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.

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.

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.

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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.

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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.”

Gallery Reboot: Domestic Affairs

Beatrice Wood, Gold Chalice, 1985; Earthenware, 12 x 8 7/8 x 8 1/4 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts; Gift of John Deardourff and Elisabeth Griffith; © Beatrice Wood Center for the Arts/Happy Valley Foundation

Beatrice Wood, Gold Chalice, 1985; Earthenware, 12 x 8 7/8 x 8 1/4 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts; Gift of John Deardourff and Elisabeth Griffith; © Beatrice Wood Center for the Arts/Happy Valley Foundation

The museum’s newly reinstalled collection emphasizes connections between historical and contemporary art. Organized by the themes of the body, nature, domesticity, fabrication, and herstory, each gallery delves into a topic explored by women artists through time and around the world.

The domestic sphere, with its daily activities and feminine associations, serves as a rich source of inspiration for many women artists. They draw subjects and materials from the domestic realm in order to uphold—or upend—cultural traditions, gender roles, and boundaries between art and craft.

Beatrice Wood (1893–1998), known as the “Mama of Dada,” gained renown for her luminous luster-glaze ceramics. Wood discovered pottery classes in the 1930s, when she wanted a matching teapot for a set of teacups from the Netherlands. Her work in ceramics and in creating a signature luster glaze earned her acclaim. Her works were featured in many solo museum exhibitions and fetched high prices at auction. Wood crafted Gold Chalice (1985) when she was 92 years old.

Angela Strassheim, Untitled (Prayer), 2005; Chromogenic color print, 30 x 40 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of The Heather and Tony Podesta Collection; © Angela Strassheim

Angela Strassheim, Untitled (Prayer), 2005; Chromogenic color print, 30 x 40 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of The Heather and Tony Podesta Collection; © Angela Strassheim

American photographer Angela Strassheim (b. 1969) portrays suburban life in the American Midwest, while making references to religion and art history. Strassheim was raised in Iowa to a born-again Christian family, whose beliefs she denounced as a teenager. Her photographs’ Christian undertones are presented matter-of-factly, but there is often an unsettling quality to the work. Strassheim’s background in forensic photography also informs her calculated compositions. Her works display recognizable scenes from daily life, but suggest that there is more than meets the eye in family life.

Ursula von Rydingsvard, Apron, 1997; Cedar, stain, and graphite, 46 x 28 x 12 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of the Tony Podesta Collection; © Ursula von Rydingsvard

Sculptures by Ursula von Rydingsvard (b. 1942) often take the form of domestic objects, such as Apron (1997). The artist’s medium of choice has been cedar for more than 35 years. Apron represents a traditionally feminine object wrought in a traditionally masculine medium. Like Strassheim, von Rydingsvard uses her family history as inspiration. The subject matter and medium are all carefully chosen. Household objects became dear to the artist when she moved around refugee camps with her family in Europe during and after World War II. In addition, aprons are a symbol of domesticity and comfort in many cultures. 

Women artists explore the theme of domestic affairs in various, unexpected ways. Visit the museum to see these works in the third floor galleries. Can’t visit in person? Browse #GalleryReboot on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for more collection highlights.

—Meghan Masius was the spring 2017 publications and communications/marketing intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Art Fix Friday: August 7, 2015

“To me, they are art world royalty,” said a Whitney Museum curator about the famous feminist art collective.

The Guerrilla Girls posted a video of themselves celebrating their 30th year. Several members, including those with the pseudonyms “Frida Kahlo” and “Käthe Kollwitz,” talk to The New York Times about the continuing gender inequities in the art world.

The New York Times charts the Guerrilla Girls’ evolution. After three decades, their mission for equality is far from over. The group first collaborated in 1985 in response to a MoMA exhibition featuring 165 artists—less than ten percent of whom were women.

Joyce Kozloff recaps her meeting with Georgia O’Keeffe in the artist’s home in 1972.

Artnews visits sculptor Ursula von Rydingsvard in her Brooklyn studio.

Hyperallergic finds only five public statues of historical women in New York City.

In honor of the Tate Modern retrospective of Agnes Martin, Artnews posts a throwback article about the artist’s minimalist grid paintings.

A new anti-street harassment mural is unveiled outside a Brooklyn grocery store.

The New Yorker article “A Ghost in the Family” shares how artists Clare Rojas and Barry McGee formed a family around McGee’s daughter by his first wife, artist Margaret Kilgallen, after Kilgallen’s tragic death.

Artist Maxine Helfman’s “Historical Correction” series re-creates old Flemish portraits by replacing the posed subjects with men and women of color.

A new study says women make up 60% of museum staffs, but minorities only account for 28% of positions.

“Word to The Woman”—Solange Knowles’s newest collaboration with Puma—features 14 innovative women from different backgrounds.

Artnet celebrates artist Hedda Sterne’s birthday with six of her most famous quotes.

The Independent analyzes the role and prevalence of female comics in Hollywood.

Here She Comes Now: Women in Music Who Have Changed Our Lives features essays by 22 writers, most of them women.

The Guardian reviews five female-friendly comic book film adaptations.

Covered in Ink surveys numerous ways women in [tattoo] culture are marginalized.”

The Guardian posts an obituary for film noir star Coleen Gray.

Shows We Want to See

Curators Day + Gluckman features 24 women artists that provide “a snapshot of the evolving conversations that continue to contribute to the mapping of a women’s place in British society.”

One of the newest contemporary art galleries in Los Angeles exhibits works by eight women artists.

Swedish artist Hannah Liden’s bagel sculptures are installed at three New York locations.

—Emily Haight is the digital editorial assistant at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.