In the spring of 2020, the new Freyer-Newman Center at the Denver Botanical Gardens was scheduled to open. To celebrate the new installation, Lisa Eldred, Exhibitions Director and Senior Gardens Curator, had organized a major exhibition dedicated to the work of Ursula von Rydingsvard, a major contemporary artist with a long career. Rydingsvard uses natural materials, in particular cedar, which fits perfectly into the atmosphere of the Gardens.
But the show was postponed due to the pandemic, and the artist and his work have been stranded indefinitely in New York, where Rydingsvard’s home and studio are located. Now it is finally displayed under the title Ursula von Rydingsvard: The Outline of Feeling in the Freyer-Newman galleries. The exhibition was curated by Mark Rosenthal, who took the title from the writings of Rainer Maria Rilke, one of Rydingsvard’s favorite poets. The impressive presentation that Rosenthal has compiled is made up mostly of 21st century pieces by Rydingsvard, but there are earlier works dating from the 70s to the 90s that provide a background for the more recent creations. Regardless of when the pieces were made, they all have a very current attitude to our times.
Viewers will be struck by the dark monumentality of Rydingsvard’s signature aesthetic, which dates back to his treacherous early childhood. Born in 1942 in what was then Nazi Germany, Rydingsvard (then named Ursula Karoliszyn) was born to a Polish mother and a Ukrainian father. The family survived the war years to find themselves in a series of resettlement camps after the defeat of the Nazis in 1945. Its use of unfinished wood, often dusted with gray graphite – and sometimes accented with dried animal entrails – recalls with emotion the atmosphere of these camps.
The family was finally able to immigrate to the United States in 1959, settling in Connecticut. Rydingsvard has a long-standing interest in art making and studied the subject in college, earning a BA and MA at Miami University before going on to Columbia University, where she earned an MFA in 1975. She began exhibiting in the 70s and hit the contemporary art scene with a bang in the 90s. Today her pieces are in major collections, including those of the Museum of Modern Art, Crystal Bridges, the Detroit Institute and more, making it a coup that Rydingsvard’s debut in the Mile High City would go through the Botanical Gardens rather than the Denver Art Museum or Art Museum contemporary.
There is a neo-arte povera character to Rydingsvard’s aesthetic, the pieces appearing to have been weathered and crudely crafted. But his sculptures have been deliberately finished to appear aged, and the dialogue between superficial impressions and reality adds visual depth and hints to the abstract narrative that Rydingsvard seeks to convey.
As soon as you enter the show, you will be stopped in your tracks: In the middle of the room is “Ocean Floor”, from 1996, a huge wooden bowl that seems very heavy. “Ocean Floor” invites you to look closely to see what’s inside. Made of cedar planks cut into small blocks that have been assembled into a super-complicated puzzle, Rydingsvard describes the assembly process as an instinctive action in which she assembles families of shapes, moving them around until she is satisfied with their final placement. She further explains that she had then entered and carved ripples on the inner surfaces of the bowl. Around the edge of the bowl are hilt-like ornaments that turn out to be preserved cows’ stomachs. She says she was exploring the use of what she called “filthy materials”. Rosenthal, on the other hand, says her use of animal parts refers to her agrarian background, where cattle were routinely slaughtered.
Throughout the show there are vessel shapes – similar to the bowl, but with more vase-like shapes. A very early piece, “Untitled (nine cones)” from 1976 is a key example, with Rydingsvard creating vertical containers from thin planks of cedar. In the spaces beyond are its monumental pillars that look like rock formations. These works are also vessels, with what Rydingsvard calls “holes” in the center that are hollow, but too big to see inside. These large freestanding pieces have scabrous, lumpy surfaces; “COS”, from 2017, is a blobby tree that flairs at the top like a gigantic vase, both simple and elaborate.
Not everything Rydingsvard does is big and substantial. Some pieces are small and modest, including the “Ten Plates” group, created from 2008 to 2011, which are carved cedar tray-like wall pieces decorated with plaster and/or pigment. Surprisingly, Rydingsvard never worked in ceramics.
Among the most unusual and unexpected works in the exhibition are a group of intimate pieces from 2000 to 2015 which she has titled “petits riens”. tiny now, she describes how heavy and big it was when she created the piece, with the intestines still fresh as part of a performance There are also tiny bronzes she wore as rings, and a a number of other weird and beautiful things.
There’s surely no better place to spend an afternoon than at the Botanical Garden any time of the year, but that’s especially true now. Not only because the plants and flowers are just beginning to bloom and bloom outside, but there’s a first-class, museum-worthy display of contemporary art inside.
Ursula von Rydingsvard: The Outline of Feeling until 9/11 at the Freyer-Newman Center at 1085 York Street. Call 720-865-3500 or visit botanicgardens.org for more information.