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  1. #1
    Join Date
    Jul 2002
    SF Bay Area




    A sculptor grown monumental

    In her immersive protective gear she looks like a spaceman, or a priestess. The emphasis of this short documentary is on Von Rydingsvard's importance as a maker of increasingly large, public sculptures, made from complexly melded together and carved planks of cedar wood or cast in bronze from the wood. We also see her working with copper.

    This emphasis of the film on the fruits of current success, the monumentality of the current work, risks leaving one with a sense of sameness, though in the background surrounding her in her studio we glimpse smaller work in greater variety. Sometimes, particularly in its occasional emphasis on large simple wooden tool-like shapes, the work reminds one of Robert Puryear, but his work is both simpler and more various and has more a sense of humor.

    Von Rydingsvard may also have a more conscious debt both to nature, to wind, rocks, stone, trees, and to the haystacks and wood stacks of her mother's native Poland. Clips of a visit to Poland in the nineties show she found such things, as if it had been in her DNA and come out in her art.

    Sometimes the film makes the mistake of seeming to expect us to admire the work because it's a lot of work. There is much emphasis on the intensity of the artist's efforts. She also has numerous assistants whom she loves and considers a close knit team: she treasures their lunches together.

    She was born in 1942 in Deensen, Germany and lived age three to eight in 8 displaced persons camps in in Germany after the war's end with parents and six siblings. It was a peasant farmer family, her mother Polish, her hard and brutal father, who beat her and other family members, Ukrainian. After the camps, in 1950, through the Marshall Plan, the family came to America and settled in the working class Connecticut town of Plainfield.

    Ursula speaks of the wood of the camp buildings and the sense of security it gave her against the outside world. Her admiring and loyal brother Staś Karoliszyn, who was one year old when they came to America, and is interviewed here, says they'd not have survived without their mother in the camps. (There are apparently two sisters and another brother still living).

    Ursula tells us her father beat her even in America and she even describes the beatings, but the film doesn't tell much about what happened to her from age ten to age 33. In between, the kids went to school while their parents worked at multiple jobs to survive. Ursula went to college in Coral Gables, Florida and got a BA and an MA there and later got married to a man who went crazy, which lasted for nine years. Apparently he gave her the name Von Rydingsvard.

    Skip to 1975: in that year she has divorced the crazy man and studied art at Yale. She moves to New York, the wild and wooly, dangerous Big Apple of the seventies, with a young daughter, Ursie. They live on Food Stamps, are penniless. With savings from some years of teaching, she buys a large loft on Spring Street in what's by then known as SoHo for $6,000. Her daughter (heard from here) could skateboard or roller skate around there with her friends. "New York woke me up in a way that was jarring and marvelous," Ursula says. She speaks of what an exciting place it was to be and how much this change of venue meant to her and her work.

    Later she got a job at Yale and met Paul Greengard, "director of a brain research lab" there who later with two other scientists won the Nobel Prize for Medicine. He says he was first drawn to her by her beauty, and earlier photographs and clips show what he means. They went to Poland together for the visit that was a discovery of instinctive artistic roots for Von Rydingsvard. She seems inspired not only by nature, but by folk custom, such as the way the Polish farmers stacked their wood and their hay. Texture is very important in this work, the rough hacked surfaces of the cedar coated with graphite dust. Even the bronze she wants people to feel the surface of, a pleasure withheld, of course, from visitors to museums looking at wood sculptures.

    I connect with Agnes Gund, former President of MoMA and described in a Times tribute article as perhaps the last "good" rich powerful white woman, when she says she liked Ursula's work when smaller, though she says the big bronze transfers "work," and in truth, one cannot assess this, or any art, without seeing it in person.

    The pieces we see being made by Ursula and her assistants are constructed, as of many years, of 4x4 cedar planks or sometimes, more recently, of bronze cast from cedar at a great artist foundry we visit. These sculptures, both wood and bronze, are tall, higgledy-piggledy top-heavy pieces that may not show her range as much as they show her celebrated energy, drive, and ambition. Fellow Yale artist Judy Pfaff, who has known her for a long time, says she always thought Ursula would reach a certain level and then take it easy but comments, "What was I thinking?" In her late seventies, Ursula von Rydingsvard shows no signs of laying back.

    It's like a jigsaw puzzle, says one person working on assembling a Von Rydingsvard bronze (a complicated collection of thin sheets, as the wood sculptures are tangled gatherings of planks), "It seems impossible, but then you just focus on one part at a time, and eventually you get through." "Sounds like life," Ursula laughs. She is an appealing person.

    Ursule van Rydingsvard: Into Her Own, 57 mins., debuted at Vancouver, Oct. 2019. Coming on Film Forum virtual theater Friday, May 29, 2020. For distributor Icarus Films list of virtual releases and theater affiliations, go HERE.

    Also coming to Film Forum online the same date: The Grey Fox and Andrei Ujica’s Videograms of a Revolution.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 05-26-2020 at 06:14 PM.


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