I have spent many an hour experiencing the unique work of sculptor Ursula von Rydingsvard, walking around her dazzling large-scale wood sculptures at Galerie Lelong and art fairs, outside the Barclays Center, and in Madison Square Park. But it wasn’t until watching Daniel Traub’s hourlong documentary, Ursula von Rydingsvard: Into Her Own — which opens virtually May 29 on Film Forum’s website — that I have come to understand and appreciate her work that much more.
“She is using her own experiences to think about how abstract forms can be evocative and representative of what the human condition is,” arts writer Patricia C. Phillips says in the film. “It’s indisputable that there’s something about Ursula’s process that makes the work incredibly distinctive. And just continuing to pursue that with more and more depth and persistence over the years, it reveals some answers but always this feeling that there is also something being withheld.”
Von Rydingsvard was born in Germany in 1942 to a Polish mother and a severely abusive Ukrainian father; the large family lived in a displaced persons camp after the war, mired in poverty, struggling to survive in makeshift homes where everything was made from wood. “It was just the board between me and the outside world, and I recall my body being right next to the wall, and I could smell, I could feel,” von Rydingsvard remembers about the camp. “And there was a huge difference between what happened within this wooden structure and what happened outside of it, so that there was a kind of safety the wood gave me.”
The family immigrated to a blue-collar town in Connecticut in 1951, where she learned little about art and suffered severe emotional and physical abuse at the hands of her father. She married, moved to California, and had a daughter, Ursie, but left her abusive husband with help from her brother Staś Karoliszyn and moved to SoHo in 1975, determined to become an artist. “Going to New York City woke me up in a way that was jarring and marvelous,” she says. She eventually adopted a labor-intensive process of marking, cutting, and stacking cedar two-by-fours into masterful sculptures with a dedicated team of holders, runners, cutters, and fabricators, forming their own family; they even eat lunch together every day. Traub, who directed, produced, and photographed the film, speaks with such studio personnel as Ted Springer, Vivian Chiu, Morgan Daly, and Sean Weeks-Earp while showing the detailed, grueling yet clearly satisfying work they perform.
“Her process is almost medieval,” says Mary Sabbatino, owner of Galerie Lelong, von Rydingsvard’s longtime New York gallery. Traub traces von Rydingsvard’s career from St. Martin’s Dream in Battery Park and Song of a Saint (St. Eulalia) in Buffalo, both from 1980, through a recent Princeton University outdoor commission for which she would be using copper for the first time. She had seen Traub’s short film Xu Bing: Phoenix and so invited Traub to document her 2015 Venice Bienale installation, Giardino Della Marinaressa. That became a short film, and they then decided to collaborate again, documenting the making of the Princeton commission, which led to Into Her Own.
Such friends and colleagues as artists Elka Krajewska, Sarah Sze, and Judy Pfaff, patrons Agnes Gund and Lore Harp McGovern, and Whitney Museum director Adam Weinberg dig deep into von Rydingsvard’s almost proprietary use of materials, her distinction as a rare woman artist creating monumental sculpture, and the concept of time in her oeuvre. Touch is also key, from the many assistants who handle the wood, bronze, and copper in the construction of the work to the people who approach and feel the final product, something she encourages. There’s a wonderful scene in which von Rydingsvard speaks with her beloved second husband, Nobel Prize winner Paul Greengard, discussing nature, beauty, and her Polish heritage. Her daughter tells stories of growing up surrounded by her mother’s process and art, and Von Rydingsvard and Karoliszyn share intimate, frightening details of their father’s abuse as she explains how she was able to turn that pain around to figure out who she was and what she wanted out of life. “I knew I needed to do my work to live,” she says.
I can’t wait until I get outside and see von Rydingsvard’s work again, in person, with this newfound knowledge and understanding of an extraordinary artist. In the meantime, I’ve already watched the documentary twice, inspired by her continuing story.
Traub, a New York-based photographer who codirected the 2014 film The Barefoot Artist (about his mother, artist, activist, and teacher Lily Yeh), and von Rydingsvard will take part in a free, live Q&A with moderator Molly Donovan of the National Gallery of Art on May 31 at 5:00, hosted by Film Forum.
Who: Mikki Shepard, DJ YB, Mamma Normadien, Baba N’goma Woolbright, Charmaine Warren, Abdel R. Salaam, Karen Thornton Daniels, Sabine LaFortune, Coco Killingsworth, Farai Malianga, more
What: BAM’s DanceAfrica
Where: BAM online
When: Through May 29 (and beyond), free (some film screenings require small payment)
Why: One of our favorite ways of ushering in the summer season is by going to BAM’s annual DanceAfrica festival, a weekend of dance, films, a street bazaar, and more celebrating African culture. The forty-second annual event is taking place online, with livestreamed performances, film screenings, archival videos, interviews, classes, and a virtual bazaar. “The spirit of DanceAfrica has no boundaries, and will always find its way to the people,” Baba Abdel R. Salaam said in a statement. Below is the full schedule. And be prepared to shout “Ago!” “Amée!!” from the comfort of wherever you are sheltering in place.
Through May 27
FilmAfrica: Aya of Yop City (Marguerite Abouet & Clément Oubrerie, 2012), Mother of George (Andrew Dosunmu, 2012), Rafiki (Wanuri Kahiu, 2018), Youssou N’Dour: I Bring What I Love (Chai Vasarhelyi, 2008), pay-what-you-wish to $4.99
Through May 29
“DanceAfrica Visual Art: Omar Victor Diop”
Through June 14
DanceAfrica Virtual Bazaar, with clothing, jewelry, home goods, food, and accessories
Monday, May 25
“DanceAfrica: The Early Years,” with Mikki Shepard, 11:00 am
DanceAfrica Dance Party, with DJ YB, 7:00
Tuesday, May 26
“DanceAfrica: Behind the Scenes,” with Abdel R. Salaam, Charmaine Warren, and Council of Elder members Mamma Normadien and Baba N’goma Woolbright, 6:00
Wednesday, May 27
“DanceAfrica: The Council of Elders,” with Stefanie Hughley and Council of Elder leaders Mamma Lynette White-Mathews and Baba Bill (William) Mathews, 6:00
Thursday, May 28
“Education and DanceAfrica,” with Karen Thornton Daniels, Sabine LaFortune, Coco Killingsworth, and Abdel R. Salaam, 6:00
Opens Thursday, May 28
FilmAfrica: A Screaming Man (Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, 2010), Chez Jolie Coiffure (Rosine Mbakam, 2018), I Am Not a Witch (Rungano Nyoni, 2017), National Diploma (Dieudo Hamadi, 2014), prices TBD
“DanceAfrica: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow,” with Coco Killingsworth, Charmaine Warren, and Abdel R. Salaam, 6:00
Who: Charles Busch, Phoebe Legere, Penny Arcade, Austin Pendleton, David Amram, F. Murray Abraham, William Electric Black, more
What: Live concert and summit (and many other events)
Where: Theater for the New City
When: Saturday, May 23, free, 8:00 (festival runs May 22-24)
Why: Since 1996, Theater for the New City’s annual Lower East Side Festival of the Arts has been a harbinger of summer, three days of multidisciplinary performances taking place in and around the organization’s East First St. home. But the twenty-fifth anniversary of the popular weekend event goes virtual because of the Covid-19 pandemic, but that doesn’t mean it’s slowed down in the least. From May 22 to 24, the festival, whose theme is “Renaissance: Arts Alive 25,” will feature 250 participants providing music, dance, theater, discussion, and more, all for free. The centerpiece occurs on May 23 at 8:00 with “The Mt. Olympus of LES Love!,” a concert with an amazing lineup consisting of Charles Busch, Phoebe Legere, Penny Arcade, Austin Pendleton, David Amram, F. Murray Abraham, and William Electric Black, followed by a summit that attempts to answer the question “Where do we go from here?”
The three-day celebration will feature such speakers as Nii Gaani Aki, Michael Musto, Brad Hoylman, Carlina Rivera, and Candice Burridge; theater excerpts with Barbara Kahn, Anne Lucas, Eve Packer, Greg Mullavey, the Drilling Company, Folksbiene National Yiddish Theater, Nuyorican Poets Café, and others; comedy from Reno, Stan Baker, Trav S.D., Wise Guise, Izzy Church, Epstein and Hassan, and Ana-Maria Bandean with Gemma Forbes; dance with Ashley Liang Dance Company, Constellation Moving Co., Dixon Place, H.T. Chen & Dancers, Wendy Osserman Dance Company, Thunderbird American Indian Dancers, and Zullo/RawMovement; music by Donald Arrington, Allesandra Belloni, Michael David Gordon and the Pocket Band, Art Lillard, and Yip Harburg Rainbow Troupe; cabaret with KT Sullivan, Marissa Mulder, Eric Yves Garcia, Aziza, and Peter Zachari; and poetry readings by Coni Koepfinger, Tsaurah Litzky, Lola Rodriguez, Bob Rosenthal, Lissa Moira, and Brianna Bartenieff; along with puppetry, film screenings, children’s events, and visual art, all for free, although donations are gladly accepted.
Who: Lee Ranaldo
What: Online film screening and introduction
Where: Holt/Smithson Foundation Vimeo and Instagram Live
When: Friday, May 22, free, 2:00 (streams for twenty-four hours)
Why: The Holt/Smithson Foundation, which continues and expands the legacies of husband-and-wife artists Nancy Holt and Robert Smithson, have been livestreaming rare films by and about the couple on Friday afternoons at 2:00, leaving them up on Vimeo and IGTV for twenty-four hours. On May 22, the foundation will present Holt’s The Making of Amarillo Ramp, a documentary that goes behind the scenes of the creation of Smithson’s last earthwork, 1973’s Amarillo Ramp, consisting of rocks and dirt that was meant to emerge from an artificial lake in Amarillo but is now eroding in a dry basin. Holt shot the film in 1973, but it wasn’t edited and completed until 2013; Smithson died at the age of thirty-five in a plane crash while surveying the work, which was finished by Holt, Tony Shafrazi, and Richard Serra, while Holt passed away in 2014 at the age of seventy-five. The thirty-two-minute 16mm film will be introduced by musician, composer, visual artist, writer, producer, and Sonic Youth cofounder Lee Ranaldo, who in 1998 released the experimental album Amarillo Ramp (for Robert Smithson), which features the title track in addition to “Non-Site #3,” “Notebook,” “Here,” and a cover of John Lennon’s “Isolation,” which fits in all too well with the current pandemic; Smithson was a land artist working outside, amid large expanses of deserted areas, and Ranaldo has just released a new video for “Isolation,” with footage taken during the coronavirus crisis.
What: Livestreamed reading and talk
Where: RIBOCA2 website
When: Thursday, May 21, free with advance registration, noon
Why: In July 2017, I sat down with poet CAConrad for a private (Soma)tic Poetry Rituals session in the middle of Madison Square Park. On May 21 at noon, CAConrad will host a virtual reading and discussion that might feel like it’s one on one, since so many of us are still sheltering in place. The Zoom program is part of the 2nd Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art, which was supposed to open in Latvia last week but has been moved online in wake of the coronavirus pandemic. CAConrad, who was born in Kansas, was raised in Pennsylvania, and is the author of such books as The City Real & Imagined, ECODEVIANCE: (Soma)tics for the Future Wilderness, and While Standing in Line for Death, has been posting a poem a day on their Facebook and Instagram pages, a series they call “CORONADAZE.” For RIBOCA2, they are presenting “Endings. (Soma)tic Poetry Rituals. CACONRAD,” which will explore how we can transform this contemporary moment, contemplate the end of a world, and maintain personal creative space through it all. To prepare for the free event, you are strongly encouraged to read (Soma)tic Poetry Rituals: The Basics in 3 Parts, which can be found here.
Among the things that many of us are missing the most during the Covid-19 crisis are art and travel. They might not be essential businesses, but they’re key parts of a full and rewarding life. Both serve as respites from the everyday; they entertain and educate us, offering escape from our daily toil. “How Can We Think of Art at a Time Like This?” is the titular question of Barbara Pollack and Anne Verhallen’s ongoing online exhibition, which features new and recent work from major living artists addressing the pandemic and politics. The answer, of course, is how can we not?
Xavier F. Salomon has found his own unique method of thinking about art in the time of coronavirus, adding related travel as well. Salomon, who was born in Rome to an English mother and a Danish father, was raised in Italy and England, and received his BA, MA, and PhD from the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, is the Peter Jay Sharp Chief Curator at the Frick Collection. Every Wednesday and Friday, he takes over the Frick’s YouTube channel with deep dives into art history. On Wednesday’s “Travels with a Curator,” Salomon, who previously worked at the British Museum, the National Gallery and the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London, and the Met here in New York — quite a resume for a man only just in his forties — gives an illustrated lecture about art and architecture in specific cities; so far he has guided us through Castel Sant’Angelo, Rome, and Ca’ d’Oro, Venice.
He is fast becoming an internet superstar for his Friday talks, “Cocktails with a Curator,” my preferred manner of ending the workweek. At 5:00, Salomon pairs a masterpiece from the Frick with a cocktail and spends between fifteen and twenty minutes discussing the Frick gem and the drink, placing them in context of the current pandemic. Seen in the lower-right-hand corner of the screen, the bald, bearded, handsome, and ever-charming Salomon has helped us look deeply into Rembrandt’s Polish Rider with a Szarlotka, Bellini's St. Francis in the Desert with a Manhattan, and Van Dyck’s Sir John Suckling with a Pink Gin. (On May 1, curator Aimee Ng explored Constable’s White Horse with a gin and Dubonnet.)
On May 8, Salomon will visit with Joseph Mallord William Turner’s Harbor of Dieppe: Changement de Domicile while enjoying a Widow’s Kiss. (The recipes, which include alcohol-free versions, are posted on the YouTube page in advance.) The Frick is my personal favorite museum, a place I go to often to see familiar works that both relax and energize me — including Harbor of Dieppe, which I’ve marveled at on many occasions — so I’m finding these talks, which are prerecorded but stream live (and can be also watched later), absolutely essential in every way. Salomon recently took a break from his art history forays to discuss art and travel in the age of coronavirus.
twi-ny: Last year, before the pandemic, you started examining specific works from current Frick special exhibitions in a Facebook series called “Live from the Frick!” How did that evolve into “Cocktails with a Curator”?
xavier f. salomon: The Frick Collection has had a long tradition of online offerings (exhibition virtual tours, online live streaming of scholarly lectures, and Facebook “Lives,” among many examples). As soon as the lockdown began, we started to think, as a team, as to what we could offer to as varied an audience as possible. The idea of weekly appointments – with “Cocktails” on Fridays and “Travels” on Wednesdays – is designed to take our minds away from our current problems and to “meet” virtually. The idea was to match art with something we may miss from our previous life: things such as going out with friends for a drink, or traveling.
twi-ny: Do you consider yourself a cocktail aficionado? Are you trying new drinks, or are you choosing some of your favorites?
xaf: I do like cocktails very much. I am starting with a number of favorites, but as the series will continue, I am definitely planning to explore new options.
twi-ny: As a Frick regular, I feel that many of the paintings and sculptures in the museum are like old friends and members of the family that I thought I knew so well. I’ve stared at “St. Francis in the Desert” dozens of times, but as I watched your description on “Cocktails,” I felt as if I’d never really seen it. Because you are presenting this with a slightly adjusted context, referencing the pandemic, do you find yourself learning surprising things about works that you thought you knew so well?
xaf: The Frick is a museum of masterpieces. And I always believed that great works of art, first of all, can improve our lives but can also mean a number of different things at different times. One of the most common questions I have been asked in the last few years is: “Are works of art by Old Masters relevant?” The answer is: “YES!!!” And I hope to demonstrate this with this series. One thing that this virus is making apparent to everyone is how fragile human beings are. Artworks are the best that human beings have produced in the last few thousand years, and they can help us understand why and how we live. People a thousand years ago, five hundred years ago, a hundred years ago, were dealing with life as we do, with love, with friendship, with knowledge, with financial issues . . . and with epidemics and death. So I have been working on matching works at the Frick with broad issues we are thinking about today. And – not surprisingly – it is actually quite easy. And I am enjoying thinking about our works in this way.
twi-ny: I’m also appreciative of how fresh your analysis is. In the most recent Frick Collection magazine, you wrote about van Dyck’s “Sir John Suckling,” but your “Cocktails” talk about it explored the painting differently. I gather you would agree that “perspective is everything”?
xaf: Yes, I fully agree. And that is the importance of great works of art. They can be understood in a number of ways and can touch different chords in us. The same work of art meant different things to me when I was a teenager, or ten years ago. . . . We change as we go through life, and a truly great masterpiece can be for us a travel companion or a great friend. We change and they alongside us.
twi-ny: The camerawork is extraordinary, taking us deep inside the paintings. Is that footage already available, or might someone be taking new shots inside the museum?
xaf: The Frick has always had an in-house photographer, and our works have been very well photographed over the years by very talented people. All of the photographs of our works are from our archives. No new photography has been commissioned for these online programs. And many of the photos of locations I have taken myself over the years on my travels.
twi-ny: For the third “Cocktails” presentation, you cleverly changed where you were sitting when giving the talks. What part of the city are you sequestered in, and are you sheltering in place with any humans or animals?
xaf: I have been playing with different corners of my apartment to find an ideal location for the filming. It is a first for me, to film myself in my own apartment. I live in Washington Heights, in Manhattan, an area I like very much. I am, unfortunately, sheltering in place alone, as my partner (in the same situation) is across the Atlantic, in Europe. I would love to have a pet, especially during these times. But I cannot complain, because in my “hermitage” at least I have books.
twi-ny: Most curators exist in the background; the public might read essays by them in catalogs and wall text, or maybe see them if they go to an illustrated lecture at a museum. But you’re becoming a virtual sensation, with fans tuning in not just to hear about a masterpiece but to specifically see you and have a drink together. How does that feel?
xaf: I am not sure I would describe myself as a “virtual sensation.” But I also don’t believe that curators or art historians should live in the “background.” Art is for everyone, and if people want to know more about museums or works of art, curators need to be accessible. It is not about spending our lives in ivory towers and being buried in our libraries or our museums. As much as many of us (myself included) don’t necessarily dislike that idea, there is the fundamental fact that we need to put our knowledge and studies somewhere out there and have it available for the general public. I am not looking for fans, but I have to confess that it feels very rewarding to know that, with a very small contribution, I have somewhat enhanced people’s lives at a particularly difficult time.
twi-ny: You appear to love what you do, and you can be very funny, but on camera you never break character as a serious art historian. What does it take to make you burst out laughing?
xaf: I love, adore, what I do. I live for it. I could not imagine doing anything else with my life. I don’t know why, but I always feel awkward when laughing in public. But many things make me laugh out loud, and, it is usually female comedians. Women have such a wonderful sense of humor! But, maybe, you are right, I should be less serious on my online programs. . . .
twi-ny: What artworks might be coming up, or would you prefer to keep them a secret until closer to showtime? If you take requests, I have a few.
xaf: The answer is that I know a few works (Turner, Velázquez, Holbein, Bronzino) and places (the Monastery of the Temptation in Jericho, Santa Maria delle Carceri in Prato, the towns of Osuna in Spain and Valenciennes in France) that will come up, but I am still not sure about the exact timing and I do not have a full list. I keep thinking and choosing as I go along. And, yes, suggestions are well received!!! I was surprised to see that people have written to me with suggestions for specific cocktails (and I apologize for all those people who really expected me to offer a Bellini with a Bellini painting — come on, guys!!! — I need to be a bit more original than that . . .), but no one so far has suggested a work of art or a place. Please send me your ideas! [ed. note: How about Goya’s The Forge, Vermeer’s Officer and Laughing Girl, El Greco’s Purification of the Temple, or Constable’s Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop's Grounds?]