Catching the Eye, Seeking the Hand

Ursula von Rydingsvard

By Ilene Dube

Ursula von Rydingsvard’s copper sculpture serves as a welcome beacon to a building designed by Billie Tsien and Tod Williams.

Not surprisingly, the Bushwick studio of Ursula von Rydingsvard is redolent of cedar, the sculptor’s medium of choice. For more than 30 years von Rydingsvard has kept a studio in Brooklyn where she incises monumental cedar forms using a hand-wielded chainsaw. Surrounded by other low brick and concrete industrial buildings painted with graffiti art, this one has leafy vines growing up its front. Wearing black pants and turtleneck on a 90-degree day, von Rydingsvard—with spiky boy-cut hair—looks a bit like Laurie Anderson.

There is no air conditioning in the office or studio—at least it doesn’t feel that way—and the 73-year-old runs up and down a flight of steel stairs all day, as well as climbing ladders to look inside her sculpture. No need to go to a gym or sauna at the end of a day like this.

All around us are the 4-by-4-inch cedar beams the sculptor works with. I am invited to climb a ladder and look into the abyss of one of von Rydingsvard’s forms. Though abstract, the shapes are like vessels and suggest primitive dwellings, reminiscent of the barrack-like refugee camps she lived in as a child.

Her work is collected in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art and the Storm King Art Center, among others. In 2014, von Rydingsvard won the International Sculpture Center Lifetime Achievement Award. A new 19-foot tall commission has been installed at Princeton University’s Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment in October. The building, to be dedicated in spring 2016, is designed by Billie Tsien and Tod Williams, the architects responsible for the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia and the former American Folk Art Museum in New York City. With a copper pyramid at its peak, Feinberg Hall, a residence Tsien and Williams designed on the Princeton University campus, was completed in 1986.

Von Rydingsvard’s sculpture is her first to be fabricated primarily in copper. The full-sized maquette of stacked, texturized cedar beams shaped with a circular saw took six months to build. The finished piece of more than 3,000 copper pieces, each hammered by hand and painstakingly assembled around a metal armature, imitates the texture of the wooden model. The copper version was fabricated in nearby Greenpoint in the studio of metal artist Richard Webber.

Princeton University Art Museum Director James Steward has called the piece a “heroic and layered work of art by one of the greatest sculptors of our time,” noting that it will be fitting on the campus that is home to so many other important works of art. It also “brings a new dimension to the collection distributed across our historic campus.”

Emily Carter, the Andlinger Center’s founding director, anticipated the sculpture as a welcoming beacon, “rising into the sky, emblematic of our high aspirations…its meticulously handcrafted construction of copper parallels the…challenging research we undertake in the center.”

Ursula von Rydingsvard

“Copper is so soulful and responsive to all kinds of climate,” says von Rydingsvard. “It instinctively felt like the right thing to do.” She speaks in a softer voice than one might expect from a person wielding power tools and wearing protective gear. Along one of the studio’s walls hang fire-retardant uniforms and masks.

Guided by instincts and dreams, von Rydingsvard does not start with a scaled-down model. Studio assistant Andria Morales shows me the full-size maquette, in cedar, for the copper sculpture, and explains how von Rydingsvard starts by sketching the outline on the ground. Once that is cut, she draws the profile for the next layer, and so forth, building up layer by layer. “It’s a process she’s developed over 35 years,” says Morales, who is one of six studio assistants. “She doesn’t do drawings but has an image in her head that is pretty compelling.”

As the texturized vessel takes form, von Rydingsvard is there with her pencil, making registration marks, continuing to build up from the ground. Each piece is screwed together as it rises, then unscrewed, reverse stacked, and glued—a numbering system helps to keep track of where everything goes—so the final sculpture has no screws.

“She has developed a language with pencil marks to indicate the edge and what kind of cut she wants,” says Morales. “There’s no talking when working.”

At Richard Webber’s studio there are three more assistants. The fabricator makes a paper template of every cedar 4-by-4, then creates it in copper. “Each copper panel is pounded into shape and affixed until the sculpture is mimicked in copper,” says Morales. “It’s labor intensive and highly skilled.” In fact, von Rydingsvard says this is the most labor-intensive work she has ever done.

The cedar model was started two years ago. What will become of it? Morales, who is in her fourth year with von Rydingsvard, says the model is available if a private collector wants it. Or it may get recycled into another work. The studio is home to large works that are between exhibitions in, for example, the Venice Biennale, Art Basel and the Frieze Art Fair. The number of shipping containers needed to transport these works overseas is staggering, not to mention the cranes needed to set them in place.

Although this is her first work in copper, von Rydingsvard has worked in bronze. Bent Lace is a wood model for a bronze that was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art. Another vessel in preliminary stages that has been commissioned for M.I.T. “Nothing gets built without her hands on it, drawing, dictating steps,” says Morales.

We enter an enormous room adjacent to von Rydingsvard’s office where she turns on the A.C. An intern offers me a glass of water. The room, with its long floorboards, runs from the front of the building to the back. There’s a large work area covered with a tapestry, flat files, work lights and magnifying lenses, shelves of supplies and a rocking chair draped with a throw. One entire wall is comprised of her smaller works—doodlings on paper, abstract forms of copper mesh, threads, beads, cut-out paper, lace, cast paper and photographs. On this wall she is working out ideas and establishing her own visual vocabulary. She calls them “experiments, little nothings.” If the artist did these alone, she would be remarkable.

Von Rydingsvard was born in Germany in 1942 to a Polish mother and a Ukrainian father who were forced to work as agricultural laborers under the Nazis during World War II. Between 1945 and 1950, von Rydingsvard and her family—she was one of seven children—cycled through nine displacement camps in Germany, living in raw wooden barracks. When she was 9 years old her family emigrated to Connecticut.

When asked, von Rydingsvard is reluctant to discuss any of this. “One’s childhood affects one profoundly and it can never be erased, but I could not be specific as to how it manifests in my work.” She has said that in her family using too many words made one suspect. “I drank from the world in visual means,” she says. Von Rydingsvard learned to ration smiles, and only laughed when “really appropriate…Working hard was the answer to life.”

Arriving in Connecticut, she remembers being amazed at the how the earth looked from above. “There was black tar covering the earth, and homes on top of rectangles of measured plots. I had seen very little grass before. The three-story brick buildings —we always had out houses and outdoor fires. I didn’t think ‘how lucky,’ I thought it was jarring.”

Her father found work in a factory. The only money they had was attached to the lining of their coats. “The Polish National Alliance knew immigrants paid back so they loaned us money to buy a house. My father was terrified. He worked eight hours in a factory under the smelliest conditions, cutting metal, then cycled to another town to work another eight hours. On weekends he worked as a gardener.”

While earning an MFA from Columbia University in 1975, von Rydingsvard discovered cedar as a medium. It reminds her of the wooden spoons, bowls, platters and shovels of her rural farming heritage. She taught at five metropolitan colleges and at Yale before being able to work full time on her sculpture.

Ursula 6

When she found this building in Bushwick, once a facility for making coffins, it had been run into the ground by the previous owner, an ambulance dispatcher. Von Rydingsvard says she was able to get it for “not a lot” but had to deal with the thousands of pigeons who made their home in the torn-open roof. “It was a tremendous amount of work.”

What she wants to talk about most is the copper. “It’s a visually impressive thing in copper—the colors are beautiful and you want to touch it.” When copper oxidizes it turns green, but the patina used will have rich red and orange tones. Touching it will affect the patina, and change it over time. As with Ona, her work in bronze in front of Brooklyn’s Barclay Center, she wants people to touch it and interact with it, comparing it to rubbing the Buddha’s belly. She chose Webber as a fabricator because of his work with the Museum of Natural History. “He would create missing bones of dinosaurs, copy fossils or add on. He’s brilliant. He uses his blow torch and pounds, making the metal behave.”

Von Rydingsvard asks Morales to call car service to take her home to Manhattan where she lives with her husband, neuroscientist and Nobel Prize winner Paul Greengard. Morales stays to take care of loose ends—following up on a piece just installed at the National Gallery, and those recently purchased by the Museum of Modern Art, the Albright Knox Gallery in Buffalo, N.Y., and the Cleveland Museum of Art.

“The work in copper is gorgeous gorgeous gorgeous,” repeats von Rydingsvard on her way out. “There’s nothing like it in all of the U.S.”