publication of the International Sculpture Center
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with Ursula von Rydingsvard
by Jan Garden Castro
katul katul, 19992002.
Plastic and aluminum, 52 x 40 ft. diameter
Work installed at the Queens County Family Courthouse.
Ursula von Rydingsvard
works intuitively, shaping monumental sculpture into tactile experiences
that remind us of familiar games and emotions. Some forms,
such as those in her 2002 exhibition On an Epic Scale at the
Neuberger Museum, suggest daily life on a grand scale and also recall
Polish values she learned as a child. With her parents and six siblings,
von Rydingsvard spent five years of her life, 194550, in German
refugee camps for displaced Poles. The family moved to Plainville, Connecticut,
when she was eight.
detail of katul katul, 19992002.
Plastic and aluminum, 52 x 40 ft. diameter.
latest adventure, named katul katul, is a five-story sculpture
for the new Queens County Family Courthouse designed by Henry N. Cobb
and Ian Bader of Pei, Cobb, Freed and Partners. Floating from the atrium
skylight, a sculpted dome and agitated ribbons interact with natural light.
The artist has not revealed what this enigmatic work symbolizes: it could
be the helmet of a mythical Polish hero or heroine. The name katul
katul refers to a Polish childrens game that is, in turn, inspired
by Polish cooking: women mold dough or potatoes and toss the balls into
boiling water. The children pretend to pat and mold each others
heads, tossing them to the right, to the left, and, symbolically, into
the oven. This sculpture is designed to greet the public, usually
family members with serious disputes and conflicts, with a gentle metaphor
of hope, affirmation, and light. The artists layering of meanings
in this and other large installations is matched by her hands-on construction
methods, which often begin with cedar four-by-fours cut with a circular
saw. The monumental cedar works in von Rydingsvards solo exhibition
at Storm King Art Center
received the International
Association of Art Critics Award as one of the two best small museum
exhibitions in 1992. For Paul (1992), a huge cedar bowl connecting
earth and sky, has its own site at Storm King for viewing from above,
as well as from ground level.
detail of katul katul, 19992002.
Plastic and aluminum, 52 x 40 ft. diameter.
von Rydingsvard holds
an M.F.A. from Columbia University, New York. During her years of teaching
at Yale University (from 1982 to 1986), she helped to open doors for the
next generation of artists, including several notable women. Her solo
exhibitions in 2003 include New Yorks Galerie
Lelong (May) and the Butler
Gallery in Kilkenny Ireland (August). Her solo exhibitions in 2002
included Galerie Lelong, Paris; the Neuberger
Museum of Art in Purchase, New York; and the Byron Cohen Gallery in
Kansas City. In 2000, her five solo exhibitions included Cranbrook
Art Museum, Hill
Gallery in Birmingham, Michigan, and Galerie Lelong in Zurich and
in New York. The New York Lelong show received the 2000 International
Association of Art Critics Award as one of the two best shows in a commercial
gallery. In 199899, a traveling indoor retrospective originated
at the Madison
Art Center, Wisconsin. In 19972000, an outdoor retrospective
originated at Yorkshire
Sculpture Park, England, traveled to the Nelson-Atkins
Museum, Kansas City, and closed at the Indianapolis
Art Museum. von Rydingsvards many awards include two National
Endowment for the Arts grants, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Art Award
from the American
Academy of Arts and Letters.
Her large commissions
include Paddy Wack (1997), Sebastapol, California, and Iggys
Pride (1991), Geyserville, California. Three Bowls (1990),
commissioned by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, was later purchased
by the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Skip to My Lou (1997), a circle
of dancing cedar forms for the Microsoft Corporation, combines three notions:
the awkward handwriting of an elder who can barely read and write, a Native
American image of the oceans surface motion, and people dancing
energetically in a circle, then separated. Skip to My Lou links
illiterate immigrants, the sites original tribal inhabitants, and
the workers who built the piece in an organic, passionate, undulating
Jan Garden Castro:
How did you create the Queens County Family Courthouse sculpture?
Cedar, 102.5 x 93.5 x 9 in.
Ursula von Rydingsvard:
The entire structure, dome, and sleeves were built based on my intuitive
sense of what the atrium needed. I wanted the work to play with the light
of the 40-by-40-foot skylight and to dance on either side of the double
escalators slicing through the center of the atrium. I wanted a spiritual
presence and an elegant reconfirmation through light at this family courthouse
where grisly things happen. I built the entire five-story piece in cedarthat
was my full-scale modela 22-foot dome with two attached appendages
straddling the escalator
for 50 feet.
told Avis Berman that your work is almost baroque but lighter. You said,
Id like you to feel that this is how birds would do baroque.1
Do you want to talk about the heaviness and the lightness of this piece?
And the complications of working in such an innovative medium?
UvR: My goal
was to make the lightest piece Ive ever made, one that would feel
light physically and psychologically. I must add that the process of making
it didnt feel light at all. There was tremendous anxiety involved
in dealing with the builders, the various organizations and authorities.
This is many-fold more difficult technically than anything Ive ever
tried. Because this piece is huge, suspended, and in a courthouse, there
are rules that have to be adhered to in the most rigorous way, many people
watching, checking, and coming to verify. This has involved layers and
layers of bureaucracy. I put in too much time writing memos and justifications.
Obviously, the vision
I have for it is there for me. Having learned so much, having opened up
other options for myself in the future, and the curiosity of my needing
to see what the piece would look like in the atrium was what drove me.
Mama Your Legs, 2000.
Cedar, graphite, steel, and electric motor
9.5 x 11.75 x 15 ft.
View of work in the artists studio.
Photo: David Allison
step of the way is discovery.
Even at the end, there were two things I had to resolve. I sandblasted
the entire surface and tinted the inside, testing for the right paints.
role did computers play in this project?
UvR: A role
that wasnt very significant because I had already created the full-scale
model of the entire sculpture in cedar. Computers were used to calculate
based on the reality that already existed, but they did not contribute
toward making any significant decisions in terms of what the sculpture
We did a computer
rendering of what the sleeves would do when they cascaded down the sides
of the escalator. The movements wouldnt be possible to drawtheyre
taken from another sensibility. Theyre not drawing board movements.
did you develop the form?
UvR: After I created a full-scale sculpture in cedar that weighed
over two tons, we cut the model into almost 200 sections. Knowing that
the sculpture was to be made of plastic, we built a huge vacuum-forming
machine. The machine heats up a four-by-eight-foot sheet of plastic, softening
it until the belly lowers; the entire piece of plastic is then dropped
down over the cedar mold, encasing it. The air is immediately sucked out
with tremendous force, so that the plastic sheet exactly repeats the surface
structure of the cedar. We ended up with about 200 vacuum-formed plastic
moldseach distinct and structurally precise.
The plastic we used,
Spectar copolyethelene, is impermeable to fire and gives off no gas. I
sandblasted the entire dome on the outside and painted the inside a no-color
color like water or ice. The piece is as light as a cloud physically and
From the full-scale
cedar model, we had to retro-engineer the aluminum armature onto which
the plastic could be suspended. The armature had to endure its own load
and that of the plastic suspended from the skylight. The armature had
no right angles nor any two angles the same. We had to design every seam
and every weldin fact, we became certified aluminum welders.
with Folds, Cedar and graphite, 199899
12 x 16 x 16 ft.
photo: Jerry L. Thompson
used cedar as a prototype for the courthouse project, and cedar is a staple
in your vocabulary of materials. What is its attraction?
UvR: I have
been working with cedar since 1975. Cedar is a terrible carving wood because
it splinters easily and has tenacious tendons, but it is extremely durable
outdoors and soft and easy to cut with a circular saw. I use Western red
cedar, which turns silver over time. These qualities serve me well. I
want to think, however, that I have many options in terms of using other
was wondering what Krasawica (the title of five deep bowls in the
Neuberger exhibition) means.
UvR: The word
is Ukrainian and usually refers to a young, beautiful woman. The word
has delicious connotations. For me, the title is connected to the structure
that Im building in a tangential, subconscious way.
did you create for your recent show at Galerie Lelong in Paris?
UvR: The gallery
is an elegant, large (over 100 square meters) old townhouse kind of space.
I made something akin to a floorboard about four feet high, with a bowl
eight feet high and a lot of little pieces, such as an accordion bowl
that leans in a quirky way. My favorite piece is a cedar medallion with
an image suspended from it, all inlaid into a cedar wall.
you discuss the genesis of your motorized sculpture Mama Your Legs
not as though I set out to make a sculpture that moves but more that I
was out to parallel the sense of a highly repetitive, primitive movement
as in grinding corn or churning butter. The process was so exciting that
the end goal wasnt as primary as it is with many of my other sculptures.
I was after the resulting sound of a solid hunk of wood hitting the inside
front, bottom, and back of a wooden bowl in a circular movement. I sometimes
called this inner cedar chunk a thigh.
Skip to My Lou, 1997. Cedar and graphite
3.6 x 67 ft. diameter.
of work installed on the Microsoft campus.
photo: Phil Scofield, courtesy Galerie Lelong
as this piece was a new direction, do you consider your studio to be a
laboratory of ideas?
UvR: As time
goes on, my experiments become more deviant and more exciting. For example,
I began working with cow intestines and cedar about five or six years
ago. This led to my favorite gut piece, Maglownica, a corrugated
paddle covered with a gut sheath. The gut traces some of the washboard
indentations and protrusions of the structure underneath. The use of the
gut, I believe, led to my using the plastic for the courthouse project.
does your staff work with you?
UvR: I spend
a tremendous amount of time with my assistants; they are like family to
me. We have lived together at different sites for many months at a time.
Bart Karski is the head of my studio, with two full-time and some part-time
people, depending on the project. On May 12, we celebrated Barts
10th anniversary. He came to me at the age of 17. The celebration involved
close to 60 assistants from the past. Our main goal was to get together,
cook the best dishes weve ever cooked, and to share them with one
your recent trip to Japan, were there some discoveriesor anything
you saw that seemed old and familiar?
were unknowns in the Japanese culture and visual arts that bowled me overimages
that felt as though they were contained in some predetermined way, but
within that containment, there were unpredictable spurts of energy. I
recall sitting inside an old Japanese structure built very much like a
teahouse and looking out the windows and seeing the outdoors framed in
a calculated way. It was an amazing way to direct visuals. It doesnt
feel as though we think that way here in America. You see this kind of
self-control in Japanese art, architecture, clothingall aspects
of their lives. No sooner do I say this, than I also see sandwiched into
their imagery and writing, a torn, out-of-control moment.
things that felt familiar, I visited a small village in a region called
Shirakawa-go, way up in the mountains, and I happened to go there at a
moment when it was snowing very lightly, very gently. The
Gassho-style homes there in which the people continue to live reach far
into the Japanese past.2 They
are thickly thatched A-frame structures. The wooden beams are tied together
with sisal rope. There are no nails, dowels, beams, or screws. It was
truly amazing to wander through these attics and to see their thingshammers
with long curved noses, backpacks made out of sisal and wood, and incredible
grain scoops made out of bark. There is a parallel and also a real difference
between what I saw in those mountains and what I would see in the mountains
of Europe, especially in Poland.
I was also bowled
over by the 1,000 life-size Buddhist deities at Sanjusangen-do. They were
lined up on stepped levels. Diagonally and horizontally, to the left and
to the right, the lines of deities seemed to go on to infinity. The overlappings
of the eroded gold on wood and the very slender lines that came out of
their heads gave me a feeling of being immersed in a forest of ancient
holy stuff that has no concreteness; it excited my peripheral vision.
Bowl, 2001. Cedar
174 x 120 x 120 in.
courtesy: Galerie Lelong
occurs to me that there was something both ancient and familiar about
your retrospective at the Nelson-Atkins Museum.
UvR: I dont
focus on creating work that belongs in any time zone. I loathe being an
artist connected with a style done in 2002, the 1950s, or even 600 B.C.E.
I think theres a way Im trying to talk about my own time that
is directed more by my own psychology than by chronological years.
that the courthouse sculpture is in place, what is your reaction to it?
a huge range of what feel like movements of a cloud formation that vary
underneath the dome as the light from the skylight goes though the layers
of plastic with its varied colors and varied amounts of pearl bead blasting.
The air pockets that slice across all of the many joints throughout the
sleeves of the sculpture are important, as are the flanges that slip slightly
away from their dedicated position. In other words, there is a way that
I am learning to energize with air and shifting structures. The biggest
surprise perhaps was seeing the five-story sculpture in a cylinder of
glass. Though the glare is obnoxious, theres something critical
that happens with the concentration of energy from that sculpture as it
is trapped within the glass cylinder.
Jan Garden Castro
is author of Sonia Delaunay: La Moderne (2002), a contributing
editor for Sculpture, and a poet in the CD/poetry/art collaboration
The Last Frontier.
Berman, Ursula Von Rydingsvard: Remembered Spaces, Ursula
von Rydingsvard Sculptures (Zürich and New York: Galerie Lelong,
2000), p. 12. (back)
dwellings were built in 17001750, in the middle of the Edo period
(16161869), but the origins of the style go back to the earliest
Japanese houses. (back)