American, born in Germany, 1942
The daughter of a Ukrainian peasant woodcutter who fled to Germany in 1938, Ursula von Rydingsvard spent the first eight years of her life in a succession of refugee camps until 1950 when her family settled in Plainville, Connecticut. Determined to pursue a career as an artist, she studied painting at the University of Miami and the University of California, Berkeley, and received her MFA at Columbia University in 1975.
When she arrived in New York in 1973, Minimalism was at its height. Like the Minimalists, von Rydingsvard also utilizes prefabricated materials, specifically commercially available 4x4 cedar beams. In contrast to the Minimalists, however, she works against the mass-produced quality of the material. Sculpting in an intuitive and organic way, the artist reengineers the standardized material and returns it to a more natural state. Thus, she joined the new generation of sculptors loosely labeled “Postminimalist.”
Von Rydingsvard works primarily in cedar, using chain saws, circular saws, traditional hand chisels, and a mallet to sculpt her pieces. She uses ordinary four-by-four-inch beams, a common construction material. Working against the function and precision of the beams, she carves and chips the wood into organic forms with craggy surfaces, then rubs the surfaces of some works with powdered graphite. The dark gray graphite on reddish brown cedar produces a nuanced surface coloration that suggests the patina of time.
Von Rydingsvard’s penchant for carving in wood derives from her Polish-Ukrainian roots; her ancestors were peasant farmers whose survival depended on wood for tools and shelter. In her formative years, the material surrounded her in German refugee camps. “It’s somewhere in my blood. . . . Working with it and looking at it feels familiar.”
Untitled has the subtitle (Seven Mountains), perhaps an allusion to the fact that Von Rydingsvard was one of seven children. The layers of wood resemble the stone striations of geological formations, like those visible in desert canyons or archaeological excavations. With every cut and gouge made prominent, her sculptures are representations of the highly physical, expressive act of sculpting.
Location: Welch Hall (WEL)
GPS: 30.286628, -97.737789