Essay by Valerie Fletcher

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 the family came to the United States in 1950. The austerity of her early years, although not oppressive, would inform her art decades later.

Determined to become an artist, von Rydingsvard studied painting at the University of Miami and at the University of California, Berkeley. When she moved to New York in 1973, she turned to sculpture at a time when that medium was particularly prominent in the art world: the continued dominance of geometric abstraction in public places; the emergence of minimalism after the Primary Structures exhibition in 1966 (notably Sol LeWitt, Donald Judd, Tony Smith, and Robert Smithson); the antiformalist stance of conceptual art and process art; and the growing visibility of women sculptors (especially Louise Bourgeois, Eva Hesse, Louise Nevelson, and Beverly Pepper).

Although she admired the logic and clarity of minimalism, von Rydingsvard needed a more emotional and tactile connection to art. For example, although she was committed to abstraction, she was moved by the psychological power of Alberto Giacometti’s thin bronze figures with ravaged surfaces. Von Rydingsvard became one of the new generation of sculptors loosely labeled “postminimalist” because she conceived her compositions as a repetition or sequence of a simple basic form but then sculpted it in an intuitive way until it was transformed into an organic and expressive entity.

Untitled (Seven Mountains), 1986–88

From the outset, von Rydingsvard worked only in wood, using traditional hand chisels and mallet. However, unlike Raoul Hague, Hans Hokanson, and other direct carvers, she did not seek to reveal the intrinsic growth or grain of a wood element taken directly from nature. Rather, von Rydingsvard constructs her sculptures from ordinary four-by-four-inch beams (a standard size for building and therefore readily available from commercial suppliers).

The artist glues and dowels together layers of these beams into a massive three-dimensional grid of identically sized elements, somewhat comparable to the grid format favored by the minimalist sculptors Sol LeWitt and Donald Judd. Von Rydingsvard then chisels the wood into organic forms with undulating, craggy surfaces—a distinctly postminimalist result.

Von Rydingsvard prefers western red cedar, which is so durable that it can be displayed outdoors for extended periods. Outdoors, the raw cedar weathers naturally to an exquisite silvery gray patina. Since 1986, von Rydingsvard has rubbed the surfaces of indoor works with powdered graphite, then has scoured them with a steel pad to remove the excess powder and to push the pigment into the wood. The dark gray graphite on reddish brown cedar produces a lovely nuanced surface coloration akin to the patina of time.

Untitled has the subtitle Seven Mountains, which allows viewers an easier access to these formidable, tightly aligned masses. The layers of wood now resemble the stone striations of geological formations, like those visible in desert canyons or archaeological excavations. The craggy and offset elements evoke the erosion of eons, which strips forested mountains down to raw rock and ancient buildings to crumbled heaps. The artist greatly admires the pyramidal/ziggurat remains of the Maya temples in the Yucatan area of Mexico. Prior to 1986, von Rydingsvard rarely titled her sculptures; but since then she has preferred evocative, if sometimes baffling, names (for example, Grzebyk, Ignatz Comes Home, Zakopane, Oj Dana Oj Dana, and Dreadfully Sorry).

Valerie Fletcher is Senior Curator at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC. Her research on groundbreaking aspects of international, globalized, and transnational art have resulted in numerous exhibitions and publications.