intangible, chiming with her own description of the Early Renaissance painter, Giotto’s work as embodying, ‘the containment of emotion and the economy of emotion’. Thus, Ursula’s work itself refutes any notion of ‘blatant pain….and pathos’, because although her past is bound up with her work, she insists, ‘I don’t like the idea of people pointing to my early childhood in the post World War Two refugee camps as being the key to understanding my work, as if when you know that, it is the answer. I don’t want that definite answer, as a lot of things feed into what I do’. Again this reflects one of the central discourses that permeate Ursula’s work, where metaphor and suggestion are at play – but with a reluctance to define and reveal. The sculptor’s natural connection with materials, texture and objects have led her to prowl local flea markets, ‘it’s the visual that communicates to me, and the texture’ she enthuses,’…it’s so appealing. It is almost like a sexual urge, I want it near me. I like this object and the signals are not subtle, it speaks to me and it’s instinctive. I have a huge collection of tools, old shovels, hammers…’.

Another integral factor relating to Ursula’s past that has a fundamental role in anchoring her work, is the idea of ‘work’ and the dignity of ’labour’. This concept fuses the generations in her family as it formed the foundation of her father’s principles, and Ursula relates how, ‘It was the definition of his life…as a child you were loved for the labour that you did’. Ursula’s appreciation of her assistants becomes an extension of this idea, ‘when I see the work my assistants have done, I feel so close to them, it is because what they are working on is so important to me. I consider them my other family’.

Some pieces in the exhibition stand out as important, such as Droga(2009, Main image), Blackened Word(2008) and wall pieces such as Norduna (2011). The juxtaposition of wall and floor pieces demonstrates Ursula’s mastery of both three dimensional, elastic space, and the static wall. Indeed the wall as a vertical domain reveals a different engagement, evincing a more unstable arena, where the gestural Norduna (2011) alternately crawls, oozes and clings to its barren surface. Blackened Word (2008) is based on the handwriting of a Polish woman who had a particular significance for Ursula. The meaning of the words is inconsequential, instead the sculptor is inspired by their physicality, which she seeks to translate, ‘I amplify their size many times, and where the Ls in the back read out, they make a huge indenture…the writing is very concrete and wandering…it is the shape of the writing that I need’. Ursula herself was very involved in the installation of the exhibition, and as her work has its own language, the interactions and dialogue between the works were a matter of discussion and scrutiny, ‘there is a link where the eye and the mind go to, and this can be broken easily…we re-hung the two shovels better to get just the right height, so now the shorter one is closer to Blackened Word, and other one goes up towards the crevice in the wall. It is delicate balance, as it has to work in relationship to everything in the room’.

In another room, drawings such as Untitled (8), (2013, fig,7) are displayed with Split Lip V (2011), and the affinity between the sculptures and drawings illicit a revealing conversation, for as Ursula described her drawings, ‘They all look like some sort of an object. I don’t plan it, but they look like a three dimensional thing, and not just a flat design. They are all different, but are all things’.

The exhibition at YSP is a triumph of Ursula’s vision and extraordinary technical facility, where she continues to draw the viewer into her world of familiar, yet mysterious sculptures. It is an intriguing world which both resonates with us and invites our touch.

‘I want to talk a little about the challenges of the Bronze Bowl with Lace. Though I have never worn lace nor do I intend to I have for decades looked for ladies selling lace (I used to call them my lace ladies). I didn’t find very many, as with many other things, the best of the lace is gone. I found the best examples, though very tattered, in Beijing, of collars that had very complex embroidery done with silk threads and gently intense colors. I have one crocheted piece in our upstate home that feels three-dimensional enough with hanging organic forms that I know Eva Hesse would have loved. These oval forms need no firming up; they keep their three-dimensionality with no effort. At times, they overlap one another.

I looked on the Internet to find the oldest lace that exists. Much to my surprise, I came up with a robe which they claim belonged to St. Francis, my favorite saint. In looking at that garment, I had a hard time finding just where the lace was, and what it looked like was a kind of decorative sewing with a needle and a thread on top of an unbleached linen garment. The most impressive thing being the awkward positioning of the body and the arms of that dress, having been worn so often so long ago.

I continue to look for more clues to an old piece of lace that you could see through, perhaps lace that told stories. I recall Rainer Maria Rilke, in his autobiographical book, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, in which he writes about his mother opening up one of her many shallow drawers layered with lace. She would take a sample rolled up on a small wooden spindle, slowly unroll the lace to reveal stories being told through the crocheting needle. There were small figures crocheted into environments of nature that were not so specific as to bar projections of a variety of metaphors. He wrote as though he loved those moments. I doubt this really happened in his life as he hated his mother, who made the biggest struggle in her life impressing others with a degree of wealth and stature that she did not have.

Getting more to the point, we worked for weeks on trying to figure out just how it was possible to make the lace I needed to make for the top of the bowl. This lace needed to have a very real relationship to what the rest of the bowl was doing; it needed to have organic openings as is the case with the linear crocheted forms that look like they belong together in ways that are soft and friendly within the community of these crocheted loops. It also needed to have a credible transition between the solidity between the walls of the bowl working its way to structures with openings that got bigger and bigger as they went to the top of the four-foot band of lace. I tried samples of cut cedar areas, putting black rubber flat sheets on top that had a cut-out pattern of the lace that I chose from the Internet and generalized.

As is the case with my work so much of the time, I didn’t get anywhere with figuring out how the lace should be until I built the entire bowl. When I finished the highest four feet high on the bowl, determining just how I wanted this lace to move, it became clear that lost wax process moulds would have to be made in sections all around the top of the bowl where the lace was to be. The lace pattern that I drew and amplified in size was then drawn onto the plastic four-foot-tall sheet and transferred onto the very three-dimensional lost wax moulds. This was not an easy task as the plastic needed to be tucked into all of the crevices that gyrated themselves in many directions – horizontal, vertical, and diagonal. These drawings were then cut out by a tool that rotated at a phenomenally-fast rate. I have not yet seen the outcome on the bowl though I’ve seen one bronze sample. I can only hope that this works as it is one of the most difficult processes that I have gone through.’

Ursula von Rydingsvard, Yorkshire Sculpture Park, West Bretton, Wakefield WF4 4LG 5 April 2014 – 4 January 2014

Main image: Ursula von Rydinsgvard, Droga, 2008, cedar and graphite (photo: Jonty Wilde, courtesy of the artist, Galerie Lelong and YSP)

Aurora Corio