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.

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.

***

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.

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.

The Contour of an Artist: Ursula von Rydingsvard’s Beginnings

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 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 was born in 1942 in Deensen, Germany, to a Polish mother and a Ukrainian father—peasant farmers who worked in forced labor under the Nazis during World War II. After the war, the family spent five years in eight different refugee camps before immigrating to the United States in 1950, where they settled in Connecticut. While von Rydingsvard resists autobiographical readings of her sculptures, their ambiguous subjects are often imbued with her life experiences.

In the 1970s, von Rydingsvard turned to art as a vehicle for expression. She attained a master’s degree in studio art from Columbia University and began working with cedar wood. Why cedar? One reason was that von Rydingsvard’s father was a woodcutter, so working with cedar felt like an extension of her ancestry and a connection to the past. Another was that as she came into her practice at the height of the Minimalist movement, von Rydingsvard disliked the genre’s machismo and detachment. The artist gravitated to cedar because she appreciated the wood’s softness, which enabled her to manipulate it into expressive forms.

Foreground: Ursula von Rydingsvard, Untitled (nine cones), 1976; Cedar, Nine elements, each approx. 42 in. high; © Ursula von Rydingsvard, Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co.; Background: Ursula von Rydingsvard, Droga, 2009; Cedar and graphite, 4 ft. 6 in. x 9 ft. 7 in. x 18 ft. 3 in.; © Ursula von Rydingsvard, Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co.; Photo by Alicia Gregory, NMWA

Foreground: Ursula von Rydingsvard, Untitled (nine cones), 1976; Cedar, Nine elements, each approx. 42 in. high; © Ursula von Rydingsvard, Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co.; Background: Ursula von Rydingsvard, Droga, 2009; Cedar and graphite, 4 ft. 6 in. x 9 ft. 7 in. x 18 ft. 3 in.; © Ursula von Rydingsvard, Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co.; Photo by Alicia Gregory, NMWA

Although she eschewed Minimalist characteristics, subtle influences are evident in at least one of her works. The nine wooden cones that comprise von Rydingsvard’s 1976 piece Untitled (nine cones), are arranged in a grid-like pattern and integrate “the industrial idealism” of Donald Judd into her own practice. Despite this influence, the artist’s sculptures are not polished or structured, but organic and distressed. Working in a male-dominated art world, von Rydingsvard created works that stood apart.

“I don’t care about precision. I just care about things that make you feel something,” the artist has said. What feelings does her work Ocean Floor (1996) evoke? The large-scale, bowl-shaped sculpture is reminiscent of the wooden bowls von Rydingsvard and her family ate from in refugee camps. Attached to the bowl are 50 pairs of dried and stuffed cow intestines, which, for many, evoke feelings of disgust and discomfort. Viewers, searching for meaning, may think about the hardships of people removed from their homes and living in the harsh conditions in refugee camps.

Ursula von Rydingsvard, Ocean Floor, 1996; Cedar, graphite, and cow intestines, 3 x 13 x 11 ft.; © Ursula von Rydingsvard, Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co

Ursula von Rydingsvard, Ocean Floor, 1996; Cedar, graphite, and cow intestines, 3 x 13 x 11 ft.; © Ursula von Rydingsvard, Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co

In her artistic manifesto, 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 a constant hope inside of me that this process will heal me, my family, and the world.” For Ursula von Rydingsvard, sculpture is personal—a way to heal and process her innermost feelings. But it is also a way to connect to the outside world, to engage people and to help them find meaning through her art.

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

Opening Friday: Ursula von Rydingsvard: 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 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.

***

On view March 22–July 28, 2019, The Contour of Feeling marks the most ambitious von Rydingsvard exhibition to date in the United States and her first solo exhibition in Washington, D.C. Featuring 26 sculptures, a wall installation, and nine works on paper, the exhibition is guest-curated by Mark Rosenthal, formerly curator of 20th-century art at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., and organized by the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia, where it was on view from April 27 to August 26, 2018.

A woman stares up at a large and towering cedar sculpture that features a very tall base, perhaps 12 ft, with an extending smaller piece on the left that seems to hang down slightly, resembling the unevenness/organic makeup of a tree base.

Ursula von Rydingsvard, For Natasha, 2015; Cedar and graphite, 9 ft. 1 in. x 6 ft. 7 in. x 3 ft. 6 in.; © Ursula von Rydingsvard, Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co.; Photo by Michael Bodycomb

The daughter of a woodcutter from a long line of peasant farmers, von Rydingsvard spent several of her early years in the wooden barracks of refugee camps in Germany at the end of World War II. While von Rydingsvard resists biographical readings of her works, she speaks of those critical years as woven into her subconscious or instinct, which in turn leaves an imprint on her art.

The Contour of Feeling centers on the creative flourishing of the artist’s recent career, anchored by a number of her early masterpieces. Among these is Untitled (nine cones) (1976), von Rydingsvard’s first major work in cedar and the earliest work on view in this exhibition. Subtle references to her family history are seen in Zakopane (1987), a wall installation of 22 fused vertical units with hollow vessels at the base. The sculpture commands the viewer’s attention with an altar-like presence that simultaneously recalls the tools used for labor by Polish peasants.

Von Rydingsvard’s oeuvre also includes smaller works on handmade linen paper which are infused with surprising materials like knotted silk from a red scarf, tangles of thread, paper pulp, hair, lace, graphite and pigment. The collaged materials extend the boundaries of the paper, giving the delicate two-dimensional works a sculptural presence. The more intimate side of von Rydingsvard’s art is also evident in a wall installation that features her little nothings (2000-15), small objects collected and created by the artist, including strands of her brother’s hair, fragments of cedar, knitting and linen, and personal photographs.

Ursula von Rydingsvard - Zakopane

Ursula von Rydingsvard, Zakopane, 1987; Cedar and paint, 11 ft. 6 in. x 22 ft. x 3 ft.; © Ursula von Rydingsvard, Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co.; Photo by Carlos Avendaño

Ursula von Rydingsvard - Scratch II

Ursula von Rydingsvard, SCRATCH II, 2015; Cedar and graphite, 10 ft. 1 in. x 6 ft. 3 in. x 4 ft. 11 in.; © Ursula von Rydingsvard, Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co.; Photo by Carlos Avendaño

Ursula von Rydingsvard - thread terror

Ursula von Rydingsvard, thread terror, 2016; Cedar and graphite, 8 ft. 10 in. x 8 ft. 5 in. x 1 ft. 1 in.; © Ursula von Rydingsvard, Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co.; Photo by Jerry L. Thompson

Ursula von Rydingsvard - Red Wool

Ursula von Rydingsvard, Untitled, 2016; Thread, wool, and pigment on linen handmade paper, 38 x 22 in.; Produced at Dieu Donné, New York; © Ursula von Rydingsvard, Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co.; Photo by Etienne Frossard

Ursula von Rydingsvard - little nothings

Ursula von Rydingsvard, little nothings, 2000–15; Items including cedar objects, drawings on paper, copper wires, photographs, tools, threads, and lace, dimensions variable; © Ursula von Rydingsvard, Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co.; Photo by Carlos Avendaño

The Contour of Feeling illuminates the “interior Ursula,” as evidenced by the exhibition’s title, which was inspired by a line from Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem “Fourth Duino Elegy”: “We don’t know the contour of feeling; we only know what molds it from without.” Like Rilke’s poem, von Rydingsvard’s art expresses a persistent search for deeper truths. In her relentless quest to visually render her emotions and feelings, von Rydingsvard states that she makes art to “get answers to questions for which I know there are no answers” and “mostly, to survive.”