Nine weeks of mindless binging on quotidian television offerings could hardly come under judgment, considering the horrors taking place all around us. But perhaps the most important step we could take in directing our lives back to some sense of normalcy is to re-engage with matters more intangible and ethereal—and to lose ourselves in inspiration of a higher order.
And so the timing of the release of Ursula von Rydingsvard: Into Her Own could not be more exigent. A visceral new documentary by venerable New York photographer-director Daniel Traub, it tells the inarguably heroic story of the woman of the title, who has been one of the most exalted, if also sometimes misunderstood sculptors of the last half-century.
Ona, Barclays Center, Brooklyn, 2013.
But the fascination extends well beyond her monumental work, to her remarkable backstory, which is poignantly explored in the film. Indeed, Ursula von Rydingsvard was born into the horrors of WWII in 1942, to a Polish mother and Ukrainian father. Without a home to call their own following the war, they moved between five different refugee camps for displaced Poles—until, via the assistance of Catholic agencies, they boarded a ship to the US, and settled there in Connecticut.
Eventually earning an MFA from Columbia in 1975, von Rydingsvard answered an inner urgency and, as a single mother, began sculpting in a very male dominated field. Now 77 and based in Brooklyn, her works are currently held by such esteemed institutions as New York’s Metropolitan, Whitney and MOMA, The National Gallery in D.C., and Boston’s MFA.
The already award-winning film (which is available for streaming as of Friday, June 5, via theaters across the country) tells her story via interviews with Ursula herself, as well as family members, curators and fellow artists, including Sarah Sze. But we caught up with the director himself, to discuss why it was so imperative for him to make.
What led you to choose Ursula von Rydingsvard as a documentary subject?
I was commissioned by the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in the UK to make a short film documenting the moving and installation of Ursula’s work from their grounds to a small park in Venice for the 2015 Biennale. This was my first real exposure to her work, and I met her for the first time. Making the short film gave me a sense that there might be a bigger story to be told.
Which you quickly undertook.
Fortuitously at that time Ursula was working on a commission which she herself described as the most complex and challenging of her career to date: a monumental sculpture commissioned by Princeton University. She was also eager to have the process documented, so that was the starting point. I began to film her in her studio in Bushwick, and later in the workspace of the metals fabricator Richard Webber, her main collaborator on the project.
Ursula’s sculptures tend towards the abstract, where your photography is more representative—was there nevertheless some sort of kinship you felt with her?
Something that impressed me was Ursula’s process—specifically, how she makes decisions and finds a direction forward. I was drawn to the probing quality of her search and the confidence with which she follows her intuition. While my photographs are very different in form, as mentioned, I feel some kinship with her instinctive approach.
Do you share a similar sense of compulsion about making art?
I don’t think I’m driven in quite the same way as Ursula…few are. But making work, whether films or photographs, certainly addresses fundamental needs for me as well.
Von Rydingsvard in her Spring Street loft in New York City, 1977.
Ursula’s work is indeed very process oriented. Did you want the film to shed some light on the discipline of process?
For me, as mentioned, I found Ursula’s process to be extraordinary…the unfolding of the work in the moment, the collaboration of her many assistants and the intensity of the physical labor involved. It wasn’t necessarily my intention to feature the process as heavily as I did, but it felt natural to include it in the film because it added so much to the understanding of the completed works.
Her story is extremely compelling, even poignant. Did you come to understand how that story informs her work?
I think there’s no question that Ursula’s work grows out of the deepest parts of who she is—her history, her upbringing, her struggles and pain. I think her work, as she says, fulfills basic emotional and psychological needs for her, but it also—and I think this is why it is important—transcends her individual story and reaches towards something more universal and timeless.
What did you learn about her and her work, and what do you hope people will take away from seeing the film?
For me, what was most moving about Ursula’s story is simply her courage. Her courage to follow her own instincts and desires, her courage to believe in herself despite tremendous obstacles. I hope the audience will feel similarly moved.
Von Rydingsvard walking beside her work Saint Martin’s Dream in Battery Park, New York, 1980.
Von Rydingsvard in her Williamsburg studio on South 5th Street, surrounded by the cedar cast of katul katul, 2002.