Landscape of Change: Janaina Tschäpe’s “100 Little Deaths”

Live Dangerously exhibits all one hundred photographs in Janaina Tschäpe’s 100 Little Deaths together for the first time. Tschäpe began the project in 1996 as an exploration of landscape, transmutation, and death. Each self-portrait depicts the artist sprawled face down in different environments around the world, often with limbs akimbo. Tschäpe’s body decorates a range of landscapes including urban meccas, ancient ruins, manmade interiors, woodlands, and bodies of water.

At face value, the series functions as the artist’s visual travel diary from 1996–2002. Tschäpe felt that each place she visited captured pieces of her, and she wanted to embody that emotion in her photography. Her prostrate form represents the powerful feeling of leaving a part of yourself behind somewhere. “It was the idea of me dying, or living a little history that was very short in every place,” Tschäpe said. Her photos vacillate between comedy and tragedy, making the series both surreal and theatrical.

A woman lies face down in front of the towering Moai statues on Easter Island off the coast of Chile.

Janaina Tschäpe, Moais, from 100 Little Deaths, 2002; Chromogenic color print; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection; © Janaina Tschäpe; Image courtesy of Janaina Tschäpe studio

Changing Landscapes

Tschäpe’s horizontal body becomes a part of the landscape as each location molds and changes her. Each photo is “…related to either new places I was living, or new places I was going to…I was really a landscape,” the artist has said. In Moais (2002), the towering Moai statues dwarf Tschäpe’s body. The neutral tones of her clothing blend into the rock and shadows; only the bright white of her shirt draws the eye to her presence. Tschäpe merges into the scene and loses herself to the massive statues before her in one of the most remote places in the world.

A woman lies face down in a leaf-covered path in the woods. Next to the woman is a cleared space where her body was, too.

Janaina Tschäpe, Frick Park, from 100 Little Deaths, 2000; Chromogenic color print; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection; © Janaina Tschäpe; Image courtesy of Janaina Tschäpe studio

The transformation is reciprocal. Tschäpe constructs and changes the landscapes with her presence, just as these places change her. Frick Park (2000) presents the artist lying in fallen leaves on a wooded path. She has cleared away the fallen leaves next to her in the shape of her body. This outline doubles her presence and emphasizes her effect on the landscape. The leaves will never occupy that exact space again. Tschäpe forever alters the location—if only slightly—by being there.

Ocean Goddess

Many of Tschäpe’s “little deaths” take place in or near water, which may be a way for the artist to pay homage to her name and its connection to water. Tschäpe’s first name, Janaina, is derived from the name of an Afro-Brazilian sea goddess of the Candomblé religion. In Fiji (2002), Tschäpe lays perpendicular to the shoreline of a rocky beach. Her blue pants echo the blue of the water. The still line of her body directs the viewer’s eye to the ocean and the distant mountains that appear on the horizon.

A woman lies face down on a rocky coast with a yellow purse next to her. In the distance, on the sea's horizon, are mountains.

Janaina Tschäpe, Fiji, from 100 Little Deaths, 2002; Chromogenic color print; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection; © Janaina Tschäpe; Image courtesy of Janaina Tschäpe studio

Tschäpe’s “little deaths” represent the transmutation that occurs during her travels. Her prone figure negates her identity. This allows the artist to become a part of the landscape and represents the death of her old identity. The figure is not Tschäpe; it is her old self, left behind. Her new self continues on to her next location and next little death.

—Hannah Southern is the fall 2019 publications and communications/marketing intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Opening this Week: Women Artists of the Dutch Golden Age

Women Artists of the Dutch Golden Age presents paintings and prints by eight successful artists in the Netherlands during the 17th and early 18th centuries—a period of unprecedented economic growth. Works are drawn primarily from NMWA’s collection, with key loans that illuminate the artists’ lives and careers. The exhibition highlights women who excelled as artists in this era, pushing boundaries in art and in life. On view October 11, 2019–January 5, 2020, this presentation features works by Judith Leyster, Maria Sibylla Merian, Clara Peeters, Rachel Ruysch, and more.

A dark still life oil painting that shows a bowl of dead fish and a plate of shrimp and clams, along with a cat with his paws on one of the dead fish.

Clara Peeters, Still Life of Fish and Cat, after 1620; Oil on panel, 13 1/2 x 18 1/2 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

The Netherlands experienced unprecedented economic growth from the late 16th century through the first quarter of the 18th century. A rising middle class of wealthy merchants fueled demand for paintings and prints of still-lifes, portraits, and scenes of everyday life. By some estimates, there was one painter for every 2,000–3,000 inhabitants, a ratio exceeding that of Italy during the same period. While this era has been widely documented and studied, the many women artists who were part of this thriving scene are rarely included in museum exhibitions.

In fact, to date, there has never been an exhibition devoted to the Dutch and Flemish women artists of the Golden Age. This is remarkable given the sheer scale of artistic production in the Netherlands during this period. Women artists thrived in this environment. Like those elsewhere in Europe, many Dutch and Flemish women were born into families of artists and received their training from fathers or brothers. However, some took the more traditionally “masculine” route of apprenticing with a recognized master and joining artistic guilds. Considering a group of these women together offers an opportunity to upend common assumptions and uncover surprising connections.

An engraved self portrait in black and white of Anna Maria van Schurman, she wears typical dress of the 1600s and looks to the left.

Anna Maria van Schurman, Self-Portrait, 1640; Engraving on paper, 8 1/2 x 6 3/8 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Featured artists include:

Rachel Ruysch (1664–1750), one of the most successful artists of this period, who is regarded as the greatest floral still-life painter of the Golden Age. Her prestigious career lasted a remarkable 70 years, and she sold work to an international circle of patrons.

Judith Leyster (1609–1660), one of the first women admitted to the painter’s guild in Haarlem, where she also took on her own students. A recently rediscovered self-portrait by Leyster is a highlight of the exhibition—it is on public view in the U.S. for the first time.

Clara Peeters (1594–1657?), a pioneer of still-life painting and the only Flemish woman known to have specialized in the genre as early as the first decade of the 17th century. Peeters was the artist who inspired NMWA founder Wilhelmina Cole Holladay to begin collecting work by women artists.

Considered individually, the stories of the women represented in this exhibition reveal that there was not just one path to becoming an artist, nor was there only one model for success. Through a wider view encompassing each artist’s individual struggles and triumphs, a clearer and more nuanced picture of women artists during the Dutch Golden Age comes into focus.

Judy Chicago—The End: Stages of Dying

The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction, the newest body of work by iconic feminist artist Judy Chicago, continues the artist’s practice of tackling taboo subjects. In these works, she offers a bold reflection on mortality and the destruction of entire species. Visually striking and emotionally charged, the exhibition comprises more than 35 paintings on black glass and porcelain, as well as two large-scale bronze reliefs. On view September 19, 2019–January 20, 2020.

***

“Death is still a fearful, frightening happening and the fear of death is a universal fear.”—Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

Judy Chicago, Stages of Dying 3/6: Anger, from The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction, 2015; China paint on porcelain, 12 x 16 in.; Courtesy of the artist; Salon 94, New York; and Jessica Silverman Gallery, San Francisco; © Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Photo © Donald Woodman/ARS, NY

In 1969, Swiss-born psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (b. 1926) published On Death and Dying, a groundbreaking book in which she first proposed the five stages of grief—a common emotional cycle for those who have lost a loved one or who are facing their own mortality. This model, which includes denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, has become a prominent framework for humans to understand our complicated and multifaceted response to loss. Kübler-Ross did not arrive easily at her pioneering work. Her father was strictly opposed to her studying medicine, encouraging her instead to become a secretary or maid. And in 1958, she was disqualified from a residency in pediatrics because she was pregnant—though this led her to accept one in psychiatry.

Continuing her commitment to centering women in history, as she did in The Dinner Party, Judy Chicago (b. 1939) draws on Kübler-Ross’s work for “Stages of Dying,” the first section of The End. Chicago represents these stages of grief and simultaneously reckons with her own mortality.

Judy Chicago - Stages of Dying 1 of 6_blog

Judy Chicago, Stages of Dying 1/6, from The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction, 2015; China paint, pen work, and luster on porcelain, 12 x 16 in.; Courtesy of the artist; Salon 94, New York; and Jessica Silverman Gallery, San Francisco; © Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Photo © Donald Woodman/ARS, NY

Judy Chicago - Denial 2 of 6_blog

Judy Chicago, Stages of Dying 2/6: Denial, from The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction, 2015; China paint on porcelain, 12 x 16 in.; Courtesy of the artist; Salon 94, New York; and Jessica Silverman Gallery, San Francisco; © Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Photo © Donald Woodman/ARS, NY

Judy Chicago - Anger 3 of 6_blog

Judy Chicago, Stages of Dying 3/6: Anger, from The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction, 2015; China paint on porcelain, 12 x 16 in.; Courtesy of the artist; Salon 94, New York; and Jessica Silverman Gallery, San Francisco; © Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Photo © Donald Woodman/ARS, NY

Judy Chicago - Bargaining 4 of 6_blog

Judy Chicago, Stages of Dying 4/6: Bargaining, from The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction, 2015; China paint on porcelain, 12 x 16 in.; Courtesy of the artist; Salon 94, New York; and Jessica Silverman Gallery, San Francisco; © Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Photo © Donald Woodman/ARS, NY

Judy Chicago - Depression 5 of 6_blog

Judy Chicago, Stages of Dying 5/6: Depression, from The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction, 2015; China paint on porcelain, 12 x 16 in.; Courtesy of the artist; Salon 94, New York; and Jessica Silverman Gallery, San Francisco; © Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Photo © Donald Woodman/ARS, NY

Judy Chicago - Acceptance 6 of 6_blog

Judy Chicago, Stages of Dying 6/6: Acceptance, from The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction, 2015; China paint on porcelain, 16 x 12 in.; Courtesy of the artist; Salon 94, New York; and Jessica Silverman Gallery, San Francisco; © Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Photo © Donald Woodman/ARS, NY

The main figure in “Stages of Dying” is a nude older woman who shares facial characteristics with Chicago. However, in choosing to portray the woman without hair, Chicago removes one of her own most recognizable traits—her short, vibrantly hued curls. The baldness of the figure renders it somewhat androgynous and, according to Chicago, makes it an archetypal “everywoman,” a universal figure to whom death will eventually come. Chicago presents an aged body that is far less prevalent than the idealized inventions of (mostly) male artists over the centuries. In lieu of a youthful and supple form, the artist gives us a wiry and wrinkled protagonist who refutes the trappings of stereotypical femininity.

The “everywoman” radiates with colored auras in each scene. In “Anger” the figure is charged with a deep red border that travels along her arms, torso, and neck. In “Depression” the figure emanates a melancholy teal. “Acceptance” is a vibrant and revelatory conclusion: the figure looks skyward and glows in bright yellow. Kübler-Ross built her theory through extensive interviews and research, and Chicago adds a visual dimension to this framework with her startling images and expressive colors.

Although Kübler-Ross understood the fear of death as universal, she conceived of the stages of grief as a process for healing. Chicago’s work process may have echoed that model. As the artist says, “As difficult as it was to confront my own mortality, it brought me to a place of acceptance.”

Opening This Week: Live Dangerously

Live Dangerously reveals the bold and dynamic ways in which female bodies inhabit and activate the natural world. Twelve groundbreaking photographers, including Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Kirsten Justesen, Xaviera Simmons, Janaina Tschäpe, and Rania Matar, use humor, drama, ambiguity, and innovative storytelling to illuminate the landscape as means of self-empowerment and personal expression. On view September 19, 2019–January 20, 2020.

***

Traditionally, representations of female figures in art history have shown women passively linked to the landscape through gendered associations of nature, eroticism, and fertility. In contrast, Live Dangerously presents fierce, dreamy, and witty images of women presiding over the landscape—all through the lens of the female gaze. From the groundbreaking work of Ana Mendieta to the first-ever installation of all 100 large-scale photographs in Janaina Tschäpe’s 100 Little Deaths (1996–2002), the artists illuminate the planet’s surface as a stunning stage for human drama. Learn about a sampling of the works presented in the exhibition:

Xaviera Simmons, One Day and Back Then (Standing), 2007; Chromira c-print, 30 x 40 in.; Collection of Darryl Atwell; © Xaviera Simmons, Courtesy David Castillo Gallery

On Stage

In Live Dangerously, the earth is dynamic stage that challenges us to view ourselves and our environments in new ways. Xaviera Simmons (b. 1974) uses her wide-ranging work to address questions of marginalized bodies in landscapes, particularly regarding womanhood and blackness in the United States. In One Day and Back Then (Standing) (2007), a self-portrait in which she gazes directly out at the viewer, Simmons appears tucked into a thicket of reeds, in a dark trench coat, crowned by a curly Afro and dressed in blackface. The image forces the viewer to confront complicated questions, such as the identity and intentions of the subject, and the meaning of blackface in this context. Simmons further reflects on the current social status of both black and white Americans: “How might our entire history have been different had America fulfilled its emancipatory promises to its freed slaves and their descendants instead of commemorating its defeated Confederate planters?”

In Her Element

Artists in Live Dangerously claim their natural environments. Rather than seeming daunted by these extreme landscapes, figures climb, run, and swim through varied terrain, freely and boldly embracing the sublime elements of nature. In her “Ice Pedestal” series (2000, printed 2015), Danish artist Kirsten Justesen (b. 1943) positions herself atop blocks of ice wearing only rubber boots and gloves, letting the ice blocks melt and then refreezing the puddles. Her photographs record this repetitive process of transition from solid to liquid to solid, capturing the idea of mutability and impermanence of the world.

Rania Matar, Yara, Cairo, Egypt, from the series “SHE,” 2019; Archival pigment print, 44 x 37 in.; Courtesy of the artist and Robert Klein Gallery; © Rania Matar

Mischief-Makers

Female bodies activate the land throughout Live Dangerously. At times, they appear to be in precarious circumstances, and in others, they intentionally rebel and disrupt societal expectations of genteel, compliant women. In her “SHE” series (2016–ongoing), Rania Matar (b. 1964) photographs young women in lush landscapes in the United States and the Middle East to portray their individual beauty through their relationships with their environments. Matar’s model in Yara, Cairo, Egypt (2019) stands partially obscured in the crevices of a banyan tree, her limbs echoing the trunk’s vertical shoots to create an uncanny air of mystery.

The works in Live Dangerously employ humor, performance, ambiguity, and inventive storytelling to reveal the ways in which female bodies inhabit, and animate, their natural surroundings. The photographers in this exhibition shed new light on the Earth’s surfaces and elements as catalysts for self-expression.

Opening This Week: Judy Chicago—The End

The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction, the newest body of work by iconic feminist artist Judy Chicago, continues the artist’s practice of tackling taboo subjects. In these works, she offers a bold reflection on mortality and the destruction of entire species. Visually striking and emotionally charged, the exhibition comprises more than 35 paintings on black glass and porcelain and two large-scale bronze reliefs. On view September 19, 2019–January 20, 2020.

Judy Chicago, In the Shadow of Death, from The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction, 2015; Kiln-fired glass paint on black glass, 12 x 9 in.; Courtesy of the artist; Salon 94, New York; and Jessica Silverman Gallery, San Francisco; © Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Photo © Donald Woodman/ARS, NY

***

Over the course of her long career, Judy Chicago’s artistic subject matter has included sex, birth, masculinity, the perversion of power, and violence. Now she addresses perhaps the last taboo: death. Our society holds an undeniable discomfort around aging and death, and in The End, Chicago tackles the subjects head on, as both a universal human experience and a personal rumination. In a culture that prizes youth and beauty—particularly for women—Chicago’s stark images of aged bodies are an antidote. She also grapples with the mortality of entire ecosystems that have been irreparably damaged by the action, or inaction, of humans. With The End, Chicago continues her history of merging the personal and political with luminous colors, technical mastery, and uncomfortable subjects.

“In many ways, this series is the culmination of 50 years of studio practice, a practice that has taken me on a journey of discovery through many different topics expressed through a wide range of techniques,” said Chicago. “In a world in which women’s cultural production continues to be undervalued, discounted, or marginalized, I am pleased to premier this work for the first time at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, the only museum in the world dedicated to ensuring that women’s art is preserved.”

The series is divided into three distinct sections, “Stages of Dying,” “Mortality,” and “Extinction.” In the first, viewers are presented with an older female “everywoman” who viscerally experiences psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief. In “Mortality,” Chicago envisions different scenarios that may play out in her own inevitable death. And in “Extinction,” Chicago illustrates the harm that humans have brought to groups of animals and plants that are now threatened with extinction—from elephants killed for their tusks to trees flayed of their bark.

Judy Chicago - Title Panel The End A Meditation on Death and Extinction

Judy Chicago, Title Panel: The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction, 2015; China paint, pen work, and luster on porcelain, 12 x 16 in.; Courtesy of the artist; Salon 94, New York; and Jessica Silverman Gallery, San Francisco; © Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Photo © Donald Woodman/ARS, NY

Judy Chicago - Depression 5 of 6

Judy Chicago, Stages of Dying 5/6: Depression, from The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction, 2015; China paint on porcelain, 12 x 16 in.; Courtesy of the artist; Salon 94, New York; and Jessica Silverman Gallery, San Francisco; © Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Photo © Donald Woodman/ARS, NY

Judy Chicago - How Will I Die #7

Judy Chicago, How Will I Die? #7, from The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction, 2015; Kiln-fired glass paint on black glass, 9 x 12 in.; Courtesy of the artist; Salon 94, New York; and Jessica Silverman Gallery, San Francisco; © Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Photo © Donald Woodman/ARS, NY

Judy Chicago - Smothered

Judy Chicago, Smothered, from The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction, 2016; Kiln-fired glass paint on black glass, 12 x 18 in.; Courtesy of the artist; Salon 94, New York; and Jessica Silverman Gallery, San Francisco; © Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Photo © Donald Woodman/ARS, NY

Judy Chicago - Extinction detail polar bear

Judy Chicago, Extinction Relief (detail), from The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction, 2018; Patinated bronze, 53 1/2 x 30 1/2 x 14 in.; Courtesy of the artist; Salon 94, New York; and Jessica Silverman Gallery, San Francisco; © Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Photo © Donald Woodman/ARS, NY

While Chicago is best known for The Dinner Party (1974), the renowned mixed-media installation that celebrates the legacies of women throughout history, The End also shares connections with her many other prescient bodies of work. Chicago has built her career on pushing boundaries, and The End is no less audacious than her earlier projects.

Art and Social Messaging in More is More: Multiples

Artists’ multiples combine the temptation and affordability of retail with the creativity of fine art. More is More: Multiples, on view through September 22, presents dinner plates, totes, sunglasses, toys, and more by artists including Cindy Sherman, Mickalene Thomas, Barbara Kruger, Helen Marten, and Jiha Moon.

***

Many of the artists whose work is on view in More is More: Multiples have challenged stereotypical notions of womanhood since the 1970s, and their messages are still relevant today. Artists like Sophie Calle, Mickalene Thomas, Barbara Kruger, and the Guerrilla Girls have collaborated with design firms to produce objects that carry their social messaging forward. Working for gender and racial equality, these artists extend their ideas onto accessible retail objects, blurring lines between feminist art and consumer culture.

The topics of feminism and consumer culture call to mind the commodification of feminism over recent years. Big corporations may find success with “femvertising,” branding themselves as feminist while simultaneously ripping off female artists and underpaying employees. In an era of hashtags and campaigns, slogans like “The Future is Female” can be hollow signifiers: originating from the lesbian separatist movement, the phrase has become a symbol of superficial feel-good feminism.

Calle multiples

Sophie Calle, The Pig dinner service, 2013; Set of six porcelain plates with platinum text, each 10 5/8 in. diameter; Produced by Bernardaud; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore; Image courtesy of Artware Editions

kruger your gaze

Barbara Kruger, Sunglasses, "Your gaze hits the side of my face", black with red arms; Plastic, 2 x 5 1/2 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, in honor of Chief Curator, Kathryn Wat; Courtesy of Artware Editions

mickalene tote multiples

Mickalene Thomas, Tote (front), 2009 (based on Mickalene Thomas, Lovely Six Foota, 2007); Printed cloth, 15 x 13 ½ x 3 ½ in.; Produced in partnership with the International Center of Photography; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

thomas multiples

Mickalene Thomas, Pocket mirror (front and back), 2016 (based on Mickalene Thomas, Din Facing Forward and Qusuquzah Standing Sideways, 2012); Brushed bronze with epoxy-coated artwork, 2 5/8 in. diameter; Produced by Third Drawer Down; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, in honor of National Museum of Women in the Arts Chief Curator Kathryn Wat; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

GG eraser single 2

Guerrilla Girls, Erase Discrimination, 1999; Ink on rubber, 1 1/8 x 2 1/2 x 1/4 in.; Collection of the Akron Art Museum, Museum Acquisition Fund; Image courtesy of the Akron Art Museum

How do these multiples differ from other retail objects? First, the objects in More is More are created by feminist artists, not corporations. They are authentic and witty, prompting reflection from viewers. In The Pig dinner service (2013), Sophie Calle (b. 1953) tells the story of an uncomfortable encounter with a man who insulted her. The story unfolds in small platinum type across six porcelain plates. “He leaned in to me and sought my lips. I pushed him away. ‘What makes you think I’d want to kiss you?’ I protested. ‘Well, anyway,’ he answered, ‘you eat like a pig.’” The demeaning nature of Calle’s experience stands in stark contrast to the delicate, pristine plates.

Sunglasses (2013) by Barbara Kruger (b. 1945) confront gender inequity with a simple message from her 1981 piece Untitled (Your gaze hits the side of my face). Printed on the sides of the shades, the phrase reminds us how women are objectified, while the sunglasses act as a shield—protecting the wearer from the “male gaze.” A tote bag (2009) and pocket mirror (2016) designed by Mickalene Thomas (b. 1971) address black beauty standards—by printing photos of black women on everyday objects, she celebrates their beauty and challenges Western beauty standards. The punny Erase Discrimination erasers (1999) by the Guerrilla Girls draw attention to inequality with frankness and humor.

While messages of female empowerment are used by corporations for appearance and profit, the objects in More is More present their messaging in creative, meaningful ways, leaving viewers engaged and challenged. “The problem is—the problem has always been—that feminism is not fun…. It’s complex and hard and it pisses people off,” said Andi Zeisler, founder of the feminist magazine Bitch. The multiples designed by Calle, Thomas, Kruger, and the Guerrilla Girls are witty and fun, but they also demonstrate the complexity and challenges of feminism.

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

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.

***

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.

***

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.

***

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.

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.