Ursula von Rydingsvard: Connecting Form & Language

Ursula von Rydingsvard: The Contour of Feeling presents the artist’s monumental cedar wood sculptures alongside newer works for the first time. The poetic and expressive works, which also use leather, linen, and other organic materials, reveal the process by which von Rydingsvard gives outward visual form to her innermost ideas and emotions.

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There is a reason Ursula von Rydingsvard gravitated to sculpture more than any other means of expression. “I can dig into things that are tender, that are hard to look at, that are hard to communicate, more in my studio than I can with any other thing, like words,” the artist has said. Over the past 30 years, von Rydingsvard has developed her own powerful visual language to communicate that which is tender, hard, and so often uncommunicable. Her evocative cedar sculptures speak for themselves. But despite acknowledging the limitations of words, von Rydingsvard does love language—and her meditation on the joys and limits of words play out in her work in a number of ways.

Poetic Sensibilities

The subtitle of the exhibition, The Contour of Feeling, comes from the artist’s favorite poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, and his epic poem, The Duino Elegies. Poetry is, perhaps, the closest form in language—strange, specific, ethereal, and powerful—to what von Rydingsvard achieves in her artistic practice.

(Not) Lost in Translation

The titles of von Rydingsvard’s works are in the vernacular Polish spoken by peasants, and she leaves them untranslated to preserve their ambiguous, personal meanings. The artist has expressed regret over not learning the Polish language properly, but finds connection to her kin through this naming. “Polish titles enable me to have a kind of secretive communication with the Poles.”

Von Rydingsvard departs from her towering forms with the delicate sculpture Book with no words II (2017–18). The empty, oversized tome comprises thin cedar pages bound with leather and linen. Here the artist may be representing the limits of language and all that is unnamable, encouraging the viewer’s imagination to take flight.

Ursula von Rydingsvard, Book with no words II, 2017; Cedar, linen, and leather, 10 1/2 x 63 x 47 in.; © Ursula von Rydingsvard, Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co.; Photo by Carlos Avendaño

A Book with No Words

Von Rydingsvard departs from her towering forms with the delicate sculpture Book with no words II (2017–18). The empty, oversized tome comprises thin cedar pages bound with leather and linen. Here the artist may be representing the limits of language and all that is unnamable, encouraging the viewer’s imagination to take flight. When asked for explanations of her work, von Rydingsvard has said, “Let it float and tell you what the piece needs to tell you, not what the curators are saying and not what the teachers are saying.”

Words Sing, Words Fail

Von Rydingsvard is expressive, poetic, and specific with her words. She has described cedar as “fleshy,” “sexy,” “voluptuous,” and “hemorrhaging.” She refers to her sculptures in the feminine “she” or, occasionally, as “princess.” But as alive as her descriptions can be, the artist still comes back to the difficulty of language-based expression: “I have made so many bowls, but my bowl is never a bowl…Even when I say that word, it’s a huge lie.”

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes are from In Ursula’s Own Voice: An Interview with Mark Rosenthal in Ursula Von Rydingsvard: The Contour of Feeling (The Fabric Workshop and Museum and Hirmer Publishers, 2018).

—Alicia Gregory is the assistant editor at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Ursula von Rydingsvard: Monumental Public Art

Ursula von Rydingsvard: The Contour of Feeling presents the artist’s monumental cedar wood sculptures alongside newer works for the first time. The poetic and expressive works, which also use leather, linen, and other organic materials, reveal the process by which von Rydingsvard gives outward visual form to her innermost ideas and emotions.

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Ursula von Rydingsvard's SCIENTIA stands outside of a MIT building at twilight at 25-feet high; Its soaring bowl form features variegated coloring and a lace-like perforated segment at the top. A student places her hand on the sculpture.

Ursula von Rydingsvard, SCIENTIA, 2016; Bronze; A gift commissioned by Lore Harp McGovern for the McGovern Institute for Brain Research and the Public Art Collection of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Photo by Jerry L. Thompson

In addition to her works on view in museum galleries, Ursula von Rydingsvard has created large-scale sculptures that can be visited in public parks, plazas, and civic buildings across the country. Curious to discover more of her work? Here are five to see:

Ona (2013), Barclays Center, Brooklyn, New York:

Just outside of the Barclays Center, Ona is more than 19 feet high and weighs nearly 12,000 pounds. To create the bronze sculpture, as she does for all of her monumental cast works, von Rydingsvard first constructed a scale model in cedar to get the details exactly right. The artist recognizes that the finish of the bronze will change color from being touched and rubbed by passersby. She is glad to see its patina evolve over time, a result of the work’s connection with the public.

Ocean Voices II (2013), San Francisco International Airport, California: 

The San Francisco Arts Commission emphasized public art in the airport’s Terminal 3. Standing more than ten feet high, von Rydingvard’s Ocean Voices II is made from  4-x-4 cedar beams, the artist’s signature material.

URODA (2015), Princeton University, New Jersey:

On Princeton’s campus, outside the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, von Rydingsvard installed URODA. Its surface is made of more than 3,000 pieces of copper, hammered by hand to conform to the curves of her textural cedar model. While it may seem familiar to fans of her work—the towering funnel shape marks it as one of von Rydingsvard’s “bowl” sculptures—its creation broke new ground as the artist’s first large-scale piece made primarily of copper.

SCIENTIA (2016), Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge:

The 25-foot-high bronze SCIENTIA was commissioned for MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research. Its soaring bowl form features variegated coloring and a lace-like perforated segment at the top.

Ursula von Rydingsvard's Ocean Voices II stands on a white square platform in the San Francisco International Airport; the cedar wood structure is shaded with graphite and looks as if it is organically growing out of the platform from a smaller base that gradually widens larger at the top.

Ursula von Rydingsvard, Ocean Voices II, 2013; Cedar, graphite; Photo courtesy of the SFO Museum

katul katul (2002), Queens Family Courthouse, Jamaica, New York:

In the Queens Family Courthouse, von Rydingvard’s katul katul is made of molded plastic and aluminum, although it, too, was first created in cedar. It carries light downward through a skylight-illuminated atrium.

Still want to see more? Von Rydingsvard’s sculptures can also be found in museums’ sculpture gardens, with works on view at the New Orleans Museum of Art, Louisiana; the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, Massachusetts; and The Contemporary Austin, Texas, among others.

—Elizabeth Lynch is the editor at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Finding Meaning in Form: Ursula von Rydingsvard’s Process

Ursula von Rydingsvard: The Contour of Feeling presents the artist’s monumental cedar wood sculptures alongside newer works for the very first time. The poetic and expressive sculptures, which also use leather, linen, and other organic materials, reveal the process by which von Rydingsvard gives outward visual form to her innermost ideas and emotions.

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Ursula von Rydingsvard’s sculptural practice is a way to give tangible form to her feelings and ideas. The artist primarily works with cedar wood and describes her relationship to it as emotionally complex. “Cedar is the one material that comes closest to saying what I need to say in a visual form,” she has said, and her skill with it has earned her the moniker “Sorceress of Cedar.” She imports the wood in four-by-four beams from a mill in Vancouver to her studio in Brooklyn. There, she and a team of assistants begin a labor-intensive process to bring her ideas to life. Her artistic process must not only be understood in technical terms, but also as an emotional progression—through the physical act of sculpting, the artist searches for meaning.

UVR with assistants

Ursula von Rydingsvard, center, surrounded by studio assistants in front of Bowl With Folds (1998–99) in Detroit in 2017; Photo courtesy of Kevin Silary/Galerie Lelong & Co.

UVR drawing on floor

Ursula von Rydingsvard begins a sculpture by drawing an outline on her studio floor, 2017; © Ursula von Rydingsvard, Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co.; Photo by Morgan Daly

Ursula marking cedar

Ursula von Rydingsvard marks cedar, 2007; © Ursula von Rydingsvard, Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co.; Photo by Zonder Titel

UVR applying graphite

Ursula von Rydingsvard applys graphite through perforated plastic on For Staś (2011–17); © Ursula von Rydingsvard, Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co.; Photo by Morgan Daly

UVR working on OCEAN VOICES

Ursula von Rydingsvard applys graphite to OCEAN VOICES, 2012; © Ursula von Rydingsvard, Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co.; Photo by Andria Morales

Von Rydingsvard begins each sculpture by drawing a chalk outline of a base on the floor. She works intuitively and makes adjustments as she goes. “The worst thing is for me to try to figure out exactly and specifically what the sculpture needs to look like,” the artist has said. She then draws lines on stacked cedar blocks—an intuitive expression of her subconscious—that begin to indicate a work’s detail. From there, von Rydingsvard and her assistants use circular saws to shape the works based on these marks, and powerful adhesives are used to glue each work’s layers together. The team wears protective masks and suits because of the equipment, sawdust, and fumes. Sections of each piece are meticulously numbered and screwed together. Then graphite is applied, which takes easily to the porous wood, giving it a ravaged and dramatic effect. For von Rydingsvard, her work is not so much about precision—though her constructions are undoubtedly precise—as much as it is about making her audience feel something.

In her artist statement, von Rydingsvard writes: “Why do I make art? Mostly, to survive. To survive living and all of its implied layers. Because it’s a place to put my pain, my sadness. Because there’s constant hope inside of me that this process will heal me, my family, and the world.” The intensive and cathartic process of cutting, sawing, gluing, and marking is the artist’s method of survival. Similarly, von Rydingsvard’s favorite sculptor, Louise Bourgeois (1911–2010), also turned to art to “find a mode of survival.” Through her art, Bourgeois dealt with painful memories from her childhood during World War I, while also exploring the role of female identity. Von Rydingsvard similarly works through her past in her art. The artist and her family fled Nazi Germany and lived in refugee camps for several years. These experiences left marks on the artist’s life—marks that are visible in her sculptures. Every cut, every graphite stroke is part of von Rydingsvard’s quest to find meaning through the act of creating a form, a “contour of feeling.”

 —Louisa Potthast was the winter/spring 2019 publications and communications/marketing intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Maria Sibylla Merian and Rachel Ruysch: Opportunity and Mobility

Mobility was key for early modern artists—the ability to travel might make an integral difference to network, train, deliver commissions, or expand their subject matter. However, cultural mores in 17th- and 18th-century Europe discouraged women from being mobile, rooting their work to the home and hindering the careers of women artists. Dutch flower painter Rachel Ruysch (1664–1750) and German naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian (1647–1717) navigated these limitations in very distinct ways, nurturing long and successful careers despite all odds.

2.2.2.x-collection-detail-ruysch_roses_convolvulus_poppies_and_other_flowers

Rachel Ruysch, Roses, Convolvulus, Poppies and Other Flowers in an Urn on a Stone Ledge, ca. late 1680s; Oil on canvas, 42 1/2 x 33 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Rachel_Ruysch_-_Spray_of_flowers_with_insects_and_butterflies_on_a_marble_slab_-_1690s_-_PD.38-1975

Rachel Ruysch, Spray of Flowers with Insects and Butterflies on a Marble Slab, ca. 1690s; From the Fitzwilliam Museum collection

Expected to tend to domestic matters, women artists were encouraged to paint the natural world—it could be accomplished from home and did not require live models or significant time in the public sphere. These limitations hindered actions toward building successful careers: the ability to travel to study or observe nature firsthand and the ability to market and promote one’s work. Given this, most known women artists in this period were trained by an artist father or husband. Ruysch’s father, Frederik Ruysch, was a natural scientist who excelled at scientific illustration and trained her from an early age. Merian was trained by her stepfather, still life painter Jacob Marrel.

Marriage and childbirth posed great obstacles to women artists’ careers. After marriage, many women artists either stopped working or were absorbed into their husbands’ workshops. In cases where a woman continued to work independently, viewers may wonder if—or how—having children affected her work. Compare Ruysch’s Roses, Convolvulus, Poppies, and Other Flowers in an Urn on a Stone Ledge (ca. late 1680s), with Spray of Flowers with Insects and Butterflies on a Marble Slab (ca. 1690s). The earlier work is large in scale and highly detailed. The later work, which dates from her early motherhood years, is smaller and focuses on a simpler arrangement. Merian published her earliest book, Neues Blumenbuch, in 1875, when her oldest daughter was seven. This book featured only 12 examples of flowers and lacked the specimen diversity and scientific ambition of her later works. Viewers may speculate that motherhood had a direct effect on their works, or that perhaps it was simply one of many factors that contributed to a change in their works.

Maria Sibylla Merian, Plate 1 (from "Dissertation in Insect Generations and Metamorphosis in Surinam", second edition), 1719; Hand-colored engraving on paper, 20 1/2 x 14 1/2 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Maria Sibylla Merian, Plate 11 (from "Dissertation in Insect Generations and Metamorphosis in Surinam", second edition), 1719; Hand-colored engraving on paper, 20 1/2 x 14 1/2 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Maria Sibylla Merian, Plate 18 (from "Dissertation in Insect Generations and Metamorphosis in Surinam", second edition), 1719; Hand-colored engraving on paper, 20 1/4 x 14 1/2 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Plate 9 (from _Dissertation in Insect Generations and Met

Maria Sibylla Merian, Plate 9 (from "Dissertation in Insect Generations and Metamorphosis in Surinam", second edition), 1719; Hand-colored engraving on paper, 20 1/2 x 14 1/2 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Ruysch, a mother of ten, worked primarily from home. Due to her early access to and study of specimens, she was able to show great invention in her flower paintings. Floral subjects were very conducive to the domestic environment and, as a result, she painted prolifically. Her work was highly mobile, even if she was not. Merian, divorced with two children, had greater opportunities for mobility. At the age of 52, she embarked on a dangerous two-year trip to Suriname, in South America, with her youngest daughter to draw and study the indigenous plants and animals firsthand. The resulting illustrated book, Dissertation in Insect Generations and Metamorphosis in Surinam, garnered her international acclaim. On the whole, her work helped revolutionize scientific illustration.

Ruysch and Merian built successful careers in spite of the limitations of motherhood and social expectations, issues that still affect women today. Through family connections, opportunities, and their considerable talent, both artists gained mobility and built groundbreaking artistic paths.

—Katherine Ruckle was the fall 2018 educational intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Industrial Aesthetic: The Tire Sculptures of Betsabée Romero and Chakaia Booker

The rubber tire, a globally omnipresent object that is mass-produced more than a billion times each year, is used as a medium by two artists whose work is on view at NMWA. Signals of a Long Road Together by Betsabée Romero (b. 1963) is the newest installation in the museum’s New York Avenue Sculpture Project. Inside the building, the monumental wall sculpture Acid Rain (2001) by Chakaia Booker (b. 1953) comprises more than 2,000 pounds of tires and rubber tubing. These two works both address culture, heritage, and environmental concerns in extraordinary ways.

New York Avenue Sculpture: Betsabeé Romero Installation

Betsabeé Romero, Movilidad en suspenso (Mobility in suspense) (foreground) and Huellas y cicatricez (Traces and scars) (background); Photo by Lee Stalsworth

New York Avenue Sculpture: Betsabeé Romero Installation

Betsabeé Romero, Huellas y cicatricez (Traces and scars) (detail); Photo by Lee Stalsworth

New York Avenue Sculpture: Betsabeé Romero Installation

Betsabeé Romero, En cautiverio (In captivity) (detail); Photo by Lee Stalsworth

New York Avenue Sculpture: Betsabeé Romero Installation

Betsabeé Romero, Huellas y cicatricez (Traces and scars); Photo by Lee Stalsworth

New York Avenue Sculpture: Betsabeé Romero Installation

Betsabeé Romero, Movilidad y tensión (Mobility and tension); Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Romero and Booker live and work in the two largest metropolises in North America—Mexico City and New York City—where pollution and waste are abundant. The sprawling roads of her bustling hometown have provided Romero with no shortage of used tires, which she describes as “one of the worst waste products of the automobile industry” given their bulk and durability. By carving the tires with patterns and imagery—snakes from Aztec artwork, a fleeing family to signify migration—Romero is able to transform this generic waste into meaningful artwork. Similarly, Booker, who moved to Manhattan in the 1980s when the city was notoriously dangerous and dirty, has made a practice of gathering shredded tires from the roadside and alleys, turning the material into art. Her work serves as an aesthetic response to the urban landscape she has known her whole life. “My palette is the textures of the treads, the fibers from discarded materials, and tires that I use to create varied effects,” Booker once explained.

Works by Romero and Booker also share a deep compassion for culture and heritage. Romero manipulates tires as a material that has been central to Mexican culture—from Mesoamerican ball games to the modern trade economy—while also “evoking traditional Mexican motifs” through her carved patterns and design. Tires are also a metaphor for human migration, always a pertinent topic within Mexico and across humanity at large. Booker’s artistic practice is a way for her to navigate the African American diaspora. Black is the primary color in all of her work, acting as an affirmation of strength. By fashioning art out of discarded tires, she evokes the beauty of African American people, despite the hardships they have faced. Her patterns and geographic shapes, sometimes based on traditional African textiles, carry this metaphor further.

Chakaia Booker's Acid Rain is a large sculpture made out of old tires that have been shressed, cut, and frayed. They are layered and coiled on top of each other to create a hulking sculpture that twists, turns, and juts outward.

Chakaia Booker, Acid Rain, 2001; Rubber tires and wood, 120 x 240 x 36 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Museum purchase: Members’ Acquisition Fund; © Chakaia Booker

These disparate works demonstrate how two artists living thousands of miles apart are both able to make versatile artistic use of the same—unexpected—material. Rubber tires are a tough material, often associated with masculine or industrial purposes rather than aesthetic, and yet these sculptors have made the medium their own, making powerful art as well as exploring the contemporary issues that reflect their values.

—Joshua Weiner was the fall 2018 digital communications intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Director’s Desk: Family Matters

Marisol's The Large Family Group (1957) is framed by Patricia Piccinini's The Stags (2008) in NMWA's Family Matters gallery; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Marisol’s The Large Family Group (1957) is framed by Patricia Piccinini’s The Stags (2008) in NMWA’s Family Matters gallery; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

At the National Museum of Women in the Arts, we regularly rotate our collection to spark new thematic connections. This is an essential part of our curatorial philosophy. In a six-post series, I will explore the themes featured in our current collection installation. Read about our “Rebels with a Cause” theme and stay tuned for more.

When selecting subjects, artists and their patrons often turn to those closest to them: spouses, partners, children, parents, siblings, friends, and pets. Artists from all periods have created tender, naturalistic renderings of loved ones meant to record important moments or emotions. Their imagery sometimes even focuses on other species to represent all living beings that seek companionship and protection.

Historically, images of families created by women artists have tended to be sober and refined, in keeping with the traditional idea that family portraiture is a space for presenting tranquil relationships. Today’s artists examine a broader range of familial experiences, expressively depicting the moments of humor, insecurity, rivalry, and joy that shape family connections.

Gallery Highlights:

Zanele Muholi (b. 1972) is a South African artist and visual activist known for their self-portraits and documentation of LGBTQI lives in South Africa. Their portrait of two women, Katlego Mashiloane and Nosipho Lavuta, Ext. 2, Lakeside, Johannesburg (2007), expresses a sense of enchantment and happiness, defying the discrimination and violence often directed towards homosexuality in South Africa. By capturing their subjects in moments of intimacy and affection, Muholi emphasizes their humanity.

Alice Neel (1900–1984) depicts her boyfriend’s brother, Carlos Negrón, in T.B. Harlem (1940). Negrón had just moved to Spanish Harlem in New York from his native Puerto Rico. A bandage on his chest covers a wound from a treatment for tuberculosis, which spreads easily in densely populated neighborhoods. The archaic operation removed ribs to ease the effects of the disease. Radiating emotional intensity, Neel’s touching portrait of Negrón alludes to poverty as a social issue without sacrificing her subject’s dignity.

In the center of the room, the large-scale sculpture The Stags (2008), by Patricia Piccinini (b. 1965), presents two motor scooters transformed into futuristic creatures. They spar like male deer in the wild, evidently beyond human control. The Stags uses vehicle parts to evoke animal forms and the intimate relationships among these creatures.

zanele muholi, katlego

Zanele Muholi, Katlego Mashiloane and Nosipho Lavuta, Ext. 2, Lakeside, Johannesburg, 2007; Chromogenic print, 30 x 30 in.; Museum purchase: The Paul and Emily Singer Family Foundation with additional support from Nancy Nelson Stevenson; © Zanele Muholi; Courtesy of the artist, Yancey Richardson, New York, and Stevenson Cape Town / Johannesburg

alice neel T.B. Harlem

Alice Neel, T.B. Harlem, 1940; Oil on canvas, 30 x 30 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; © The Estate of Alice Neel/Courtesy of David Zwirner, New York

Patricia Piccinini the stags

Patricia Piccinini, The Stags, 2008; Fiberglass, automotive paint, leather, steel, plastic, and rubber, 69 3/4 x 72 x 40 1/4 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection; © Patricia Piccinini; Photo by Graham Baring

earl of gower Angelica Kauffman

Angelica Kauffman, The Family of the Earl Gower, 1772; Oil on canvas, 59 1/4 x 82 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Angelica Kauffman (1741–1807), one of the most successful portraitists in the eighteenth century, became a sensation in London, captivating society and shaping European visual culture. The Family of the Earl Gower (1772) depicts the British politician Granville Leveson-Gower, his third wife, Lady Susannah, and their children dressed in lyrical costumes and interacting with marble busts, lyres, and period props. Her Neoclassical style communicated the family’s prominence.

Marisol (1930–2016) was one of the most respected and popular artists of the 1960s. Her carved wood sculptures blend Latin American folk art styling with the wit of Dada and Pop Art. The Large Family Group (1957) is one of the artist’s earliest works. It depicts a family with members who extend their arms outward in a welcoming gesture—a gesture that I hope also invites visitors to think about their own associations with the word “family.”

—Susan Fisher Sterling is the Alice West Director of the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

5 Fast Facts: Marisol (María Sol Escobar)

Impress your friends with five fast facts about artist Marisol (1930–2016), whose work is on view in NMWA’s collection galleries.

Marisol Escobar circa 1963; Photo courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, and the World Telegram & Sun; Photo by Herman Hiller

Marisol Escobar circa 1963; Photo courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, and the World Telegram & Sun; Photo by Herman Hiller

1. Mum’s the Word
Marisol lost her mother to suicide when she was just 11 years old. Deeply affected by this loss, she spent years not speaking unless absolutely necessary. New York Times journalist Grace Glueck referred to these periods as “marathon silences.” Curious to hear Marisol’s elusive, ethereal voice? Listen to this 1968 interview from the Archives of American Art.

2. Welcome Home

The Large Family Group (1957), one of Marisol’s earliest wood sculptures, depicts a family of five standing in close proximity. With outstretched arms, the figures invite viewers into their intimate unit. A new addition to NMWA’s collection, this family previously called the Corcoran Gallery of Art home.

3. See Me?!

Marisol, like Judith Leyster (1609–1660), Frida Kahlo (1907–1954), and Kirsten Justesen (b. 1943), represented her own likeness to explore identity and perhaps to cement herself into history. Check out Self-Portrait (1961–62),  Mi Mama y Yo (1968), and Self-Portrait Looking at the Last Supper (1982–84) three important examples of self-portraiture in the artist’s body of work.

4. Honorable Mention

Marisol is one of 13 women artists represented in the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall Collection. Her bronze sculpture of Father Damien (1969), a Catholic priest who served a leper settlement in Hawaii, depicts a stoic man at the end of his life, maimed by very disease that ravaged his community.

Flickr_-_USCapitol_-_Father_Damien_Statue

Marisol's Father Damien (1969) statue on display in the National Statuary Hall Collection at the United States Capitol; Photo courtesy of the Architect of the Capitol

The Large Family Group & The Stags

Marisol's The Large Family Group (1957) and Patricia Piccinini's The Stags (2008) on view in NMWA's collection galleries; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

5. Loyal Lady

The Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, became first museum to acquire works by Marisol—The Generals (1961–62) in 1962 and Baby Girl (1963) in 1964. This institution held a special place in Marisol’s heart. Upon her death, she expressed her enduring gratitude by bequeathing her estate to the museum.

—Adrienne L. Gayoso is the senior educator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Heavy Lifting: Behind the Scenes of The Contour of Feeling

Ursula von Rydingsvard: The Contour of Feeling presents the artist’s monumental cedar wood sculptures alongside newer works for the first time. The poetic and expressive works, which also use leather, linen, and other organic materials, reveal the process by which von Rydingsvard gives outward visual form to her innermost ideas and emotions.

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Gallery guards and educators hear a frequent question from visitors to the museum’s Ursula von Rydingsvard exhibition: how did you get these sculptures into the building? Many of the 26 cedar forms tower close to the ceiling and weigh hundreds of pounds. In fact, the sculpture Krypta I (2014), stands almost 11 feet high and weighs about 2,500 pounds. A conversation with NMWA Registrar Catherine Bade revealed the heavy lifting that occurred behind the scenes to bring The Contour of Feeling to life.

Road Trip

Most of the exhibition’s sculptures were sent on three large trucks from von Rydingsvard’s studio in Brooklyn, New York, to Washington, D.C. Timed to accommodate the museum’s public hours, its busy event schedule, and downtown D.C. street traffic, they arrived in the middle of the night and were carefully moved into the museum several weeks before the exhibition was scheduled to open.

Building Blocks

Due to their monumental size, the sculptures arrived disassembled into large sections in crates, and von Rydingsvard’s studio assistants came to help put them back together. Von Rydingsvard also includes a precise system of marks on the pieces themselves—some that are still visible on the finished sculptures—that help the installation team navigate assembly.

The Contour of Feeling Exhibition09

Installation view of Ursula von Rydingsvard: The Contour of Feeling; Pictured left to right: For Natasha (2015), SCRATCH II (2015), Krypta I (2014), ten plates (2018) (back wall); Photo by Lee Stalsworth

For Natasha Install

Rigging equipment holds the final piece of For Natasha (2015); Photo by Neda Amouzadeh

Krypta Install + Natasha

Riggers work to install Krypta I (2014) and For Natasha (2015); Photo by Neda Amouzadeh

Ocean Floor_Unpacking

A section of Ocean Floor (1996) is unpacked in NMWA's Great Hall; Photo by Neda Amouzadeh

The Contour of Feeling Exhibition35

Installation view of Ocean Floor (1996), Zakopane (1987) (left), and little nothings (2000–15) (back wall); Photo by Lee Stalsworth

It Takes a Village

A team of 17 people, including NMWA’s registrars and exhibition designer, the registrar from the Fabric Workshop and Museum (organizers of the exhibition), fine art handlers, von Rydingsvard’s studio assistants, and the artist herself, worked approximately 100 hours to get the exhibition ready to open.

Wide Load

The biggest challenge of the installation was working with oversized pieces that were too big to fit into NMWA’s normal gallery space. To fit the wide, bowl-shaped Ocean Floor (1996), one of the gallery walls had to be cut back and getting it into the building’s freight elevator was a true feat of engineering.

An Art and a Science

Although von Rydingsvard’s sculptures look tough, their cedar wood and graphite materials are malleable, and the works—like all artworks—must be transported extremely carefully. “Rigging heavy sculptures is both an art and science,” Bade said. “Riggers can spend hours setting up the rigging and strapping the artwork before they actually move to install a piece.” They consider safety concerns specific to each sculpture, calculate the best angle for approach to the installation site, and test different lifts before final placement.

—Alicia Gregory is the assistant editor at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

5 Fast Facts: Mildred Thompson

Impress your friends with five fast facts about artist Mildred Thompson (1936–2003), whose work is on view in NMWA’s collection galleries.

1. Citizen of the World

After graduating from Washington, D.C.’s Howard University in 1957, Thompson spent most of the 1960s and ’70s in Germany to escape the discrimination she faced in the United States, but she never forgot her roots. “I don’t really consider anyplace home…But when I’m asked where I’m from, I’m always from Jacksonville, [Florida].”

2. Taking Chances

In 1979, while living in Washington, D.C., Thompson met a French filmmaker and joined the crew as a photographer. They traveled to Paris, which remained her home base until she returned to the U.S. in 1985. She lived briefly in Los Angeles before settling in Atlanta for the rest of her life.

Mildred Thompson artist photo

Mildred Thompson; Photo courtesy of the Mildred Thompson Estate, Atlanta, GA

magnetic fields

Mildred Thompson, Magnetic Fields, 1990; Oil on canvas, 62 x 48 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of the Georgia Committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts in honor of the 30th anniversary of the Georgia Committee and the National Museum of Women in the Arts; © The Mildred Thompson Estate; Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co., New York

wood picture

Mildred Thompson, Untitled (Wood Picture), ca. 1970s; Wood, 42 x 36 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Camille Ann Brewer in honor and memory of Mildred Thompson; © The Mildred Thompson Estate; Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co., New York; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

3. Hopelessly Devoted

In the middle of her career, Thompson decided to produce only abstract art—in paintings, sculptures, or prints—going forward. Her dedication to abstraction and her choice not to reference politics, violence, or the Black experience challenged expectations of African American artists at the time.

4. Color-centric

Thompson did not sketch or pre-plan her works. However, she did select palettes that would run throughout a series. As she once said, “Magnetic fields are yellow. Radiation is blue.

5. It’s About Time

In 2017, 14 years after the artist’s death, Galerie Lelong & Co. of New York announced their representation of Thompson’s estate. This marks her first formal relationship with a gallery.

—Ashley Harris is the associate educator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Images of Conflict: Ambreen Butt and Margaret Bourke-White

Conflict zones have historically been male-dominated spaces, for those participating in war and struggle as well as those documenting the events. Photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White and multimedia artist Ambreen Butt offer alternative perspectives to the field’s predominant male viewpoints. Though their work spans different mediums, times, and regions of the world, the two women are united by their incisive interpretations of conflict.

Margaret Bourke-White, Self Portrait with Camera, ca. 1933; Gelatin silver print; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of the collection of Susie Tompkins Buell

Margaret Bourke-White, Self Portrait with Camera, ca. 1933; Gelatin silver print, 13.625 x 9.5 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of the collection of Susie Tompkins Buell

Margaret Bourke-White (1904–1971) began her career photographing architecture and documenting the poverty of the Dust Bowl as Life magazine’s first female photojournalist. During World War II, she became the first female war correspondent after initially being denied accreditation to accompany U.S. forces overseas. From the frontlines, she produced matter-of-fact photographs that documented Europe’s war-torn cities and the liberation of concentration camp survivors, among other important events.

Bourke-White’s self-confidence and conviction—two qualities necessary for the work she was doing—are evident in her own Self-Portrait (1933). Standing next to her camera, she gazes confidently into the distance. Here she presents herself as the subject: a professional photojournalist. Her wide-legged stance and androgynous clothing convey her defiance at being treated like a “girl,” which she often was during missions. Bourke-White crafts a very specific persona for her audience: a fearless, strong woman whose eye does not flinch at war, death, and destruction.

Differing from Bourke-White’s unflinching photographs are the layered and lyrical depictions of conflict from artist Ambreen Butt (b. 1969). Her mixed-media works are rendered in the tradition of Persian and Indian miniature painting, with collaged shredded text and systemic mark-making that show her contemporary art influences. They explore the relationships between beauty, violence, strength, and vulnerability, as Butt methodically layers images and processes her difficult subject matter. In all of her images, heroines—both historical and contemporary—are redefined through the gaze of a female artist.

In the series “Dirty Pretty” (2008), Butt portrays female Pakistani lawyers protesting the government’s suspension of the country’s Chief Justice in 2007. Instead of looking on as passive bystanders, the women demonstrate alongside their male counterparts as intrepid activists. Butt communicates their sorrow and horror—yet, above all, it is their act of resistance that stands out. Their faces are hand-stitched in a prominent red thread over layers of historical imagery, which appear like apparitions in the background.

Ambreen Butt, The Great Hunt I (from the series “Dirty Pretty”) (detail), 2008; Water-based pigments, white gouache, text, thread, and gold leaf on layers of mylar and tea stained paper, 45 x 30 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Massachusetts State Committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts; © Ambreen Butt; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Ambreen Butt, The Great Hunt I (from the series “Dirty Pretty”) (detail), 2008; Water-based pigments, white gouache, text, thread, and gold leaf on layers of mylar and tea stained paper, 45 x 30 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Massachusetts State Committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts; © Ambreen Butt; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

“My protagonist is not an idealized character; she is a mirror in which a million women see their faces,” Butt has said. This universality is also seen in Bourke-White’s work—her photographs and writings offer her perspective as a woman in a male-dominated society and profession, helping other women to see themselves and their own potential. Butt’s works center around heroines, while Bourke-White becomes a heroine herself. Ultimately, in both of their works, women are portrayed as active witnesses—they claim agency, and they make their marks on society.

Ambreen Butt: Mark My Words was on view at NMWA from December 7, 2018–April 14, 2019.

—Louisa Potthast is the winter/spring 2019 publications and communications/marketing intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.