Doc of Sculptor Ursula von Rydingsvard Goes ‘Into Her Own’

Von Rydingsvard drawing cut lines on 4x4" cedar beams, which will later be cut with a chainsaw by her assistants, 2015. Courtesy of the filmmaker.

The word monumental recurs throughout the new documentary Ursula von Rydingsvard: Into Her Own. Art critics, friends of the artist and casual observers reflexively use the adjective to describe the Stonehenge-sized scale of von Rydingsvard’s work. It’s a self-evident fact that her public sculptures meet dinosaurs at eye-level. But Daniel Traub, director of the film, suggests that people are responding to their immensity as well as something else. Speaking in a phone interview, Traub says that a work of art that fits in the palm of your hand can also be monumental. “But it has to resonate symbolically and with something that’s very human,” he says. “It transcends the moment.”

Von Rydingsvard, who was born in 1942, displays that sense of timelessness in massive works like Czara z Bąbelkami, Scientia and Uroda. In Traub’s biographical film about the artist and her practice, he concentrates his attention on the fabrication of Uroda, finished in 2015. The director filmed von Rydingsvard in the studio for over two years; the entire documentary took five years to complete.

Traub wanted to showcase both her work and her personal story. “It took a long time to find that balance,” he explains.

Von Rydingsvard standing in front of 'Dumna' in her studio in Bushwick, 2015. Courtesy of the filmmaker.

From various angles, Uroda—an inverted tower of copper, steel and bronze—calls to mind totemic images from ancient civilizations. The work feels familiar to our reptile brains even if we’ve never seen it before. It resembles a calcified fossil that’s been extracted from deep inside the churning, magmatic earth. If you’re going to apply meaning to a giant abstraction like Uroda, your subjectivity should be kept open-ended and permeable. It’s not merely coded with vegetal traces, or mineral and animal ones, and ecological associations, but all of the above.

Into Her Own, though, isn’t an esoteric film that’s concerned with excavating hidden meanings. Traub focuses on more practical matters, like her team of assistants, their hands-on process and the materials von Rydingsvard batters and shapes.

Von Rydingsvard and assistants preparing to work on 'Ene Due Rabe,' San Francisco, 1990. Courtesy of the filmmaker.

The artist’s primary material was cedar, from 1975 onwards, until she started to work on Uroda. She previously tried to incorporate other materials into her work, but cedar kept calling her back, an affinity the documentary links to personal history.

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Von Rydingsvard and her Polish family lived in a German refugee camp as displaced persons after World War II. In her 70s, von Rydingsvard is still able to vividly recall the rough wood that made up the camp walls. The material offered no insulation from the cold, she says, but the walls still provided her family with a sense of safety from the war-torn world outside.

Von Rydingsvard working on the patina of 'Uroda,' a monumental copper sculpture commissioned by Princeton University, 2015. Courtesy of the filmmaker.

Traub is careful to point out that he didn’t want biography to be the only interpretive lens used to understand her work. But given her family’s background, he says, “it’s inevitable that that’s part of it.” Her father, who was physically and emotionally abusive toward his family, was a laborer who worked in wood. In her work, Von Rydingsvard transforms his methods and materials towards her own pursuits.

Von Rydingsvard in her Williamsburg studio on South 5th Street, surrounded by the cedar cast of 'katul katul,' 2002. Courtesy of the filmmaker.

“It’s a way for her to vent her anger, or exhaust her emotions,” Traub says. The work itself doesn’t embody or represent anger. Art’s simply been a support system for her. Or, as Traub puts it, “it was a means for her to heal herself of her anger.” The amount of labor von Rydingsvard and her team put into Uroda is immense: the sculpture is made of thousands of hand-pounded plates.

Von Rydingsvard’s began receiving recognition for her art in 1980 with Saint Martin’s Dream, a site-specific public work located in what is now New York City’s Battery Park. Since then, museums across the country have collected her sculptures. In the documentary, collaborator Judy Pfaff says she thought von Rydingsvard might to take things easier as she got older, and then laughs at herself for even making such an absurd assumption about her driven friend.

Von Rydingsvard walking beside her work 'Saint Martin's Dream' in Battery Park, New York, 1980. Courtesy of the filmmaker.

In the final stages of bringing Uroda to completion, its installation on the Princeton University campus requires a team of people. In Traub’s shots, the installation team is poised as if they’re about to position a steeple on top of a cathedral. If von Rydingsvard expresses faith in something, it’s in the material world of solid objects, or as she puts it, in things “that one can see and feel, as having the potential of being very consequential to us in our lives.”

‘Ursula von Rydingsvard: Into Her Own’ is now screening virtually through June 30 at BAMPFA, the Roxie Theater and the Rafael Film Center.