Conversations | Ursula von Rydingsvard with Martin Friedman part 2

Martin Friedman and Ursula von Rydingsvard at the New York Public Library.

The second half of the conversation between Ursula von Rydingsvard and Martin Friedman that took place on February 3, 2008 at the Mid-Manhattan Library. It concludes with questions from the audience.

Q: Before you start a piece, do you mathematically figure out how it would be stabilized when it was completed? Or does everything just come together and stabilize it as it goes along and you just hope it doesn’t topple when it’s finished?

UVR: Well I‚Äôd never made a model. I had to in a couple of situations where there were budgets involved, and there was this state that wanted to know exactly what was being done. I throw the models away. I‚Äôve only made them twice or three times in my life. I never make drawings for my pieces. But if I do make a drawing, I make [it] on the floor of the studio right before I start building. And the process of not knowing just where it‚Äôs going to go, just how high it‚Äôs going to be…you know, sometimes I have the form in my head, sometimes it‚Äôs vague, and sometimes it‚Äôs a little bit more clear that I go toward. But to have things in your head and to realize them are two completely different worlds. So the things you originally have in your head had to change as you build, because the material makes real demands. Then what it ends up looking like makes real demands in terms of what else you need to do; that‚Äôs different from what you originally thought. But your question is about the engineering end.

MF: Well, it’s intuitive.

UVR: Intuitive. Instinctively…Tom Carruthers, you‚Äôre here, right? Talk about how the engineering was figured out. In other words, my pieces never fell over, but neither were they ever engineered.

TOM CARRUTHERS: We did have that one piece that Cantor Seinuk did, the engineering one. You remember that?

UVR: Well how could I forget?

TC: This is one of the great engineering offices in New York and we called them up and said, ‚Äòcan we please talk to the engineer responsible for this project?‚Äô And they‚Äôre saying, ‚Äòwhat‚Äôs that sound?‚Äô You‚Äôre like, ‚Äòwell it‚Äôs just the saws, don‚Äôt worry, but we‚Äôre here to talk to the engineer.‚Äô And ‚ÄòI‚Äôm sorry the engineer is not here, the engineer is out in the field.‚Äô And we would pause and have this moment like, ‚Äòboy that sounds like a good idea, why don‚Äôt we have a field?‚Äô So there was a bit of a disconnect between what we were working on and how we [realized it]….But we ended up making some pretty surprisingly exact color diagrams that seemed to summarize what we‚Äôd built‚Äîfull-scale, five stories tall‚Äîthat we wanted them to then hang from the ceiling of a courthouse. And the dimensions work.

UVR: So this is a piece that is five stories and it’s in the Jamaica Queens Family Courthouse. We definitely needed that engineered. But the rest of the pieces I think really were intuitively engineered, yeah.

Q: I love way you put so much focus on the interior of your pieces, and you know that often most people will never see that interior. Is that helpful to you in matching the pieces, or is there some sense that needs to be complete, even the unseen parts?

UVR: It’s very true. I could never make that thing that I make a solid, because it wouldn’t be as alive and it wouldn’t let me know where it is that it needs to spread and where it is that it needs to not spread. I think it’s the same as our ribs asserting themselves to the outside of our body. Our cheekbones assert themselves to the outside of the body. So I need that inside in order to know what I do outside. Obviously I think up the inside too, but it helps make the piece feel more alive. And the important thing with not drawing—getting back to that and not having a model—is that the groping is what results in the life of the piece. The trying to figure it out, that it’s not figured out. And with all of the facets that we have in the cedar, there’s no way you could figure it out ahead of time. Anyway I wouldn’t want to; it would be pure torture. So this enables me to stay alive while I’m building. And as long as I’m alive while I’m building, you know, hopefully that something that looks alive ends up being the result.

Q: What’s the most amount of time you’ve spent on a piece and what’s the least amount of time you’ve spent on a piece?

UVR: You know, some pieces just are torture pieces from the beginning. And some pieces you feel more certain about and you’re mobilized with them. With a small piece (I’m working on one of them now), this is my fourth year on it. I don’t know why, it’s just a huge pain in the butt. And it keeps surfacing as something that isn’t any good, yet it has enough hope in it to keep me going. I don’t work on it steadily. That’s why I like a lot of choices in my studio. I like to be able, when I’m stuck on something, to go to another piece and continue working on that.

MF: Well, sometimes don’t pieces change rather radically? One piece sort of mutates into something else. And let’s say a piece that has been made for a wall maybe works better on the ground.

UVR: Yes, that’s right.

MF: So there are endless possibilities. But you have to maybe put them away and not think too much about it. Something else will come along, an idea might come along. But don’t you leave yourself open to other possibilities?

UVR: I do, I do, I do. But if they seem hopeful, the more I have around me, the more possibilities…In other words, I have to be able to see them before some possibility surfaces, if it ever does. I‚Äôve actually had something that‚Äôs been 20 years old that I‚Äôve sort of approached and at that time it worked whereas it didn‚Äôt before. Yeah.

Q: A lot of people who are successful say they knew what they wanted to do at an early age. Did you know at a very early age that you would do this?

UVR: No, I never knew that there was such a thing as an artist. I never knew that they could exist. It wasn’t even until I came to New York City that I saw this woman who was teaching at Columbia University and I couldn’t believe that she was an artist and she wasn’t stoned to death. She wasn’t spat on. She lived, she ate, and she had a child. So everything started quite late. I didn’t get my MFA from Columbia until I was 35. And New York City kind of opened up the world for me in the sense that these options really existed and I was able to make choices for myself. I cleaned up my life so that it was just my daughter and myself, and we sort of forged within New York City in a way that felt so exciting. It was so full of what one would call hard rocks as well, but it was so exciting. I mean I wasn’t considered a weirdo. Anybody can weave in to New York City. You can be as deviant as you want, it’s okay.

Q: I just wanted to go back in terms of what you were talking about your drawings and the sculpture. And I see a correlation with Alberto Giacometti, he would do the drawings and yet he would go into the studio and knead and gouge the clay pieces. And he would go back to the same piece year after year and the piece was never finished.

UVR: Giacometti didn’t have to teach me about self-doubt and vulnerability. He taught me in the sense that one could reveal it, that one could surface it in visual terms and that I understand him more through my peripheral vision than I do through looking directly at him. He’s heavily psychological, as I love being. Yes.

Q: Okay, so you seem like a person who’s very much in touch with one’s emotions. And I’m hearing you speak about this type of process of creating a piece, it almost seems like a psychosomatic experience. And from there I wanted to ask you how in your work, if at all, do you see yourself reflected? You know if they were created by you, they’re like your children. In other words, in your work I felt that there was a certain delicacy and almost like describing a frail human condition. And I was wondering if there was anything that you are giving back to the world?

UVR: No, they’re not my children. I’m so happy to see them go. And as far as what I give to the world, I don’t think about that. You know I don’t even think about giving to myself. I just know this is what I want to do, this is what I need to do and that’s what I do. All my life has been a process of clearing out time, simplifying it to make time and space. Unfortunately I need a huge amount of space to make time and space for my work. And all my life I have been trying consciously to shed fears to enable me to do what I think I need to do.

Q: So this is very much of a release.

UVR: I don’t know, you can call it whatever you want, but I don’t have in mind that I’m helping people or even helping myself.

MF: I think that’s a pretty good coda to the evening.