Ursula von Rydingsvard Sculpts Metaphors in Wood

The contemporary artist combines primordial forms and highly expressive content to produce haunting and monumental works of uncommon power

Evoking everyday objects and architectural forms — barns, sheds, barracks, pews, altars — and a variety of implements borrowed from a household of domesticated giants, Ursula von Rydingsvard's work mines its subject matter from the deepest veins of memory. Born in Germany in 1942, the artist spent most of her early childhood in refugee camps until her parents and their seven children were able to immigrate to the United States in 1950.

For von Rydingsvard, who studied sculpture at Columbia University with Ronald Bladen, George Sugarman and Jean Linder, wood became the key to unlocking the autobiographical and ancestral content that she has since transformed into metaphor. "In her sculptures, an idea about a specific person takes on architectural dimensions," writes Berman; "bones become beams and rafters, constructed forms seem to stand for human effort and need." Though brooding and somber, her works are "oddly domestic and comforting — haunting rather than despairing, stoic rather than sentimental."

Von Rydingsvard first started being noticed about a decade ago, yet her sculpture was never fashionable. "Now, however," writes Berman, "it would be remiss to overlook her." Not only have museums such as the Metropolitan, the Whitney, the Walker Art Center and the Detroit Institute of Arts acquired her work, but a number of private collectors, as well as the Microsoft Corporation, have commissioned outdoor pieces. An exhibition of her indoor sculpture, organized by the Madison Art Center in Madison, Wisconsin, has recently begun a four-city tour, and a show of her outdoor sculpture opens at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City on May 9.

Von Rydingsvard "is in the front rank of sculptors today," says Martin Friedman, director emeritus of the Walker Art Center. "She is also a key figure in restoring to sculpture its sense of craft."

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