Ursula von Rydingsvärd, an internationally acclaimed American sculptor, one of the few women artists working in monumental sculpture. Her distinct, poetic compositions in cedar wood and bronze can be found in many major collections and art institutions in the USA. Her recent solo exhibition “Nothing but Art” travels between three institutions: the Center of Polish Sculpture in Orońsko (4.9-17.10.2021), the National Museum in Kraków (6.11.2021-6.02.2022), and the Royal Łazienki Museum in Warsaw (5.10.2021-13.02.2022).
I met with the artist in her studio in Brooklyn. Decorated with traditional African sculptures, plants, her own works and personal objects, the upper floor of the studio appeared warm and cosy. The objects scattered in the room reflected von Rydingsvärd’s aesthetic inspirations and inclinations, resonating with her art. A black cat wandered around, trying to get our attention. Her name is Malutka, which means “small one” in Polish. Ursula began our conversation by reading out her famous text on why she makes art, which she often circulates between museums and collaborators that exhibit her work. This short essay also inspired the title of the exhibition in Orońsko, as it describes the artist’s relentless drive towards making art. While this candid text, almost a personal manifesto, is prompted by the question of why she makes art, von Rydingsvärd states right at the beginning that she has no definite answers – she can only point to some possibilities. In a calm voice, the artist read the list of all the possible reasons. She talked about how she survives thanks to art, and about the labour, anxiety, pleasure, and pain it entails. She told me about the inertia, hope, and healing that art can bring forth. This richness of reasons echoes the richness and beauty of Ursula’s art.
We began by talking about the exhibition in Orońsko. This visit meant a lot to von Rydingsvärd. After nearly 30 years, she was returning to Poland. In her beautiful speech at the opening, the artist admitted that despite having lived in the USA since she was 7 years old, her “artwork is full of Poland … much of it from long ago Poland”. She shared some of the earliest memories of living with her family in refugee camps populated by displaced Poles where she would know “only all that was Polish … the language, the holidays, the people, their songs, their sorrows, their food, and lack of it”. Von Rydingsvärd also recalled the people she met during her first visit in 1992: Milada Ślizińska, without whom the exhibition at the Ujazdowski Castle would not have been possible, and Wojciech Krukowski, the director of the museum at the time who would show her around Warsaw and arrange small, amateur concerts of Polish folk songs just for her. That experience left a strong impression on the artist.
As the curator Eulalia Domanowska explained to me, the idea for this major retrospective at the Center of Polish Sculpture in Orońsko, then in Kraków and Warsaw, was born in 2015 during the presentation of Ursula’s sculptures in Giardino della Marinaressa in Venice during the 56th Venice Biennale. Upon seeing the harmonious dialogue between Ursula’s sculptures and the urban garden, Domanowska envisioned exhibiting those monumental, dynamic works in Orońsko’s sculpture park. Von Rydingsvärd, a daughter of Polish immigrants, already had strong connections to Poland, although she had presented works in her homeland only once, in 1992 at the Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art. As she confessed, she was delighted to receive the invitation to show her art in Orońsko and didn’t need to be persuaded. In 2019, Domanowska visited the artist’s studio in Brooklyn and since then the exhibition began to crystallise. They selected 15 sculptures, 11 drawings, and 3 documentary films to represent the artist’s practice. The earliest work in the show, “Untitled (Nine cones)”, was produced in 1976 just after the artist had graduated from the Columbia MFA programme, while other works are as recent as 2017. With the help of the teams from the three participating institutions, the curator managed to navigate the turmoil of the pandemic and open the first iteration of the retrospective in early September.
DT: I was particularly struck by the beautiful description of your reaction to Polish folk songs. How is it that you still remember it so vividly? Why did you feel so strong about the songs?
UvR: I was in a little room in the Old Town [in Warsaw], where I could hear the bells ringing in the nearby churches. At night, after spending my whole day on trips with Wojciech [Krukowski], I couldn’t sleep. Wojciech would take me to meet women who would sing old songs and I listened to them, working hard to tame my tears.
It’s not as though I knew the words but those songs just felt so familiar that my cheeks were burning as it felt so close to my childhood Polish environment. The generous, wonderful women who sang them were from some farms, most of them had children and were grandmothers. Their singing was something that came out of their hearts and that gift was deeply meaningful to me. So great.
DT: How do the memories of Polish culture you were exposed to as a child inform your work?
UvR: I never think about them when I make my art. I rarely think about the camps. The brain just does what it needs to do. It’s more about who you are and that’s all that really counts. But I do have a terrifically strong will to make art. Again, why? I don’t know, I can’t give a clear answer.
DT: I know that the process and labour is very important to your art. I’d like to ask you about your creative process. I wonder if you begin a piece with an idea or a concept or do you maybe work more with an image of a texture or a shape you have in your head?
UvR: Sometimes I was working on a piece that took another detour which wasn’t helpful to that piece. So I kept that in my mind and later I started working on that detour, but it’s not that easy and I don’t wait for some great image to appear. I just work. I’ve burnt many pieces. Every other summer I used to burn the sculptures that I couldn’t look at anymore. You have to allow yourself to fail, it’s healthy.
I know I’m going to sound really stupid but this is the truth – I really don’t know where the images come from. I can only know after I get the image. I don’t really get any eureka moments, but I get a yearning for some forms and I follow that. The source is obviously somewhere in my brain, I’m assuming.Hungry for more?
DT: I was also curious about how important is the idea of a specific place to you? What I mean by that is a reference to a landscape or to a geographical location.
UvR: It’s very important. I walk all over the site to find the right place. Right now, I’m working on a piece for someone that has 300 acres and has beautiful sculptures on their property. The land is very hilly, with a little river cutting through it. It took two days to find the place that I wanted to put my sculpture in. To have a sculpture out in nature is always so meaningful, because we can never do something that’s as great as nature herself. Nature is my teacher, she’s the one that talks into my ear, or speaks to my eyes, I should say.
DT: That’s beautiful and I can see that influence in your works. I’d like to follow this idea of nature a little bit further. Your monumental works have the ability to resemble nature and there is a similar sublime beauty to them. Where does this similarity come from? Is it something that you think about when working on a piece?
UvR: In one of the camps, my mother used to buy raw linen because she made us clothing from it. That linen was very hard, very stiff. So to soften it, I would put it on the grass, which was never mowed. And it wasn’t really grass, it was just whatever grew there, so usually there were some stems that could hold the fabric. I would take water and drop it with my hands so that it got wet. The water was not so easy to get either because usually in the camps you had one faucet for many barracks. We were very careful with how much water we used. I loved the form the linen would take because it would just let itself down after spraying it with drops of water. It had this rugged, geometric irregularity. I remember it so, so clearly.
We would like to present a brief interview between Mirosław Bałka, whose work Red Nerve is part of this amazing collection, and Philip Larratt-Smith, the Canadian art curator who was working with Bourgeois as a literary archivist. Larratt-Smith was later invited to write an essay on Ama’s art. But finally, in 2015, they invited him to be the curator of this collection.
DT: I see. It looks like you were drawn to certain forms from a very young age. I’m also very curious to hear about the relationship between your art and everyday objects like tools or dishes. This is something that people often see in your art, which is not surprising, given that some works or entire series take their titles from bowls, shovels, or caps. I wonder if these objects inspire you in any way.
UvR: Food was important. With my series “Bowls”, sometimes I didn’t even want to make a bowl but the piece ended up being a bowl. But actually, it’s not a bowl. They are metaphors that could be like poetry which always contains many meanings. My bowls are much more than just bowls. I’ve made so many shovels, so many tables. I think I’ve made over 20 tables, many of which are here right now in the studio.
DT: What about the titles? How do you title your works? They are all very evocative and poetic.
UvR: Did you see my works with Polish titles?
DT: A couple of them, yes.
UvR: Almost half of my pieces have Polish titles and that’s how I was able to keep Poland around and near me. It was very important to me to go back to Orońsko for my exhibition. It was fabulous. I had Eulalia Domanowska taking care of me there. She was so good, so caring, so smart, and she loves art and artists so much. I was really privileged to be with her in Orońsko.
But going back to my titles – they are not important to me. One of the reasons that I use Polish language in my titles is that I really don’t want to say anything specific about my works. I want to have something that means something to me in relationship to those images. It might mean nothing to others. If the audience would see a Polish name, they will not understand it. To me, it’s a better option, because titles often are explanations. One of the first things people do when they look at art is to look at the title because they think that it’s going to explain the visuals. It never does. If it’s a good artwork, the title never explains it. It’s more difficult but it gives so much joy when you just give yourself up to the visuals. Just give yourself up. Of course you might not understand it. So what? See, you’ll never understand all of it. It doesn’t matter, because you can take a ride, you can take a whiff, like what you do when you smell the air but in this case, you do it with your eyes.
“Ursula von Rydingsvärd. Nothing but Art”
The exhibition is scheduled to travel between three institutions:
- The Center of Polish Sculpture in Orońsko (4.9-17.10.2021) – More
- The National Museum in Kraków (6.11.2021-6.02.2022) – More
- The Royal Łazienki Museum in Warsaw (5.10.2021-13.02.2022) – More