May 29, 2020
by Carla Hay
Directed by Daniel Traub
Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City and other parts of the world, this documentary about sculptor Ursula von Rydingsvard features a predominantly white group of people (with some Asians) talking about von Rydingsvard’s life and career.
Culture Clash: Coming to America as a child from a large immigrant family, von Rydingsvard overcame childhood abuse, poverty and self-doubt to become one of the leading sculptors in the art world.
Culture Audience: “Ursula von Rydingsvard: Into Her Own” will appeal primarily to enthusiasts of fine art.
Whether or not sculpture is someone’s preferred art form, the documentary “Ursula von Rydingsvard: Into Her Own” offers a compelling look into the life and artistic process of notable sculptor Ursula von Rydingsvard. The movie would be worth seeing, even if it only showed her creativity, but New York City-based von Rydingsvard (who participated in the documentary) also opens up about how she overcame personal and professional obstacles to get where she is now.
Throughout the film (skillfully directed by Daniel Traub), von Rydingsvard and her team of assistants are shown creating what was one of her most ambitious pieces up to that point: “Uroda,” a copper sculpture commissioned by Princeton University in New Jersey, where the sculpture currently stands outside the university’s Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment. The massive sculpture (which includes steel and bronze) was completed in 2015, and the documentary shows the two-year journey in creating it.
“Uroda” was somewhat outside of von Rydingsvard’s comfort zone, since she made a name for herself as a sculptor whose specialty was cedar wood. She remembers in the documentary that her preference for cedar wood came about when a monk artist named Michael Mulhern gave her cedar wood to work with when she was a young artist. She was immediately struck by the “soft” and “sensuous” feel of the cedar wood and the feeling that she “could really get carried away” with working with this material.
In the documentary, von Rydingsvard also explains why wood has a big emotional connection for her. Born in 1942, she grew up Germany with her Ukranian father and Polish mother, who were peasant famers forced to work for the Nazis. (Her parents had had nine children, including Ursula.) After Germany was defeated in World War II, the family lived in Displaced Persons camps. She remembers that at those camps, “Everything was made of wood … in a rough, rugged way. There was a kind of safety that the wood gave me.”
But things weren’t always safe in the family household, since von Rydingsvard and her younger brother Stas Karoliszyn say in the documentary that their father was physically and emotionally abusive to all of his children. The children would endure vicious beatings and degrading insults from heir father. The abuse got worse after the family immigrated to the United States in 1950, because von Rydingsvard believes that her father had an inferiority complex about being an immigrant.
According to von Rydingsvard, art was an outlet to express her emotions: “I’m so glad I did something with that anger and pain.” Her brother agrees: “Her artwork is her driving force, always.” He adds that their mother was a source of healing strength for the family: “We would not have survived the camps.”
In school, von Rydingsvard’s artist talent was recognized from an early age. She remembers being someone who was often chosen to do artwork for the school, such as make posters or Christmas decorations. “It gave me special attention that was positive,” she says. She says later in the film about art: “It helped enable me to figure myself out as something other than lazy and stupid and worthless.”
But growing up in working-class Plainview, Connecticut, there weren’t any professional artists that she knew about, so it never crossed her mind that she could make a career out of being a professional artist. She comments, “I have a tremendous yearning to be an artist. And somehow, I thought that I really didn’t deserve that. And it took most of my life, actually, to gain confidence.”
The journey to become a professional artist wasn’t an easy one for von Rydingsvard. Despite knowing from an early age that she liked making art, she was confined by traditional gender roles (in an era when it was much harder for women to be accepted into the art world than men) and was trapped in a bad marriage to a violent schizophrenic. She ended the marriage after nine years because she said she could no longer help her husband and she feared for the safety of herself and their daughter Ursie.
At the age of 33, von Rydingsvard moved from Oakland, California, to New York City, where she says she felt reborn. Even though she was a financially struggling divorced mother, she felt inspired to become a professional artist for the first time because the New York artist scene was filled with a variety of women who helped pave the way for her to find her place in the art world. She also says that nature has always been her biggest art inspiration.
Her daughter Ursie remembers growing up at that time in a “raw” SoHo loft “before living in a loft was cool.” And Ursie says that even though she and her mother were poor and living off of food stamps, it was a time of great freedom and artistic discovery for her mother. Ursie recalls the one main rule she had when she was growing up: “‘Do what you want. Just don’t set off the sprinklers.’ That was my childhood.”
Ursie also remembers that because of her mother’s decision to be a wood sculptor, “I would go to sleep to the sound of chainsaws,” which Ursie says almost had a “lullaby” effect on her. Living under financial hardship brought mother and daughter closer together. “It was a very tight, close relationship,” Ursie says.
One of the first pieces by von Rydingsvard that got attention in New York City was 1980’s “St. Martin’s Dream, a wood sculpture in Battery Park that resembled birds perched on a long fence. Several other von Rydingsvard pieces are seen and mentioned in the documentary including “Ona,” “Uroda,””Dumma,” “St. Eulalia,” “Sunken Shadow and Echo,” “Ocean Floor,” “Mama Your Legs,” “Ene Du Rabe,” “For Paul,” “Bent Lace” and “Scientia.”
Several people from the New York City art world are interviewed in the documentary about von Rydingsvard, including artist Sarah Sze and art patrons Agnes Gund and Lole Harp McGovern. Adam Weinberg, the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Alice Pratt Brown director, comments that “the essence of her work is touch.” Galerie Lelong president Mary Sabatino adds, “Her process is laborious. Her process is almost medieval.” Fellow artist Judy Pfaff calls von Rydingsvard “very driven,” “focused” and “very disciplined.”
Studio owner Elka Krajewska comments that part of von Rydingsvard’s identity that comes through in her art is “definitely the immigrant story, coming into this world that’s very new, and trying to figure out how … to deal with it” Art writer Patricia C. Phillips says, “I think Ursula loves beauty, but I don’t think she’s really setting out to make beautiful things. And I think she’s also setting out to make things that unsettle us a little bit. It’s why I think people find it fascinating.”
As for what von Rydingsvard thinks about beauty, she comments in a conversation with her second husband, Paul Greengard, a Nobel Prize-winning brain scientist/researcher from Yale University. (Greengard and von Rydingsvard got married in 1985. He died in 2019, at the age of 93.) “I actually hate the word ‘beauty,'” von Rydingsvard says. “I feel very uncomfortable using it because nobody actually knows what it means.”
She continues in her thoughts on beauty: “Everybody has their own understanding of it. It’s kind of an idealized state, and I’m not even sure anything like that exists. There’s no criteria for beauty. There’s no criteria to art, to begin with. You can’t define it.”
Greengard then smiles and says to her, “I started going out with you because of your beauty.” She smiles back and indicates that she’s flattered. It’s an endearing moment in the film that shows how much these two still loved each other after decades of being married.
Some of the documentary’s footage is at Richard Webber Studio in Brooklyn, where much of her art is constructed. Richard Webber and von Rydingsvard have been longtime colleagues. She gives credit to the team of workers who assist her in building her visions. Far from being an aloof leader, von Rydingsvard is hands-on by doing a lot of the labor too, and she eats meals with her team, whom she calls “superb.”
“I like them all so much,” von Rydingsvard says. “The fact that we have lunches together every day—all of that’s an important part of the mix. We’re always extremely respectful. That’s an atmosphere that we created that works to help make the art.” Members of von Rydingsvard’s team are interviewed in the film include studio manager Sean Weeks-Earp, cutter Ted Springer and cutter/studio assistant Morgan Daly, who echo the camaraderie spirit.
One of the best aspects of “Ursula von Rydingsvard: Into Her Own” is the excellent cinematography from Traub, with assistance from cinematographer Michelle Zarbafian. From the lingering closeups to the rapturous views, the movie provides a visual feast of an experience, which is the next best thing to seeing von Rydingsvard’s art in person. The neo-classical musical score from Simon Taufique also complements each scene in a mood-perfect way.
“Ursula von Rydingsvard: Into Her Own” isn’t a long film (the total running time is only 57 minutes), but it packs in a meaningful chronicle of von Rydingsvard’s lifetime of art and experiences. The movie is bound to please fans of the artist, as well as win over new admirers of her unique talent.
Icarus Films released “Ursula von Rydingsvard: Into Her Own” through the virtual cinema program of Film Forum in New York City on May 29, 2020. The movie’s virtual cinema release in other U.S. cities begins on June 5, 2020.