Ursula von Rydingsvard, Untitled (Seven Mountains)

Ursula von Rydingsvard, Untitled (Seven Mountains), 1986-1988. Cedar and graphite powder, 62 × 201 × 42 inches. Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art Purchase, Lila Acheson Wallace Gift, 1988 (1988.257a-u). Photo by Ben Aqua.

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Valerie Fletcher: Ursula von Rydingsvard works almost exclusively in wood. She carves with traditional simple hand tools, chisels and so forth. She began sculpting in 1973 where she studied art at Columbia University. Her arrival in New York was fortuitous at a time when sculpture was possibly the most active of all the media or art forms. She was impressed by the works of the minimalists who were advocating using simple, basic forms usually in repetition or sequence.

And in her sculpture here, Untitled, from 1986 to 88, made of red cedar wood, you can see it consists of seven forms aligned in a straight row. However, unlike other sculptors working in wood, like Raoul Hague and Hans Hokanson, von Rydingsvard does not espouse the ideas of direct carving; that is, she does not seek out a massive piece of wood and then carve it to reveal its intrinsic grain and natural forms of growth. Rather, she works with basic 4 × 4 pieces, the kind that you get from lumberyards except she uses very fine quality cedar. She then builds them, she layers them in rows, joins them together with glue and dowels. Only then when she has these large constructions of wood does she then start to carve them. And she then carves them into forms that are organic that suggest they are craggy forms of rock. So she’s not at all espousing the intrinsic qualities of the wood, but using it to create an expressive form that emerges purely from her hands and her mind.

She then scours the surface, sometimes using a Brillo pad with powdered graphite so that she imbues the red cedar wood with a kind of dark gray patina. This work, although untitled, has a subtitle, Seven Mountains, and that’s because these seven forms do suggest perhaps a row of seven mountain peaks. The way they’re carved with the rugged forms may suggest the erosion of the centuries. When this piece is compared, for example, with the works of Hans Hokanson, you can see that he was looking for nature; she was creating abstraction that is only indirectly evocative of nature.

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Ursula von Rydingsvard, Untitled (Seven Mountains), 1986-1988.

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.

Ursula von Rydingsvard, Untitles (Seven Mountains), 1986-1988. Photo by Ben Aqua.
Ursula von Rydingsvard, Untitles (Seven Mountains), 1986-1988. Photo by Paul Bardagjy.

Location: Ernest Cockrell Jr. Hall

GPS: 30.288871, -97.735579